“There’s no fate but what we make.” This phrase is uttered in almost every installment of the Terminator franchise, often by the heroine Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton) or her son John. Yet for almost 20 years, the sci-fi series created by James Cameron has seemed fated for irrelevance. Despite the massive success of The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), every other revival attempt has failed, most recently the nonsensical flops subtitled Salvation and Genisys. What distinguishes the latest effort, Terminator: Dark Fate, however, is the return of Hamilton—an actor whom each reboot ignored and undervalued.
Cameron is also back for the first time since Terminator 2, though he is not directing (he has a story credit and served as a producer). His and Hamilton’s involvement give this new project a sheen of authenticity that the other sequels lacked, as if producers are finally acknowledging that what makes these movies work isn’t death-dealing robot skeletons or bone-crunching action, but characters the audience can care about. Hamilton played Sarah Connor as a tormented innocent in The Terminator and as an avenging angel in Terminator 2. Twenty-eight years later, she’s back in Dark Fate as a wraithlike, lonely veteran whose whole life has been defined by war.
Hamilton and the mostly female ensemble around her are responsible for the best parts of Dark Fate. As Sarah embarks on another battle with an evil time-traveling robot, she’s joined by Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a human from the future with cyber-enhancements similar to her own, and Dani (Natalia Reyes), a young Mexican woman from the present who’s being targeted by the robot for reasons unknown. Sometimes Sarah acts as a grizzled mentor to her younger charges; at other times, she’s more of an embittered loner. Hamilton, who has been largely absent from the big screen since Terminator 2, tackles both sides of her character’s personality with aplomb, growling curses and firing bazookas as if she’s been doing so for decades.
Everything else about Dark Fate, which was directed by Tim Miller (Deadpool) and is credited to six writers, is more routine. If you’ve seen other Terminator movies, you’ll get the idea with this one: There’s a bad robot (this one’s called the Rev-9 and is played by Gabriel Luna) chasing everyone around, devoid of personality and essentially impossible to kill. There are time travelers, such as Grace, who have come from a world at war with machines, and the grim apocalyptic future they represent prompts a lot of vague talk about causality and fate. And there’s action, with many shotguns fired and grenades lobbed as the humans try to stay one step ahead of their robotic adversary.
Past Terminator sequels were shot by relatively anonymous directors coming off of major box-office hits (Jonathan Mostow, McG, Alan Taylor), and Miller continues the pattern. A former visual-effects artist, he distinguished his work on Deadpool by harnessing computer technology to make a mid-budget movie look expensive. Dark Fate was made on a far bigger scale, and the action, while appropriately extreme, is completely weightless. Miller can create whole sequences in which multiple characters do battle in the skies while giant airplanes smash into one another, but none of them are actually filmed, and they end up looking like digital glop. Cameron’s first Terminator movie, made for a pittance, ended with a chrome exoskeleton chasing Sarah around a factory; that scene, in all its rickety stop-motion glory, remains much more compelling than watching CGI people fall hundreds of feet from the sky.
Luckily, Arnold Schwarzenegger is on hand to play the bulky T-800 that has served as villain, hero, and goofy sidekick over the various iterations of this franchise. Even at 72 years old, he retains the confidence and physical presence that made him an instant star back in 1984. In this role, he also has a new self-awareness, seeming to recognize that Hamilton has always been the beating heart of the series, and quite gracefully ceding her the limelight. No special effect is as striking as either of these stars walking into the frame.
Dark Fate will likely feel like a blessing for Terminator diehards, a reboot that taps into what made the original films special and smooths out a timeline that’s grown more convoluted with every sequel. For newer fans, Hamilton’s and Schwarzenegger’s performances should be enough to keep things absorbing without the lure of nostalgia. Even so, like many other blockbuster offerings in modern Hollywood, Dark Fate suffers from a mind-numbing surfeit of forced excitement. Once the action scenes kick off, it’s hard not to check out, no matter who’s wielding the weapons.