'Terminator: Dark Fate' Review: The Best 'Terminator' Movie In Decades, But Is That Saying Much?

The key to what makes Terminator: Dark Fate work (when it works, which isn't all the time) is Linda Hamilton. The saga of Sarah Connor and her son John has been depicted in some form or another for just over 35 years, but with the unavoidable truth that the people who occupy those roles aren't always the same. Hamilton hasn't been in a Terminator film properly since the pre-apocalyptic spectacular T2: Judgment Day, and her return as Sarah in Dark Fate is where the film is at its strongest. For a film that is dead-set on talking about the future, its best elements live in the past.Forget all that you know about the Terminator films that were released between 1991's Judgment Day and now. (Considering the quality of those films, I'm sure that was an easy task to undertake.) In Dark Fate, we quickly learn that Sarah and John did indeed prevent the apocalypse at the hands of the crafty AI known as Skynet. But that doesn't mean the future isn't screwed up, as we learn when the action shifts to Mexico City after a CG-heavy prologue full of...well, let's say that there's a lot of de-aging technology on display in the opening moments. The friendly and unassuming Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) is, one day at her job at an automotive plant, beset upon by two travelers from the future. One is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an "augmented" human sent to protect her; the other is the Rev9 (Gabriel Luna), a new form of Terminator sent to destroy her. Soon enough, Dani and Grace cross paths with Sarah, and eventually, they face down a Terminator played by the inimitable Arnold Schwarzenegger.The basic setup of Dark Fate — there are two visitors from the future, one here to help an innocent babe in the woods and the other here to destroy, with a tough-as-nails heroine helping along — is reminiscent enough of Judgment Day that it's hard to think about anything else in some sequences. The first major action setpiece, in which Grace saves Dani and her brother, driving them through Mexico City as the Rev9 pursues them in a large construction vehicle, calls to mind the scene in T2 when Schwarzenegger's Terminator saves a young John while the T-1000 chases them down through the freeways of Los Angeles. Director Tim Miller, best known for his work on the subversive superhero movie Deadpool, brings a moderate amount of life and energy to this early sequence, even as it quails in the shadow of James Cameron's excellent action choreography and staging. That, in essence, is as good as this movie gets: it's decent enough in the moment, while never being remotely able to stand apart from what Cameron, who produced the new film and is one of five people credited with the story, brought to the original films.Of the new cast, it's Mackenzie Davis who stands out most of all as Grace, who's not actually a Terminator but might as well be thanks to some kind of futuristic augmentation that makes her closer to a superhuman than an unstoppable robotic killing machine. Davis cuts a similarly tough figure to Hamilton, while also tossing off enough frustrated and sarcastic one-liners so as to make Grace something more than a humorless cipher. Reyes isn't so lucky – though Dani is meant to be very important, for reasons that would constitute spoilers here, the character is largely uninspired. Really, the whole show here belongs to Hamilton and Schwarzenegger. (In a perfect world, by the way, I wouldn't be telling you about Arnold Schwarzenegger in this review, because his presence would be a surprise. But the ad campaign has gone out of its way to let you know he's there, which is a baffling decision.) As the studio logos roll in Dark Fate, we see clips of the video of Sarah in the mental institution, describing how "your world's gonna end!", and once we see the older Sarah, she's just as intense and visceral. Hamilton's return is a welcome boost to a franchise that's been repeating the same themes for a while. And Schwarzenegger is once again a thrilling blend of taciturn and dryly comic (or, as his Terminator describes himself with not an ounce of irony, "extremely funny").Terminator: Dark Fate is technically, as a few other critics have stated, the best film of the franchise since T2: Judgment Day. But it's worth thinking about how that comment is both true and a potential way to damn with faint praise. Yes, Dark Fate is indeed better...than Rise of the Machines or Salvation or Genisys. It's a low bar to clear, but this film does clear it. The problem is that this movie only clears that bar while retooling and remixing the themes of Judgment Day, with its hyper-updated bad guy, its blend of live-action and CG effects in action sequences (though here, honestly, a good deal of the CG is very cartoony and elastic). The best parts of this movie are its older stars, which is all well and good but implies that the true Dark Fate is that any sequel can't hope to live up to what came before./Film Rating: 6 out of 10