[Review] ‘TERMINATOR: DARK FATE’ – “strong female characters” prove weak in latest sequel

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE

Rated R, 128 minutes
Director: Tim Miller
Cast: Mackenzie DavisLinda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gabriel Luna, Natalia Reyes and Diego Boneta

Sarah Connor is one of the greatest badass action movie heroines. She’s the gold standard when it comes to portrayals of “strong female characters” in cinema. She features heavily in director Tim Miller’s TERMINATOR: DARK FATE (though as she’s stated on Graham Norton’s program, with the aid of a padded butt and bra), only she’s not given material that does anything innovative with her legacy. The pioneering force, who could very capably kick ass and use her intelligence to get out of tricky situations before the guns (and I don’t mean her toned arms) were trotted out, is now introduced firepower first. That’s what the all-male creatives behind Sarah 3.0 think female empowerment looks like these days.

This crushing sense of disappointment isn’t exclusively relegated to Hamilton’s iconic character. It’s also in the ways in which most of the characters – male and female – are drawn and, to a certain extent, found in some of the situations in which they’re placed. In this direct continuation of James Cameron’s 1991 sequel, augmented super-soldier Grace (Mackenzie Davis) and cyber-terminator Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) are sent from the future – one to protect and the other to kill, respectively. Their mark is Latinx Dani (Natalia Reyes), an outspoken automotive factory worker who has no idea what’s happening and, unlike any normal human woman, never asks, “Why is this happening to me?” Of course, it’s because of reasons you can see coming miles away, but the fact that she never expresses concern over why she’s the target of this hunt is bothersome.

Sarah Connor, who’s been tracking the mayhem to continue ridding the world of pesky robot overlords, joins up with Grace and Dani on their road trip to a safe haven. Sarah’s hero “money shot” re-introduction is where the majority of boxes on the lazy screenwriter iteration of the “strong female character” checklist get marked off. Women looking tough firing big guns? Check. Women helping other women? Check. Women overpowering an oppressive male force that metaphorically represents the patriarchy? Check. While this is all noble and noteworthy, the motives are transparent while doing these things, imparting a disingenuous feeling. We’ll give you a cookie, filmmakers, when you add the depth and dimension these women so richly deserve.

Gabriel Luna as the Rev 9; Ectoskeleton, left, and Endoskeleton, right, star in TERMINATOR: DARK FATE. Courtesy of Skydance Productions and Paramount Pictures.

They go off the grid to flee the unstoppable Rev-9, which can co-opt technology and physically splinter itself into two terminators (one that’s a matte onyx endoskeleton and the other a gooey shape-shifting ectoskeleton like its T-1000 predecessor). And, as we see in the trailer, the trio eventually finds their way to the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who’s now sporting a Sadness Beard and living as a family man in his remote Texas home. This character growth gives the proceedings a modicum of levity, as Schwarzenegger delivers a humorous look into what domestication and self-abnegation look like for a T-800. However, his reasons for helping the women – specifically understanding Sarah’s traumatic burden – are overly complicated.

The screenplay (by David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray, working from a story by Cameron, Charles H. Eglee, Josh Friedman, Goyer and Rhodes) mines nostalgia in all the thoroughly predictable ways, playing like a watered-down greatest hits of THE TERMINATOR and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY. It pays homage to the previous pictures but fails to dazzle and augment tension, whether that is the pickup truck vs. dump truck freeway pursuit that pales in comparison to T2’s riverbed rampage, or the helicopter chase that cribs from T2’s better version. Even recycling the premise from the 1984 original doesn’t help as it takes the air out of the mystery balloon. Perhaps the worst part is that it never earns the relationship between Grace and her charge Dani, as the second film did with the heartrending friendship between the Terminator and John Connor (Edward Furlong).

The screenwriters do the bare minimum when crafting the three female leads. Their characters are mostly defined by the jobs they have. Sarah tells us that she drinks to blackout to forget her anguish, but we’re never shown that. If only her demons and internal stakes could be illustrated through character-driven action, through the choices Sarah makes. She doesn’t have to be unrelentingly tough-as-nails. Showing vulnerability doesn’t equal showing weakness. How she overcomes that vulnerability would show her true strength – as it did in the first film. Later, she’s forced to confront her tormenter and rise above her pain. Though it’s heartening to see Sarah do this with courage and nuance, it speaks more to Hamilton’s crafty performance than the material as written. Davis and Reyes also elevate the material, discovering a range of facets within their arcs. 

Mackenzie Davis, left, and Linda Hamilton star in TERMINATOR: DARK FATE. Courtesy of Skydance Productions and Paramount Pictures.

Occasionally, the filmmakers will add a splash of ingenuity, speaking oh-so-subtly to timely issues. They tackle job loss at the hands of automated workers (which naturally is fitting in that world) and the border crisis, setting one of the big action set pieces in a “detainee holding area” (cages). That said, their exploration of these ideas tends to be clumsy rather than clever. They don’t spend their time allotment properly, integrating these elements, giving them the necessary dose of entertainment value along with their subversive sentiments. At least the film provides the franchise with a Latinx leading lady, who continually exercises her agency, and a Latinx leading baddie, who shows a cheeky, mischievous side to his unrelenting nature. But even these two characters needed a bit more oomph behind their formative journeys.

Despite the good infused into the series, the bad qualities tend to overwhelm.  TERMINATOR: DARK FATE feels like a cheap grab at commodifying the property’s nostalgia and its fans’ fondness for feminist features.

Grade: C-

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE opens on November 1.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.