Terminator: Dark Fate, the latest installment in the Terminator franchise, erases Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation, and Terminator Genisys from the continuity, and marks a return to basics. Directed by Deadpool’s Tim Miller, Dark Fate plays out like a contemporary version of the first Terminator film, as future super soldier Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is sent back in time to protect Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) from a deadly Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna).
In true modern blockbuster fashion, Dark Fate also brings Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back. The remarkable thing is that their returns don’t feel like fan service or hurried cameos. Miller and screenwriters David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray recognize that though the Terminator’s red eye is the defining image of the franchise, the story has always belonged to Sarah Connor.
The same way 2018’s Halloween asserted Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode as the franchise keystone, Dark Fate proves that Terminator doesn’t compute without Hamilton. Revisiting those original arcs could be a superficial thrill, but both Halloween and Dark Fate investigate how traumatic events and adamant survival affected their heroes’ lives.
The best parts of Dark Fate all feature Sarah, who shifts between superhero toughness and all-too-human vulnerability as she works through decades’ worth of isolation and grief. Things get particularly interesting when an aging T-800 (not the friendly one we remember from Terminator 2: Judgment Day) enters the mix, not just because it’s always a pleasure to see Arnold but because the robot has undergone some development of its own since we last saw it.
Sarah crosses paths with Grace and Dani while hunting the Rev-9, and reveals that she’s spent the years since the events of Terminator and Terminator 2 killing terminators. Though the three women don’t initially trust each other — Grace and Sarah, in particular, find themselves butting heads as years of being on the run have turned them both into cynics when it comes to strangers — they have no choice but to work together to take down the Rev-9, which transforms into and out of black goo, and splits into two robots for double the trouble.
While the Terminator chase beats are familiar, Dark Fate adds a new dimension to the game of cat and mouse through its Latinx lead, Dani. From her initial concerns about losing her job to a robot, to being forced to illegally cross the border while fleeing the Rev-9 (and even being detained by border control in the process), Miller and the screenwriters have larger ambitions for this action thriller. They don’t necessarily coalesce — the need to tie up the immediate plot turns any more significant political messaging into “we’re all people in the end” — but it still feels significant to see a person of color in a blockbuster’s leading role and another as its major villain.
It’s also a joy watching Davis kick ass, with Grace wielding everything from a giant hammer to a giant chain as she tears up the Rev-9. The action in Dark Fate is all over the map — an early highway chase is thrillingly clear, while a later airborne fight is visually incomprehensible, and the CGI doesn’t quite hold up from scene to scene — but the close-quarters combat Grace gets into is consistently great.
The fun parts of Terminator: Dark Fate can’t mask the fact that the episodic script drags. Sarah and the T-800 come with much more baggage and audience familiarity, which automatically makes them more compelling and more colorful than Dani and Grace, who have to share space and establish themselves as fully fleshed-out characters at the same time. The result is that their storyline — with the exception of one late-breaking twist — feels hackneyed, and almost parodic of the ending of Terminator Salvation.
There’s enough meaty material in Dark Fate — the immigration subplot, the bond between Sarah and the T-800 — that its steady, clichéd moments (“We make our own fate,” groan) stick out like robot wiring under human skin. Though the film leaves the door open for more Terminator shenanigans, it hopefully serves as a definitive end. Sarah deserves some closure. Dark Fate is at its best when offering it.
Terminator: Dark Fate hits U.S. theaters on Nov. 1.