The first Terminator film, which came out in 1984, was a high-concept sci-fi serial killer thriller. You can just imagine its director, James Cameron, pitching it to the suits: ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger arrives from the future. He’s naked. We haven’t decided why, but he’s definitely going to be naked. And there’s only one thing on his mind, which is to tear some chick to pieces.’
Yet as sequel followed sequel, it became clear that this franchise about a dystopian war between humans and machines was really a metaphor for the war taking place within Hollywood itself. The machines won. Cinematically speaking, we now inhabit that post-apocalyptic landscape so often glimpsed in Terminator films. The grim perma-dusk is streaked with laser gunfire. Red-eyed CGI robots stalk the rubble, crushing underfoot the skulls of obsolete film stars. But some small pockets of resistance still hold out.
And against all expectation, Terminator: Dark Fate is one of them. Don’t be put off by the feeble subtitle, which sounds like a phrase you might use to describe a long weekend with the in-laws. The sixth Terminator film is the best Terminator film since the first Terminator film.
Much of this is thanks to the strongest ensemble cast of the franchise. The plot, as often, is almost identical to the original. For barely sensical reasons, the machines have sent an assassin back in time to kill a human who will otherwise be responsible for their defeat. In this instance it’s Dani (Natalia Reyes), an unassuming Mexican factory worker, who is targeted by the scariest Terminator yet: a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), which as well being able to turn its arms into scorpion-tail spikes, can divide itself into two. Which can be handy in a scrap.
As in the first film, the goodies have also sent back a protector: on this occasion, an augmented human (Mackenzie Davis) who happens to be unfeasibly hot, and has the fighting skills of a ninja master. Then who should join the fray but the ex-target, old Sarah Connor herself (a triumphant return for Linda Hamilton), now an ass-kicking, Terminator-skilleting prepper.
From here, director Tim Miller (Deadpool) delivers the nostalgic interstate-mashing car chases, billowing explosions and soppy gun porn we’ve come to expect. But those who like such things will be pleased to know this installment takes them to a new high. Even the close combat, by fight coordinator Jimmy Chhiu, is scooch-down gripping.
Then T6 springs its surprise, which, as with all its surprises, we’ve been waiting for. Arnie arrives. The franchise’s best joke and most convincing special effect, he’s the film star who came to kill all other film stars by demonstrating that acting ability was entirely immaterial to success. And now he turns it on its head by actually being good.
The gag used to be that, to launch his career, they had to cast Arnie in a role that required him to show no emotions and say almost nothing; and he was pretty bad at that. Here he plays a Terminator that has gone back in time, developed a conscience, and decided to help the humans. And brilliantly, while waiting for his chance to do so, this elderly killer robot has acquired a girlfriend. As he explains, deadpan, to a horrified Connor, ‘I’m reliable, I’m a good listener, and I’m really funny.’
Arnie has got better at doing nothing over the years, which is at least one of the skills of the film star. In other words, his internal actorly progress has itself been a battle of human against machine. The human has won. Terminator 6 is a worthy addition to the series, which shows that, whatever that thing is that separates us from machines, and which machines will never be able to fake, Arnie has it. And it still counts.