REVIEW: 'Terminator: Dark Fate' mines what works about the franchise intelligently

Marcus Goh
·Contributor
PHOTO: 20th Century Fox
PHOTO: 20th Century Fox

SINGAPORE — Terminator: Dark Fate does many things well (something that can't quite be said for its predecessors in the 2000s), but what it does best is to capture that creeping sense of inevitable doom — the element that propelled the Terminator franchise firmly into popular culture. By reuniting Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and James Cameron, the film recreates the magic of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

The film takes place 27 years after the events of Terminator 2: Judgement Day. A new, highly advanced Terminator has been sent to terminate its target, a Mexican woman, Daniella (Natalia Reyes). The only thing standing in its way is Grace (Mackenzie Davis) – a powerful cyborg-human hybrid – Sarah Connor (Hamilton), and the original Terminator (Schwarzenegger), who returns as an ally. With a different apocalyptic future looming, it is up to these four individuals to prevent humanity's extinction.

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PHOTO: 20th Century Fox
PHOTO: 20th Century Fox

Admittedly, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), the antagonist of the film, doesn't seem that fearsome on first sight. But it's only as the film progresses that the sheer inevitability of its hunt slowly dawns on us, translating into tension and horror as we realise just how unstoppable this menace is. But it's not as if the Rev-9 feels completely invincible, and that's where the film finely balances the power and vulnerability of its main villain. It makes it powerful and persistent enough that we know it's a threat, while still ensuring that it yields to gunfire and other attacks so that its (eventual) defeat is believable.

But despite the fights and violence, it's not all grit and dirt, as many modern science fiction films are wont to do. The film knows exactly what it's doing — delivering pain and blood and fear only when it needs to, not just for the sake of it. It knows when to play up the bleak outlook of the characters with such techniques, but it holds back on the more emotional scenes to prevent overuse of its grittiness, allowing some wit and self-awareness to take its place.

PHOTO: 20th Century Fox
PHOTO: 20th Century Fox

Terminator: Dark Fate is incredibly self-aware (fitting, given its themes), especially since Sarah Connor has lived through a similar adventure once before. But it's not the smarmy kind of self-awareness that comes with a side of self-referential humour — rather, it’s a self-awareness that comes from knowing how its premise has evolved over the years, and how certain tropes are just taken for granted (like the odd compatibility and knowledge of present and future tech). It's a self-awareness that comes from the sheer confidence that the film possesses.

That, perhaps, is what makes the film stand out so much. It knows what it is and what it wants to accomplish. It's a thriller in a science fiction setting, so it prioritises tension over visuals. It's part of a franchise with an overused cautionary tale, so it downplays that aspect. It knows who its audiences root for and why they do so, so it anchors the story firmly with its characters. Which is why it doesn't try hard to accomplish the things it knows it won't do well, but focuses on its objective. Few films are as calm and confident as this one.

PHOTO: 20th Century Fox
PHOTO: 20th Century Fox

Arnold Schwarzenegger does show his age as the lumbering Carl, a human identity that he has assumed, even though he manages a great performance (as a robot). But his movements, his gait all seem pretty incongruous with that of an almost invincible killer robot, and more like those of an older man. It's clear that he's not as spry as he used to be, and perhaps the film could have utilised his character in a different way, one that would be more flattering to him.

The movie also rehashes the same premise of the original films, which means that the story gets fairly predictable at times. That's not to say that it's a bad thing — other instalments which deviated from this formula were not the best in the series. But it could have injected a little more originality into the story.

PHOTO: 20th Century Fox
PHOTO: 20th Century Fox

Terminator: Dark Fate captures that fear that was what made Terminators one of the most popular killer robots in film, which is what makes it so compelling. It's a film with a clear vision and objective, that's obvious from its deliberate and skilful use of different elements to create a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts. Regardless of whether it is a sequel or a film to kickstart a new slew of Terminator films, Terminator: Dark Fate plays its various roles well simply because it knows exactly what it's doing.

PHOTO: 20th Century Fox
PHOTO: 20th Century Fox

Should you watch this at weekend movie ticket prices? Yes.

Should you watch this more than once? No.

Score: 4.1/5

Running time: 128 minutes

PHOTO: 20th Century Fox
PHOTO: 20th Century Fox

Terminator: Dark Fate is a science fiction action thriller that is the sixth in the Terminator franchise. It is a direct sequel to 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

The film is directed by Tim Miller and written by David S. Goyer and Justin Rhodes, with screenplay credits for Billy Ray and story credits for James Cameron, Charles Eglee, and Josh Friedman. It stars Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Carl), Mackenzie Davis (Grace), Natalia Reyes (Daniella "Dani" Ramos), Gabriel Luna (Rev-9), and Diego Boneta (Miguel Ramos). It is rated NC-16.

Terminator: Dark Fate opens in cinemas:
- 24 October, 2019 (Singapore)
- 24 October, 2019 (Malaysia)
- 30 October, 2019 (Philippines)

PHOTO: 20th Century Fox
PHOTO: 20th Century Fox

Marcus Goh is a television scriptwriter who writes for “Crimewatch”, as well as popular shows like “Lion Mums”, “Code of Law”, “Incredible Tales”, and “Police & Thief”. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site. The views expressed are his own.

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