Linda Hamilton Triumphs in the Return of Sarah Connor
DIRECTED BY TIM MILLER/2019
Let’s begin by acknowledging that every Terminator sequel (and there have been five) has had giant shoulders on which to stand. Terminator (1984) was a cracker jack action film with unforgettable characters, lines, and set pieces. It made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) somehow managed to be almost as good, with it’s lean, officious, and literally mercurial new model of cyborg assassin (played by Robert Patrick) facing off against Schwarzenegger’s now protective if somewhat obsolete T-800 model. But the magic only carried through two movies. The rest of the Terminator films (Rise of the Machines, 2003; Salvation, 2009; and Genisys, 2015) paled in comparison to their predecessors. It seemed like a franchise that should be allowed to fade into into memory.
But fate and James Cameron had other plans. Cameron directed and co-wrote the first two Terminator films, then stepped aside for other talents. But Terminator: Dark Fate sees Cameron return as a writer, producer, and editor. By his own account he had a heavy hand in shaping Tim Miller’s rough cut into the film now in theaters. Cameron’s touch shows. Dark Fate very comes close to capturing the energy and tone of the first two films, although hampered at times by being too derivative. Dark Fate picks up where T2 left off, pretending that the other three intervening films never happened. It’s the right move. Uncoupled from the heavy history of those sequels, the new film returns to a spare, familiar narrative. The hope for humanity’s future must be saved from an almost invincible mechanical killer. That’s it.
This time the threat is from a Rev-9, an even more advanced model of Terminator than in T2. This version can take the shape of anyone he touches, can split in two, and can regather himself even after being blown to bits. He’s been sent from a future in which an A.I. system, Legion, has gone rogue and exterminated most of the human race. If this sounds perilously close to the plot of the first two Terminator films, it is. The lack of originality is a weak spot in Dark Fate, but it’s compensated for by the cast, a solid script, and non-stop action.
This time out the future hope is neither an unborn child, nor a young boy. Instead, it’s Dani (Natalia Reyes), a young Mexican auto worker. It doesn’t take long before she’s running from the Rev-9 (played with a blandly handsome menace by Gabriel Luna) and receiving the protection of another visitor from the future, Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an enhanced super soldier trying to stave off yet another potential genocide. Dani and Grace are soon joined, unexpectedly, by the most anticipated cast member in Dark Fate: Linda Hamilton returning as Sarah Connor. In the original Terminator, Sarah was an ordinary woman thrust into the role of mother-of-the-messiah. The T-800 was targeting her because the child in her womb was, or would be, the leader of a revolution against robot overlords. By T2 Sarah Connor had hardened into a battle ready badass mother, willing to do whatever was necessary to protect her young son.
Now, in Dark Fate, we see yet another version of Sarah Connor. She is much older (Hamilton is 63) and embittered by the loss of her son decades before. She stopped the apocalypse (“You’re welcome,” she says wryly), but she couldn’t keep yet another T-800 from tracking John Connor down. That very same T-800 is also in Dark Fate, with Arnold Schwarzenegger giving one of his most winning performances of recent years. Having completed the mission to kill John Connor, this Terminator was left with nothing to do but try to navigate life among humans. So he grew a consciences, found a family, and took up a quiet life as Carl, a drapery salesmen. If that sounds a bit absurd, the movie plays this plot line for gentle laughs. But it also highlights how the roles of “Carl” and Sarah have flipped. Carl is not quite capable of human emotion, but he’s humble, responsible, and “very funny”, in his own words. Sarah is now the stone cold killer, albeit only killing Terminators. Both Schwarzenegger and Hamilton use their aging bodies to great effect in Dark Fate. Carl has a salt and pepper beard and a quiet gravity. He has repented in the only ways that a cyborg can – by protecting where he once destroyed, and by being willing to risk his life for those he harmed.
But it’s Linda Hamilton who really fires up the screen in Terminator: Dark Fate. She is silver haired, lean, with a deeply lined face. Her voice has the rasp of someone who has smoked a lot of cigarettes, and perhaps unleashed a lot of rage. Sarah has no lightness or warmth to offer; only grit and a reckless determination to take down this year’s model (or whatever future year its come from). She is utterly convincing, and a pleasure to watch.
I don’t want to overlook the contributions of Davis and Reyes. I am a fan of Mackenzie Davis (Tully, TV’s Halt and Catch Fire) and she makes a capable, sympathetic action hero. Like the Terminators, Grace has superhuman strength. Unlike them, she has entirely human emotions and motivations. Reyes is likable as Dani, though she doesn’t get much character development. The film does, however, go out of its way to update her role as the hope of humanity. She’s a bit less like Sarah Connor than Sarah first realizes, and the film is better for it. At political rallies I’ve seen the slogan “The future is female”. In Dark Fate the future is not only female, it’s a Latina woman of color who comes into the U.S. without documentation and ends up saving the world. Right on.
Terminator: Dark Fate touches on a number of current topics – particularly the mechanization of the work force, women’s wombs as a political battleground, and (most directly) immigration. At one point the central characters are all being held in a Border Patrol facility, leading to a sharp little joke about the euphemistic language used to avoid calling prisoners “prisoners”.
Terminator: Dark Fate is not a perfect move. The plot is rehashed and doesn’t bear close scrutiny, and the action scenes become a bit repetitive. The problem with an indestructible foe is that he’s so endlessly indestructible. Watching the Rev-9 recover from having his head bashed in or being blown to bits only impresses so many times, as does watching our heroes get thrown into walls over and over again. But it’s mostly good fun, things keep chugging along at a good pace, and I cared very much what happened to Dani, Grace, Carl, and Sarah. Forget the previous three films in this universe: Terminator: Dark Fate is a fine ending to the Terminator trilogy that should have been.