I don’t know where I first heard of the golden "trilogy rule", but it is one of my favourite things to apply film trilogies. Basically, you take any trilogy and see if this pattern works: first film – great, most of the time it redefines cinema or a genre like ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Second – this is the blockbuster, often considered the best of trilogy and exceeds everyone’s expectations like ‘Star Wars: Return of the Jedi’. The third – that’s the letdown, often ruining things for the future of the franchise; it’s not all ways a terrible film, it’s just weaker compared to its precessors (think Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’). Even for franchises with more than three films - ‘Shrek’, for example - this rule still fits. Think of a trilogy and see if it works; it weirdly so often does. Even if we erased the last three ‘Terminator’ films, ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ yet again perfectly illustrates the trilogy rule.
‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ tells us what happened after Sarah (Linda Hamilton, ‘Dante’s Peak’) and John Connor prevented Judgement Day from happening 20 plus years ago, ignoring all Terminator films but the first two. Now alone, Sarah has dedicated her life to hunting and killing Terminators, and though Skynet no longer exists a similar Judgement Day happens in the future by the hands of Legion. They send a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna, TV’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’) an advanced Terminator with the ability to become two separate machines, to the past to kill Dani (Natalia Reyes), who in the future is a huge key to Legion's demise. But the resistance sends Grace (‘Tully’, ‘Blade Runner 2049’), a half-human half-cyborg to protect Dani from dying.
‘Terminator’ has been around since 1984, yet somehow in 2019 the best we can do for a plot is just remaking ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’: a Terminator is sent to kill the saviour of the future while also another superpowered human is sent to save that person. They just flip some things (the alternate title for ‘Dark Fate’ could be ‘Terminator 2: Wig Slightly Attached’). It’s not as painful as other copied plots, but it's more disappointing that this big gritty nostalgic franchise reboot sequel is just a copy of its previous films.
(possible spoiler warning)
As seen in the marketing Sarah Connor is alone and John Connor isn’t even mentioned in any trailers, so going in I was interested in how they would deal with his character. I was hoping for something ‘Halloween’-style where Laurie Strode was so traumatised by her encounter with Michael Myers that she has basically gone crazy and changed her life forever and even though she has a daughter, she stills lives alone in fear. This would work extremely well for Sarah; we saw in T2 just how this Terminator coming to kill her affected her and changed her life, and while she is still a badass, she has trauma. I understand wanting her as a tough lone wolf who has been through it and now just kills Terminators, but they had so many ways to do this and the way they chose to write out John Connor makes the first two films retroactively pointless.
Linda Hamilton as a human being is so epically badass, and I absolutely love her as Sarah Connor, so I was very excited to see her return to the role. The first scene with her (outside of the opening flashbacks) is the action scene from the trailer on the highway as she gets out of a car in slow-motion and shoots down a Terminator; it's just so epic, and has to be considered as one of the best character reveals in film. However, for the rest of film, it feels like Sarah Connor basically has nothing to do. She gets no more badass moments, she just is another body on the team. Even in relation to the plot, she is just kind of exists, not doing anything.
‘Terminator’ has been around since 1984, yet somehow in 2019 the best we can do for a plot is just remaking ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’: a Terminator is sent to kill the saviour of the future while also another superpowered human is sent to save that person. They just flip some things (the alternate title for ‘Dark Fate’ could be ‘Terminator 2: Wig Slightly Attached’).
The other returning cast member is Mr Schwarzenegger (‘Jingle all the Way’, ‘Escape Plan’), and again love the man but he's really unnecessary here. When he shows up the film, it goes from ‘Logan’-style grittiness to a comedy film. It's just strange to give him a new backstory, similar to ‘Rambo: Last Blood’. Like Sarah Connor in the action scenes, he's just a background character, punching the Rev-9 as the camera pans away to new characters. Schwarzenegger is giving it his all, but it’s just wasted.
Our new characters, Grace and Dani, are fine, there just isn’t much to say about them. They are engaging enough to keep you focused but not enough to make you care or feel any kind of emotion towards them. Performances are both solid and they both hold their own in the action sequences, but I can’t be invested enough in them to see any further adventures with them.
A lot of modern action films have a really hard time with their action sequences - even Marvel films more often than not have mediocre offerings - but ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ keeps up the pace. The action was decently spread out, it never feels too soon or too late, and even though the characters were lacking across the board, they all come together in the big action moments. This really saves the movie from being a snoozefest, so just as you’re getting bored a well-crafted actioned sequence will begin and boost your energy up.
Weirdly, the film shies away from using the ‘Terminator’ theme to its full strength, often played for half-second. I was hoping they were holding off to use it on some epic moment, but that never came.
Leaving ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’, I never felt like they managed to save the franchise, nor overwhelmingly glad this movie exists. It’s an adequate addition in a messy franchise that never reaches the heights of the first two films but is just above the three films before it, and because of this a lot of people will like it much more than they should. It’s not the ‘Halloween’ or even the ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ of the 'Terminator' franchise; it’s a fine follow up, and sadly nothing more.