*Caution: This review contains major spoilers! Though I usually try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, Terminator: Dark Fate is an interesting exception where I feel the twists and turns it makes in relation to its franchise have to be discussed in critiquing it. So again, spoilers abound!*
Some franchises are so deeply embedded in pop culture and the public conscience that they can go on forever. Other franchises have their day in the sun, but need to know when to hang up their coat.
Unfortunately, the Terminator franchise falls into the latter category. That’s sad to say, because the 1984 original is a classic in both the action and sci-fi categories, while its 1991 follow-up, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, is widely considered to be one of cinema’s greatest sequels, and arguably the best pure action movie ever made. Had it stopped there, the Terminator series would have easily ranked as one of the all-time great movie franchises.
But it didn’t.
In 2003, we had Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. It was an okay sequel that was more stupid fun than it was a worthy follow-up (though its ending seemed to undermine the whole point of the beloved second installment). Then came Terminator Salvation in 2009, which took audiences into the dystopian future mentioned in the previous films. Finally, the oddly-titled Terminator Genisys arrived in 2015 as an attempted reboot. None of these films compared to the first two Terminator features, and after the reboot tanked, Terminator: Dark Fate sought to get the series back on track.
Ignoring everything post-T2, Dark Fate serves as a direct sequel to Judgement Day, and sees series’ mastermind James Cameron return in a producer’s role. Although Dark Fate writes off the preceding three films as being “alternate timelines” and seeks to pick up as a ‘true’ successor to Terminator 2, it seems doomed to become nothing more than an ‘alternate timeline’ itself, as the changes it makes to the franchise hurt the legacy of the first two films perhaps more so than any of the other sequels did.
Before we discuss why Dark Fate does such irreparable damage to a beloved series’ legacy, let’s talk about the centerpiece for those first two films: John Connor.
In the original Terminator film, a T-800 model Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). The Terminator comes from a future in which an AI called Skynet has caused mass destruction around the globe, and uses its Terminators to eradicate humanity. The T-800 was sent through time to kill Sarah Connor because her eventual son, John Connor, is destined to lead a human resistance against Skynet, which eventually leads to humanity winning their war against the machines (sending the Terminator through time was a last-ditch effort by Skynet before it was deactivated).
Fast forward to Terminator 2, John Connor is ten-years old, and two Terminators are sent to this particular time period. One is the T-1000, a liquid metal killing machine that can change its shape, sent back in time to kill John Connor as a child. The other Terminator is another T-800, reprogrammed by the future John Connor to protect his younger self from the more advanced machine. Together with the T-800, Sarah Connor successfully protects her son from the T-1000, and they ensure a new, brighter future for humanity.
So how does Terminator: Dark Fate attempt to get the franchise “back on track” by ignoring the less-loved sequels and continuing the story of Terminator 2?
By killing John Connor in the first three or so minutes.
Yessir, this installment, which so desperately wants us to forget about the previous three sequels/offshoots and to be considered the “proper” follow-up to Terminators 1 and 2 begins by… rendering Terminators 1 and 2 pointless…
Honestly, this might be the biggest middle finger of a ‘twist’ I’ve ever seen in a movie franchise. I’ve heard more than enough complaints at The Last Jedi and its supposed disregard for its legacy. But you could take everything fans disliked about Rian Johnson’s Star Wars film, as well as all three of the maligned prequel trilogy entries, put them all together, and it still wouldn’t be as disrespectful to the legacy of its franchise and its audience as this one move is here for the Terminator series.
Not only does John Connor die within minutes of the film, but it’s in such an unceremonious fashion. Although seeing actors de-aged (rather convincingly) with CG to re-introduce the Sarah and John Connor of the 1990s to audiences feels like a treat for a brief second, it’s a moment that’s instantaneously dashed once another T-800 simply walks up to John Connor while he and his mother are on vacation and shoots him. It even undermines the villains from the first two films. You mean to tell me that after all the crap Sarah Connor fought through to survive the first T-800, and the extravagant action sequences she and John endured at the hands of the T-1000, that another T-800 just casually walks by and gets the job done? It’s outright insulting.
