The Terminator is, like the shrink in The Sixth Sense, dead, but it doesn’t know it yet. A corpse given a shot of estrogen is still a corpse.
Estrogen? Yep, it’s a #MeToo Terminator. In the first hour of Terminator: Dark Fate there is virtually no meaningful dialogue for any male character as three impossibly tough women battle it out with a killer robot from the future. Hollywood is in a penitential mood about all the women its men have mistreated, and its response is to feature even more 120-pound women kicking the crap out of 200-pound men, to have them swear like longshoremen, and to give them the occasional feminist one-liner. (Six men devised the story and script for this one.) None of this is the main problem, though. The central weakness here is that the two principal combatants are played by actors who aren’t interesting. What genius came up with the idea that America’s new action hero should be a bland blonde named Mackenzie Davis, a 5-foot-10 cornstalk who looks a bit like a de-aged Robin Wright? Davis does not come across as a super-fighter. She looks like the star of a toothpaste commercial or maybe a pro volleyball player.
The new Terminator is just as boring: He’s played by a growly nonentity named Gabriel Luna. Hollywood seems to think stars don’t matter anymore. The Avengers proved the opposite: We cared about these characters, and we cared about them because they were not just well-written but exceptionally well played by Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, et al. Davis and Luna don’t have what it takes to star in a blockbuster action picture. At least Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger are still around to make this movie watchable, but that’s the most that can be said for it.
Time-travel movies tend to be a bit tangled, so credit to Terminator: Dark Fate for keeping it simple. This one has a clean, streamlined story. It’s so simple that it’s basically a rehash of the original 1984 movie: Ordinary woman gets caught between two super-fighters from the future, one trying to kill her and one seeking to protect her, presumably to stop her from ever giving birth to the leader of the human resistance against the machines. Cue chases and shootouts.
Dark Fate picks up after T2 and ignores the other three Terminator movies: In 1998, John Connor, who is about 17, gets sneak-attacked by a (malevolent) T-800 from the future, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and killed in front of his mother, Sarah. Fast-forward to 2020, when the new Sarah Connor is a Mexican assembly-line worker, Dani (Natalia Reyes, who also isn’t very interesting). The actual Sarah Connor (Hamilton), now battle-hardened and a cynical alcoholic, appears on the scene and explains she’s been getting mysterious texts informing her of the location of whatever Terminator has just popped up. Grace (Davis), a soldier from the year 2042 who is just an enhanced human and therefore seemingly not a match for the almost indestructible new Terminator, joins forces with Sarah to guard Dani.
Lots of plot points and action scenes from the first two movies get reworked: It’s like Oldies Radio on screen. None of it is badly done — the director, Tim Miller (Deadpool), stages the action competently. There’s even the occasional clever bit: “You’re in danger.” “No, I’m in processing.” I appreciated the way, despite the border-patrol subplot, that the movie doesn’t drag us into any topical political debates. But we’ve all seen this stuff before, and the digital effects amount to a rehash of the cutting-edge 1991 mercury-man effect. So why bother? Did they really pay writers to tell us that though Skynet is gone, it’s been replaced by an exact double, this time called “Legion”? Moreover, the Terminator just doesn’t seem to be trying when he’s got Dani in his sights. Why doesn’t he make his arm into a gun and shoot her instead of getting bogged down in hand-to-hand combat with her protectors?
Only when Schwarzenegger shows up, halfway through, do things pick up a bit. He’s still a T-800, the one who killed John Connor, but he’s mellowed a bit. He calls himself “Carl.” He has a family. He has a new job that doesn’t involve so much killing: “I do drapes.” That Arnold can make this line funny is a reminder that we’ve all underestimated him as an actor. As much as the movie would like us to consider Mackenzie Davis an action hero, Schwarzenegger owns Dark Fate even in a limited appearance, investing the role with tired but well-earned paternal wisdom. (Hamilton gets to say, “I’ll be back” this time, but it’s just another nostalgia play, not an instance of actual wit.) His performances are the principal reason anybody cared much about this franchise in the first place, and since there is nobody to succeed him, they should just stop making these movies.