Terminator: Dark Fate (Paramount Pictures, R)

Terminator: Dark Fate doesn’t reach the stellar heights of the first two installments, but considering where this franchise was, it is a major step in the right direction and a leaping improvement on the last three films in the series.

This installment of James Cameron’s exhilarating sci-fi action series takes place years after T2, completely ignoring the events of that film’s more polarizing sequels. A new Terminator called the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) has been sent from the future to kill a young factory worker named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes). Sent from that future’s Resistance to protect Dani is a cybernetically-augmented woman named Grace (Mackenzie Davis). While on the run, Dani and Grace run into Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), intent on destroying every Terminator. All three women now must find a way to survive while being hunted by the Rev-9, the most technologically advanced Terminator model in the entire series, with help from an old T-800 model (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Dark Fate takes a “back-to-basics” approach to its storytelling and is more reminiscent of the first two installments in the franchise. This is the first film since T2 that Cameron has been involved in (he gets Story and Producer credit), while the screenplay credit is given to David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray. This is an approach that feels both welcome but can grow derivative. It is welcome in that it is preferable to the convoluted mess of the previous film in the series, Genisys, which dealt with multiple timelines that it could not keep track of. The story of Dark Fate is clean, simple, and does not take many risks. You can tell the writers were trying to avoid falling into those same complicated narrative beats that dogged many of the sequels, but in doing so, they are not really saying anything new. Because the narrative is familiar, it brings more into focus how effective the first two films are.

What the film does lack in fresh storytelling, it does make up for in great performances and high-energy direction from Tim Miller, fresh off his success from Deadpool. One of the reasons this series has been revered is that it practically helped define the action genre with its stellar set pieces, and Miller is just the kind of guy to be able to pull of some of the best action sequences this series has seen in years. Whether it’s a car chase or fast-paced combat, there are genuine thrills to be had. While these sequences are not as fresh as the original two films, since we have seen our fair share of CG-driven action since, Miller and company find inventive ways to use that CG to its maximum impact, though there are times where it does look dated, and the Junkie XL score underlying these action beats is too similar to previous works of his.

There is one major asset this film has up its sleeve that the last three films have so desperately missed, and it keeps this film from being more than just another CG-slugfest: Linda Hamilton. Returning to her iconic role, Hamilton does not miss a beat, and is as smart, tough and funny as she’s ever been. Her energy alone elevates the film. Schwarzenegger still has the presence to pull off the role that made him a star, though it is considerably less fresh than Hamilton’s since we’ve seen him in this role plenty.

Just because Hamilton is this film’s great magic trick, that doesn’t mean there is not room for the new players to make an impact. This is truly a female-led film, and Davis and Reyes prove to be strong additions to the cast. While her character may be mostly cybernetic, it’s Davis’s ability to tap into the underlying humanity that is most impressive. Reyes is also dynamic as a person thrown into an impossible situation, who has to grow into a strong and capable leader herself. The only actor who gets the short end of the stick is Luna, playing our Terminator this time around. Luna, who is very talented, tries his best, and these roles have never been masterclasses of emotional range. But it makes you appreciate how both Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick were able to sell these roles with their presence alone.

Terminator: Dark Fate is overly familiar, and I wish it had a bit more faith in itself to take more risks in its narrative. But, if you are looking for a good palate cleanser after a string of inconsistent sequels that did not have a sense of their own identity, then this film is a fast-paced and effective installment this once-ailing series so desperately needed. | Bill Loellke

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