Unfortunately, it’s far too grave of a mistake for the film to recover from. Even with some impressive action scenes, Terminator: Dark Fate – quite unintentionally – lives up to its title because of this one move. It sabotages the very core of the franchise to such a degree, that it may be the only thing on your mind for the rest of the movie.
All John Connor’s death ends up amounting to is a means to introduce a new character in his same role. Although the film at least acknowledges that the events of Terminator 2 did alter the future in their own way, John’s death alters it even further. Instead of Skynet, a different AI called “Legion” will eventually attempt human extinction with the aid of Terminators (why the evil AI gets an edge-lord style new name but the Terminators remain the same as the previous timeline, from their name to their appearance, is anyone’s guess). With this marginally altered timeline, a different individual is destined to become humanity’s savior in the war against the machines, Daniella “Dani” Raymos (Natalia Reyes).
Fast-forward to the present day (twenty-two years after John Connor’s unceremonious end), and Dani is a young woman working at a factory. Because she’s filling the exact same role as John Connor, two figures from the future are sent back in time to the present day, one to protect her, and the other to kill her. In the form of protector we have Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a human woman who’s been augmented with cybernetic parts. And in the form of assassin, we have the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), who – like all the post-T2 Terminator baddies – is essentially another T-1000 (though credit where it’s due, he comes with the fun twist of having a liquid metal skin, but a more traditionally mechanical skeleton, thus allowing him to separate himself into two figures).
Eventually, Dani and Grace are joined by an older Sarah Connor, who doesn’t need cybernetic implants to be badass. Later still, the team is joined by – and I kid you not – the same T-800 that killed John Connor who, after completing his directive and not having a purpose, slowly began to gain a semblance of a conscience, saved a woman and her son from an abusive husband/father, married said woman, and raised said son as his own. I admit it’s a fun setup for a character, but doesn’t it just sound more like a Terminator parody you’d see on a comedy sketch than from the supposed “true” follow-up to Terminator 2?
It turns out that after learning to integrate into humanity, this T-800, humorously referred to as ‘Carl’ (Arnold Schwarzenegger, obviously) began to understand what he took away from Sarah Connor, and is attempting to do what it can to set things right. Hence why it’s secretly helped Sarah Connor track down other leftover Terminators Skynet had sent to the past, and why it helps our current heroes in the fight against the Rev-9.
This whole setup just blows my mind on so many levels. One, if our new heroine was just going to follow the same character path as John Connor, why not make this another reboot instead of a sequel to Terminator 2? Two, if they just had to have this be a sequel to Terminator 2, why did they have to kill off John Connor, when they could have simply said the events of Terminator 2 altered the timeline so now Dani Raymos has taken his place in the future instead? Third, is the future in the Terminator franchise destined to be ruled by an evil AI before humans retake the planet thanks to the efforts of one destined individual? So if one ‘chosen one’ gets bumped off, the next in line just takes their place? Pretty much undermines the whole importance of Sarah and John Connor to begin with.
This just seems like a movie that had so many other, better options they could have taken the story. Instead, they decided to tell the same story as the past Terminator movies but with different characters, while keeping Schwarzenegger and Hamilton onboard so they could call it a sequel.
One of the best recipes for a winning sequel is “same characters, different story.” But Terminator: Dark Fate chooses the exact opposite approach, which has only ever proven to be a pitfall for sequels. And killing the central figure of the entire series within the first few minutes? Yeah, that’s got to be near the top of the list of things not to do in a sequel.
That’s not to say that everything in Terminator: Dark Fate is a total bust. Some of the action scenes can be quite exhilarating, the special effects are good, and even after all these years, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton are still a joy to watch in these roles. If you’re someone only slightly familiar with the Terminator franchise, and just want to see some fun action scenes, you might have a good time. But if you’re invested in the franchise even just a little bit, it’s hard to recommend Terminator: Dark Fate. While it’s great when long-running franchises try their hand at something new, it amounts to nothing when the “new” is the same material as before, just with slightly different characters.
It’s the movie equivalent of when an actor leaves a sitcom, and the show replaces that character with another one who is basically identical in personality and characteristics. But here, we didn’t have an actor leaving the role, just a movie that completely disregards the character who was at the heart of the franchise within its opening minutes.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day remains one of the best sequels in movie history. Terminator: Dark Fate? Nope.