“Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it,” the old saying goes, though Terminator: Dark Fate, the latest in the film series that’s all about trying to fix history, proves that its creators believe repeating it is anything but a condemnation. As many online have already noted, Dark Fate is a product of the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” sequel school that Star Wars: The Force Awakens also attended; it’s smashingly well-crafted and sometimes quite exciting and affecting, albeit in familiar ways.
It can be said upfront that Dark Fate’s revisiting of what has worked before is more satisfying, in the end, than Terminator: Genesys’ pointless retconning and Terminator: Salvation’s postapocalypse variations. Yet despite five people, including franchise creator James Cameron, receiving story credit, Dark Fate’s first hour so slavishly imitates the beats of the first two Terminators that watching it, you think billing should just go to Cameron. Once again, this time in Mexico City, balls of lightning disgorge two travelers from the future: a human who thunks awkwardly to the ground and a cybernetic one—a new super-duper Terminator with liquid properties—who drops into a poised-for-action crouch. They respectively set out to protect and destroy a young innocent, the Terminator killing a couple of this character’s family members along the way, leading to a major indoor smackdown that continues into a lengthy and destructive motor-vehicle chase. The hero has a flashback to being badly wounded in a dystopian future, and this Terminator runs with the same arms-pumping gait as T2’s T-1000. And so on.
The difference is that both protagonists are women, and Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is a human with mechanical enhancements that give her an advantage in keeping Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) safe. Turns out that with Skynet no longer a thing of the future, another cyber-system called Legion will follow the same path to world domination, and has sent the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), a nanotech creation who can separate from his metal endoskeleton, to the present to assure that Dani can’t interfere with it. For most of its running time, Dark Fate coyly dances around the question of just why Dani is so important to the future, and the way the explanation is delivered feels like an attempt at a female-empowering corrective to a saga that doesn’t need it—the original pair of films, anyway.
After all, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is on hand here too, reminding just what an integral bad-ass she was to the Cameron movies. Looking battle-wizened but still down to jump into the action with guns blazing, she joins Grace and Dani as they attempt to stay one step ahead of the Rev-9, a trek that ultimately takes Sarah to a reunion with a T-800 played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is not the same one from the ’84 or ’91 movies, though he does have a history with Sarah established in Dark Fate’s prologue. His current living situation at first threatens to tip the movie over into a domestic sitcom, but it’s also the point where Dark Fate becomes more of its own movie, and as we learn about this Terminator’s history, Schwarzenegger brings a compelling gravity to the role. There’s an irony in the fact that playing a cyborg has allowed Schwarzenegger to tap more humanity than many of his other action parts, and seeing him as a bewhiskered, aging (apparently, this line of Terminators grows old), contemplative former killing machine brings a touch of elegy to the film—enough to make you wish more of the movie was about what he’s been up to since that introductory bit. Similarly, Sarah has a touching quiet moment talking about her son that particularly resonates when you remember her final scene in the first Terminator.
Both actors also handle themselves just as well in the chases and combat as they did 35 years ago, and they’re matched by Davis, who brings fire and passion to Grace, and Reyes, navigating Dani’s transition from running scared to fighting back with great conviction. The big set pieces in the second half of Terminator: Dark Fate visit fresher territory for the series than those in the first, most notably a lengthy sequence involving two planes and a dam. It’s patently illogical, yet put across with sufficient forcefulness by director Tim Miller that you don’t mind. Throughout the movie, Miller brings vigor and punch to the action, and while he might not have had the chance to inject this project with the impish humor of his previous Deadpool, he fits nicely into the Cameron style of human and vehicular carnage. (He and the writers also have the good sense to use a detainment center on the Mexico-Texas border, where some key scenes take place, as a plot device, not a political statement.)
Miller’s sense of pacing, at least here, is not as finely honed as Cameron’s; at 128 minutes, Dark Fate runs nine minutes shorter than T2 but feels longer. If part of that may have to do with the sense of driving over old ground, different viewers’ mileage may vary on that point. It’s likely that many in the audience, some of whom won’t have been born when the first Terminator came out, will find the déja vù comforting and maybe even exciting, and you can’t deny that Terminator: Dark Fate gives the people what they want, and lots of it. As one of those people, who absolutely loved the Cameron films, I was just hoping for a little more of the groundbreaking in the action and science fiction genres that those movies represented. (And I have to say that I also hope any lingering enthusiasm for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which I thought was actually pretty good, doesn’t get entirely obliterated by the embracing of Dark Fate, in the way Halloween: H20’s rep was washed away by the tide of “best since the original!” reactions to the fan-service of last year’s Halloween reboot.)