Being the best Terminator film since Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991 isn't even a low bar to clear. It is a line painted on the ground. But I'm happy anyways that Terminator: Dark Fate is able to step across that line. It gets there largely by being the first time in four tries to figure out what should have been self-evident all along: these films don't live and die on the presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger (or his digital likeness) as an implacable killbot. They live and die on the presence of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, onetime waitress turned indefatigable survivalist and warrior. For it is with Dark Fate that Hamilton at long last returns to the role that has primarily defined her acting career, and while it would be a blatant lie to claim that this movie is anywhere close to the level of Judgment Day or its predecessor, 1984's The Terminator, it's at least a solid, watchable movie in its own right, the first time that's been true of this franchise in 28 years. This isn't solely Hamilton's fault, but she certainly helps quite a lot.

Also helping out: Dark Fate is the first of the later sequels to perform a hard reboot on the franchise: it follows the first two movies and only the first two movies. Given the complicated time-travel plot mechanics of this franchise, I think it's entirely possible for 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (the only one of the three with a single good scene), 2009's Terminator Salvation (the only one of the three that's largely functional as a standalone object), or 2015's Terminator Genisys (the only one of the three that is in any way, shape, or form interesting) to all co-exist in the same gnarled continuity. Not so with Dark Fate, explicitly so, and this reads as a deliberate statement of intent: this is a cut-out-the-bullshit, back-to-basics continuation of the story from when it was still mostly straightforward and focused more on thriller mechanics than mythology (though there is still plenty of the latter, and I don't suppose you could possibly make any sense of this plot if you don't know the original films, especially its impressionistically-cut stock footage opening). It's tempting to suppose, in part because the ad campaign desperately wants us to suppose it, that this is because series creator James Cameron took an active role in this film, unlike the last three movies (he co-wrote the story and produces), but I think it's just as much that we're in an era of respectful years-later sequels made by fans of the original: Dark Fate is coming from exactly the same place as the 2018 "clear out the deadwood" sequel Halloween, though for my tastes it is decidedly more satisfying.

Not wholly satisfying, mind you. In fact, the film starts out by needlessly shooting itself in the foot, with a scene that feels like it can't possibly be coming from the same Cameron who righteously carped about how Alien³ made a mockery of his own Aliens: in 1998, about three years after the events of Judgment Day, Sarah and her son, the future savior of humanity John (Edward Furlong has unnecessarily come back to "play" a version of himself that exists only as CGI), are living peacefully in Guatemala. But Skynet, the genocidal AI that will now never come into existence, covered its bases in the future-that-isn't, and one last T-101 model Terminator (Schwarzenegger, appearing under so much CGI that he looks not remotely like himself) has arrived to complete its assassination mission. Exit John, and thus does the film manage to render an entire, much better movie, moot.

Or somewhat moot, anyway. Sarah did manage to keep Skynet from coming into existence, and so the next 22 years proceed much as they have in our own world, with no robot-driven apocalypses to reduce humanity to an ash-covered resistance cell. Not yet, anyway. In keeping with the series' gloomy fatalism, it turns out there's a different AI network that decided, the moment it was turned on, that its mission required the extermination of humanity, and it too has managed to design a line of Terminators that look awfully like the one its alternate-universe counterpart came up with. This new Terminator, REV-9 (Gabriel Luna) has exactly the same mission that long-ago T-101 did back in 1984, too: find a hapless young woman and murder her before she's able to give birth to the hero of a future resistance. In this case, the young woman is Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), living in poverty in Mexico City, and she's just as unprepared as Sarah was 36 years ago. But once again, the future humans have sent a protector: Grace (Mackenzie Davis), who has been cybernetically augmented to increase her strength and speed, though this comes at a crippling detriment to her long-term stamina (as she sensibly points out, if you can't kill a Terminator within the first couple of minutes, long-term stamina isn't likely to be a concern). And Sarah Connor herself shows up for the fun: in the years since John died, she's become a full-on Terminator hunter, receiving mysterious text messages informing her of the location of temporal distortions that likely mean a murderbot from the future is about to show up.

I concede that it would have been faster just to say "basically The Terminator, with bits of Judgment Day mixed in". That's the hard limit that Dark Fate reaches early on, and it never pretends otherwise: besides giving Hamilton several different variations on "boy, it's like I'm taking care of young me!", all of which feel pretty clumsy, there's also the matter of REV-9, which possesses a design that makes frankly very little sense in-universe, but which makes perfect sense if the goal was to hybridise the first two movies: it's basically the liquid-metal T-1000 from the second movie wrapped around the robot skeleton of the T-101 from the first movie, and both halves can function independently when need be. At a minimum, this leads to some very striking images, and whether those images are nonsensical or not isn't really the film's major concern. Director Tim Miller isn't always up to the demands of the movie's grandiose tone (his solitary earlier film, 2016's Deadpool, turns out to have been insufficient training to make a proper action movie), but he understands the iconography of the series well enough, and does a more than sufficient job creating a pastiche of Cameron's po-faced intensity. The overall mood of the film is of sweaty desperation, whether in the fast-moving dialogue scenes or the action sequences, and it's a good mood, one that's well-matched by the cast: Hamilton's angry sarcasm is unsurprisingly well-done, but I was quite impressed as well by Davis, who brings a passionate zealotry to her role of dogged guardian angel. Reyes has a hard time holding the screen against her two co-stars, but she does benefit from a well-built character arc that allows her to toughen up and grow taciturn as the movie progresses (Dark Fate basically stuffs two movie's worth of Sarah's development into one).

It's not anything particularly special: the action setpieces are better in conception than in execution (the editing does a notably poor job of letting us understand where we are in space for the two sequences that would otherwise clearly be the film's peaks - a prison break from an immigration detention center and a fight in a plane's cargo hold as it tumbles around in circles - though the rest of the action is done well enough), and the plot so overtly announces itself as a retread that it's hard to know what to say about it. But the film is generally pleasurable even so: it has a conviction about its gravity that serves it well. More to the point, it's packed full of characters who are well-defined in the archetypal way of a good popcorn movie, and acted with spirit. Not least of these is the T-101 itself, which comes along in the film's back half to give Schwarzenegger, now looking his age, a great chance to play against Hamilton again, to their mutual benefit. A reluctance to spoil things prevents me from saying what the robot is up to, but suffice it to say that it gives Schwarzenegger an unexpected chance to loosen up and have fun with the role¸ including an out-of-nowhere comic bit that's the equal to any joke in this franchise's history. The film becomes downright shaggy, a far cry from the merciless efficiency that made The Terminator a masterpiece, but a comfortable fit for how old Hamilton and Schwarzenegger both look. It becomes, in brief passages, a proper hang-out movie, and this doesn't even quite go away when it settles into its climactic chain of action scenes. If you're going to exhume characters after years in mothballs, letting the actors do this kind of straight-faced riffing is maybe the best approach you could take. Couple it with Junkie XL's delightful revisions of the musical themes from the older films on the soundtrack, and the winking visual nods to this or that visual effect or action beat, and Dark Fate manages, in its modest way, to give shameless nostalgia trips a good name.

Reviews in this series
The Terminator (Cameron, 1984)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, 1991)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Mostow, 2003)
Terminator Salvation (McG, 2009)
Terminator Genisys (Taylor, 2015)
Terminator: Dark Fate (Miller, 2019)