If there’s one thing that unites the last three Terminator movies (apart from their habit of always cancelling the previous instalment out) it’s been the significant absence of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, the original intended victim of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unstoppable T-800.
Hamilton tarred in the first two Terminator movies before dying offscreen some time before Terminator 3. But now, in Terminator: Dark Fate, she’s back – and despite some flaws, the film’s a brilliant reminder that it’s Sarah, not the Terminator, who’s actually the protagonist of this story.
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In Dark Fate, gone are the time-travel reboots, awkward recastings (Emilia Clarke never quite made a convincing Sarah) and overblown, apocalypse-thwarting finales. Instead, the film takes things back to basics, following a young woman (Natalia Reyes Dani Ramos) as she’s hunted by a deadly robot from the future (Gabriel Luna), her only protection another visitor from years to come (Mackenzie Davis’ cyborg Grace) and Sarah Connor herself.
While Reyes and Davis put in good work as the shellshocked Dani and steely yet vulnerable Grace, from the moment she storms into view this is clearly Hamilton’s film. If the first Terminator had Sarah as a damsel and T2 had her rebooted as a gun-toting badass, Dark Fate recreates her again, and not entirely kindly.
Still hard-nosed and tough, the older Sarah is also wracked with pain and purpose, diminished through her years in the fight and desperate to find meaning in her ongoing battles. But it’s not a triumphant metamorphosis into her own brand of unstoppable killing machine. As in T2 (this film’s clear inspiration and main touchstone), Sarah’s change into screen-friendly badass is actually something of a minor tragedy, alienating her from others and leaving her a small, lonely figure.
Hamilton, lured back into the maelstrom of Hollywood by original franchise creator (and this film’s producer alongside director Tim Miller) James Cameron after years away, does sterling work as Sarah Connor. As you watch her step back into her old shoes it’s hard to believe it’s been 28 years since she’s played the character onscreen (give or take a vocal cameo in Terminator: Salvation).
Arnolg Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes and Linda Hamilton in Terminator: Dark Fate (Fox)
In fact, she’s such a great central figure in the movie that when Arnie’s inevitable T-800 (a different model again to those in the first two movies) turns up an hour into the film he almost feels surplus to requirements, even if he does do some great comic work as the newly family-oriented “Carl”.
And of course, he’s invaluable in the action scenes, which are some of Dark Fate’s most crowd-pleasing moments. Luna’s Rev-9 is a particularly deadly opponent, whose dual form (he’s made of liquid metal, like Robert Patrick’s T-1000 in T2, but also has a separate rigid skeleton like the T-800’s) lends for some imaginative battle scenes against Davis’ Grace, who manages to convince as a bodyguard only doing just enough to keep her foe at bay rather than outmatching him completely.
So yes, Terminator: Dark Fate has a lot going for it, especially when it comes to Hamilton’s performance, and it’s easily the best sequel since 1991.
Then again, with that low bar to clear perhaps that’s not too great a compliment, and it’s fair to say that Dark Fate has its issues. For one, it’s not quite as funny or as dark as you might expect from the director of Deadpool, throwing out oddly tepid jokes from time to time (including the obligatory references to the original film) and not straying far into the true terror or viciousness of the original two movies.
Given this difference it’s also slightly ironic how little feels new in the movie, with almost all the tech ideas (half-human good-guys, liquid Terminators, half liquid, half-human Terminators, the T-800 growing old and becoming a family man) already done to death in the various de-canonised sequels.
In fact, oddly, an emotional moment of climax in the film bears close similarity to a plot point in the little-remembered Terminator: Salvation, and it’s overall a shame that Miller and Cameron weren’t able to find more new within the Terminator universe – though to be fair, no-one else really has since T2 either.
But perhaps these are minor quibbles. As a Terminator entry and a movie this is a great return to form for James Cameron’s world, and a true sequel to T2 that finally gives Linda Hamilton her due. Whether another follow-up will come is unclear – presumably, Fox and new owners Disney will have some plans for the franchise – but whatever happens, if they keep Hamilton on board it’ll be worth another visit.
Frankly, it’s just good to see her back.
Terminator: Dark Fate is in UK cinemas now, and in other territories on the 1st November