The dumbest thing about Terminator: Dark Fate is the title, seeing as the franchise abandoned any semblance of fate after the first movie. The original Terminator limited its time travel paradoxes by taking the predestination route: the future happens the way it does precisely because people messed with the past. There was never a chance to change the future, only to fulfill your inevitable destiny. It’s an airtight way to handle time travel that inspired the likes of 12 Monkeys, but Terminator 2 wouldn’t have any of it. The sequel gleefully threw away its predecessor’s time travel rules and went willy-nilly with the future changing, thus complicating the franchise for years to come.
But we don’t have to worry about movies three through five anymore, because Terminator is going the Halloween route and retconning most of its sequels. Dark Fate is a direct follow-up to Terminator 2—which means it’s also rejecting the predestination loop of the original, ergo the silliness of putting ‘fate’ in the name. But aside from that quibble, Dark Fate branding itself as Terminator 3 is a good thing in more ways than one. It’s the first since T2 to have series creator James Cameron involved, the first since T2 to star Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, and the first since T2 to not be bad.
That’s right, folks, we have a worthwhile Terminator on our hands for the first time in 28 years. It even manages to justify its belated existence—if the Connors changed the future in T2 to prevent Skynet from becoming self-aware, how are there Terminators to deal with in Dark Fate? Simple, says the shockingly competent screenplay: a different U.S. cyberwarfare program became self-aware and started the nuclear holocaust. And you know what? That’s one thousand percent plausible.
Dark Fate, unlike the three botched sequels that came before it, has its finger on the political pulse. The Terminator and T2 channeled the nation’s fear of automation and surveillance in the late 20th century; Dark Fate channels our beleaguered acquiescence to the robot takeover now. It feels just right in a world where drone warfare and facial recognition fascism can’t even make front-page news. We stopped Skynet, but the U.S. developed a separate military AI that will destroy humanity? Shrug. Of course it did.
In a roundabout way, that makes the title Dark Fate a little more fitting. We may be able to change the future, but the powers that be are always going to choose hatred and warfare. That undercurrent of knowledge runs throughout the whole movie—in an update to action classics of yore, Dark Fate gives ICE and U.S. Border Patrol agents the Nazi treatment, using them as reliably hateable mini-villains to allegorize and dispose of. They’re representative of the violent scapegoating that will rear its ugly head and obliterate the human race. Thankfully, Dark Fate counterbalances its pragmatic pessimism with compassion for the scapegoats, mainly by centering the experience of its Latina protagonist.
The text isn’t quite as impressive as the subtext. Tim Miller’s direction is only a smidge less chaotic than that of your typical action director, so while the set pieces can be inventive and thrilling, it can still be difficult to discern what’s happening. The writing is slightly rushed too: even accounting for the life-threatening circumstances, the protagonists get close real fast, so their connections don’t feel earned. On a number of occasions, the plot extends itself by artificially limiting the Terminator’s abilities.
But Dark Fate’s cast and attention to legacy keep it entertaining despite these flaws. It’s a joy to see Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger in these roles again, especially when both are giving T2 levels of effort. Mackenzie Davis—the actress who simultaneously deserves and is too good for worldwide renown—absolutely nails the movie’s emotional moments. And these moments do come: Dark Fate concludes the series’ themes like a trilogy capper should. In particular, T2’s feminist message—a reversal of the original’s assertion that Sarah Connor was only valuable for her womb—is brought to satisfying fullness here. The finishing touches are so lovely that another sequel would feel insincere.
But if anything gives me hope that another Terminator sequel wouldn’t be a bad thing, it’s Dark Fate. The movie’s endorsement of revolution is rife for continuation: no matter what threats we overcome, the Terminators won’t stop, they’ll just change shape—we have to stay vigilant if we’re to know who’s hiding metal beneath their skin.