It’s happened like slightly rusty clockwork ever since Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines sent the world’s most famous Arnold Schwarzenegger character crashing back into movie theaters. Every five years or so, a new Terminator sequel arrives, usually intending to undo the previous sequel and start a brand-new trilogy that will re-invent the classic James Cameron man-versus-cyborg movies for a contemporary audience. So far, the batting average has been distressingly low; Terminator is one of the only big-ticket franchises where a low-rated network TV series counts as a relative high point. Yet as dispiriting (or laughable) as it can be to watch B-list director after B-list director attempt to revive the endless, apocalyptic dust-up between humans, evil cyborgs, and reprogrammed-for-good cyborgs, The Terminator is better-equipped to handle bad sequels than most. After all, what mistakes can’t be retconned away by time-travel and/or blasted away by killer robots?
Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t concern itself with that kind of temporal bookkeeping—at least not directly. It announces itself straight from its studio logo roll, intercut with footage of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) circa Terminator 2: Judgment Day, as a direct sequel to the movies made by James Cameron, whose name actually appears in the credits this time around (although not as director or screenwriter). Plot points from Rise Of The Machines, Salvation, and Genisys need not apply.
Erasing those increasingly misbegotten follow-ups from continuity is as simple as putting pen to paper and placing actors in front of the camera, especially if it’s under Cameron’s watchful eye. But the fact is, those other sequels do exist, and even those who haven’t kept up with the full Terminator saga over the years may find Dark Fate a little familiar as a result. The new movie shares a grim status quo with Terminator 3, a character blurring the line between cyborg and human with Salvation, and some hyperbolic airborne stunts with Genisys. This isn’t Schwarzenegger’s triumphant return to his iconic role, either; he was doing Old Man Robot shtick in Genisys, too.
What Dark Fate does have over its three predecessors is Sarah Connor herself, Linda Hamilton. Following her relentless Judgment Day-era protection of her son, future mankind savior John Connor, the new movie opens with Sarah experiencing a terrible—and, as an immediate Judgment Day follow-up, pretty sour—tragedy, before jumping forward (without the aid of a time displacement machine) and following a different character. For a little while, Dark Fate plays like a loosely amalgamated remake of Cameron’s movies, with factory worker Dani (Natalie Reyes) going about her day in Mexico City until she’s doubly intercepted by a new shapeshifting Terminator (Gabriel Luna) and a new savior from the future named Grace (Mackenzie Davis).
Grace, who remains tight-lipped about the future purpose that the Terminator wants to keep Dani from achieving, isn’t exactly a re-programmed cyborg like the T-800 from T2. She’s a heavily augmented human with enhancements lending her superhuman strength and speed, and saddled with a metabolism that requires heavy medication to keep her going (an idea weirdly reminiscent of The Bourne Legacy—finally, a Terminator who needs her chems!). It’s a clever-enough variation on the otherworldly fierce protector (she’s basically half Terminator, half Sarah Connor), matched by the latest model of unstoppable murderous robot. The new bad guy is more likely to offer an unnerving smile than a thousand-yard blank stare, and can send a layer of shapeshifting liquid metal off to commit mayhem while its robotic skeleton stays intact, essentially offering two Terminators for the price of one.
After a serviceable car-and-truck chase in the vein of, well, a bunch of other Terminator movies, Sarah Connor comes blazing into the picture to help Grace protect Dani. After a time, the all-female group is joined by another potentially obsolete old Terminator (Schwarzenegger; he said he’d be back). Connor isn’t so happy to see this facsimile of a T-800, for reasons that derive entirely from the events of Dark Fate—which both helps the movie’s status as a standalone and diminishes its power as a legacy sequel. Connor also clashes with Grace, for no real reason beyond the screenwriters’ desire to approximate Cameron’s signature hard-boiled cornball dialogue by giving Hamilton a bunch of dismissive swears to chomp into.
Hamilton isn’t the only one who suffers from the hollowness of this imitation. Characters in Terminator: Dark Fate rarely have conversations. They explain traumas—Dani’s would-be personality involves her repeatedly touching people’s (and robot’s) arms while saying “I’m sorry”—and dole out exposition, withholding crucial information as the plot demands. Though Davis makes a fine (and less invincible) no-nonsense asskicker alongside Hamilton’s welcome return, the movie’s shiniest glimmers of genuine humanity come from Schwarzenegger, playing a slightly different version of this character than audiences may expect.
His storyline is one of the few genuine surprises Dark Fate has to offer, though the movie treats other, wholly routine plot turns like rollercoaster twists. More often, all it can manage is the jostling of its action sequences, directed with standard, anonymous professionalism by Tim Miller—an odd choice, given how much of Deadpool, his previous film, was dependent on flip attitude rather than a mastery of thrilling momentum or action choreography. His new Terminator can do more than ever; it can also look like a weightless little cartoon character in the process.
Though Dark Fate gets more engaging as it goes on (an escape from a disabled plane is a low-gravity highlight), its sci-fi ideas mostly amount to a listless skimming of hot-button issues. Detainment at the U.S.-Mexico border is a plot point, Sarah is constantly wary of smartphone tracking, and new enemies derive from “an AI built for cyber-warfare,” but no one seems interested in recontextualizing the human/Terminator battle into a contemporary horror. James Cameron has made his much-ballyhooed return to announce that the battle continues, and may continue further, should this adventure prove profitable.
Even the novelty of the writer-director’s approval is overstated. The King Of The World did a round of late-breaking puff-press selling Terminator: Genisys, though he had no formal involvement with the making of the film. Here, his producing and story credit (the latter shared with four other writers) may indicate an experiment with how much of a personal nudge from the master is required to make one of these sequels actually work. The apparent answer, as ever, is more time than Cameron is willing to give. Dark Fate serves as a case study for the difficulty of crafting a satisfying follow-up to a pair of certified classics, a process that seems to involve constant toggling between hopelessness and insisting that all is not lost. As such, it’s hard to blame Cameron for keeping his old series at arm’s length. It’s also hard to stay interested in a franchise that looks, with each inessential sequel, more and more like a doomsday prepper rephrasing the same old prophecy.