For a director whose two features thus far have been tentpole or tentpole-adjacent, hard-ish “R” blockbuster spectacles, Tim Miller hasn’t quite figured out how to finagle a coherent action set piece from his franchises. With Deadpool, it hardly matters what the stakes are when the fighting starts, or where any person/superhero is at any time amidst all that, just as long as the violence is egregious and the one-liners prurient. With Terminator: Dark Fate, the sixth film in the franchise, its second reboot and the second direct attempt to follow up T2, Miller’s weaknesses at staging complicated action scenes are more of a fatal flaw. When the whole crux of the movie’s existence is to unleash a new breed of soldier robot, an ostensibly invulnerable and unstoppable killing machine whose whole purpose is to chase down and eliminate our heroes, then every inch of action geography, every obligatory use of slo-mo, every moment must be accessible to the viewer to truly feel the impossibility of what’s asked of our heroes—and by extension, to truly get the badass nature of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), resurfaced and grimy as fuck. Instead, like so many DCEU and MCU entries, the bad guys of Dark Fate are insurmountable until they’re not, inevitable until they don’t have to be. Action scenes confirm this until they don’t.
The story, so it goes: After the events of T2, Sarah Connor and young son John had successfully averted the apocalypse, but because Skynet sent so many Terminators (Arnold Schwarzenegger) into various points of the past, some were left with orders to carry out from a future that no longer existed (or did exist, but on a different timeline; it doesn’t matter; none of this matters). One of these Terminators finds John and Sarah in 1991, the mother and son trying to relax in Guatemala after changing the future. It succeeds in its mission, though John’s murder does nothing at that point but warp Sarah’s psyche beyond what she’s already endured.
In 2020, a cybernetically enhanced human, Grace (Mackenzie Davis), emerges naked from a time bubble to seek out and protect Dani (Natalia Reyes), a young working class woman targeted by the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), the movie’s latest and mightiest Terminator robot that’s sort of like a better version of the T-1000 because of its ability to separate into two individual robot entities so one can drive a truck and the other can heave deadly steel rods at Grace and Dani. Grace makes it clear that they can’t defeat the Rev-9, just run from it, but offers no plan beyond that. Cue Sarah Connor, who shows up, as she was bound to, with a rocket launcher and the information that she’s been receiving mysterious text messages over the past nearly 30 years since John’s death, text messages informing her as to the whereabouts of all those unmoored Terminators wandering around the timestream.
Plot continues, builds up; exposition saturates every second the characters aren’t kinetic. When we first meet her again in 2020, Sarah Connor says, “I’ll be back,” and everyone gets up on their chairs and cheers this catchphrase that’s older than most Millennials, soldiers come home from war and kiss their sweeties on the lips, babies are conceived and delivered, Trump resigns, the future, we realize, is in our hands. Arnold of course returns for his fourth film, this time as “Carl,” the Terminator model who, once he achieved his mission to kill John, developed a conscience and decided to help Sarah eradicate the remaining Terminators. Hence, the text messages. Carl agrees to assist in protecting Dani, leaving his domesticated life behind; he says, “I will not be back,” and the audience just completely bursts into open sobbing, the key to world peace finally grasped.
So much more is of course explained, such as Dani’s relationship to this new future, and Grace’s relationship to Dani, and Sarah Connor’s relationship to any of this anymore, if at all, and our relationship to a franchise that has had more chances than it (and David Goyer, my god David Goyer) has deserved, if at all, but Dark Fate still follows the formula set by every previous entry. There is an evil A.I. that, even though it’s not Skynet and Skynet never existed, sends identical murder skeletons into the past to prevent a human uprising; there is a robot we must learn to love; there is a semi chase and shotguns and a thumbs up extended to emotionally bridge the gap between man and machine. Dark Fate even operates more like a James Cameron joint than any of the three previous franchise entries, technologically impressive but sometimes a tad too archetypal in its characters’ inner lives.
And there is Arnold. Linda Hamilton is more than welcomed, even more perfect for this role than she ever was, but Dark Fate gifts us Arnold as icon manifest—hilarious, composed, game for whatever and wonderfully self-aware. Arnold Schwarzenegger, playing an old android, lovingly cutting up limes to place gingerly at the mouths of a few bottles of Corona: This is the work of an actor who has learned to cherish and hone and own his stardom, receding within himself to find the stillness and wisdom a brand like Cameron’s needs in 2019. Against Hamilton’s exposed nerve of a performance, Arnold is an essential foil, an anchor for the maelstrom raging around him.
If only that maelstrom were better wielded. Look to a crucial scene in the film’s first act, in which Grace and Dani, cornered on a highway overpass, seem this close to failure. That is, until Sarah shows up and unloads a small army’s worth of weaponry into the advancing Rev-9, just barely keeping it from its prey. Look back even further, to Deadpool, to another crucial scene on an overpass, a scene which pretty much puts on full display what Deadpool has to offer. Back then, the fact that a viewer couldn’t really tell you what’s logistically happening has no bearing on enjoying Deadpool’s mayhem. But now? The Rev-9 is definitely going to reach Grace and Dani before Sarah blows it to bits, but then it doesn’t, and also: Where is Sarah standing on this overpass? Where is the Rev-9 in proximity to Grace and Dani and Sarah? How did Sarah get here, when one would assume that the coordinates Carl gave her would have been the spot at which the Rev-9 first entered the past? Wouldn’t a Rev-9 just absorb bullets?
It doesn’t necessarily matter—nothing matters, really—but Dark Fate is so self-serious, so expositionally overwhelming, that its tendency to tell rather than show bleeds into its every aspect. Scenes from Grace’s future-past unfurl as bloated and ridiculous, unsupported by everything we’ve witnessed, let alone that Dani’s character depends on the success of those scenes, leaving her whole arc patently unbelievable. When Dani’s true origins are revealed, it feels as if we’ve missed a full movie of plot to get to the point of justifying what we’ve heard. Just—how? We get the “what” and especially the “when.” Maybe someone should have asked why.
Director: Tim Miller
Writers: David Goyer, Justin Rhodes, Billy Ray
Starring: Mackenzie Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna, Diego Boneta
Release Date: November 1, 2019
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.