Back in 1984, seven years before “The Terminator” spawned a sequel that was big, sprawling, and James Cameron-y enough to elevate the franchise into what felt like the dystopian Marvel spectacle of its day, it’s worth noting that Cameron’s original film was a ruthlessly efficient post-apocalyptic B-movie — a proto-video-game sci-fi nightmare that took its point-blank attitude from the kill-machine efficiency of its title homicidal droid. (Part of its ingenuity was the way it turned Arnold Schwarzenegger’s inexpressiveness as an actor into a vicious semi-joke.) “Terminator: Dark Fate” is a movie designed to impress you with its scale and visual effects, but it’s also a film that returns, in good and gratifying ways, to the smartly packaged low-down genre-thriller classicism that gave the original “Terminator” its kick. The new movie earns its lavish action (and its emotions, too), because no matter how violently baroque its end-of-days vision, its storytelling remains tethered to the earth.
In a world overrun by sequels and remakes and reboots, “Terminator: Dark Fate” is an example of that opportunistic but, in its way, stubbornly optimistic form: the do-over. The movie, directed with gritty rock-solid craft by Tim Miller (“Deadpool”), marks the return of James Cameron to the series (as executive producer) for the first time since “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and at moments the film almost seems to be saying to its fan base, “Okay, we admit it, the last three ‘Terminator’ films sucked. They were action-movie fodder of diminishing returns, movies that spun their own wheels. So guess what: Forget all about them. Pretend they never existed. This, take our word for it, is the real third installment of the series.” That kind of thing can become its own form of hype, but in this case it’s a promise the movie takes to the bank. “Dark Fate” is a lean, tough, and absorbing sequel that taps back into the enthralling surface of the “Terminator” series’ comic-book kinetics as well as the sinister sweet spot of its grandiose pulp mythology.
Let’s be clear, though: Part of how the movie achieves that is by coloring rigorously within the lines, introducing a new slate of characters by swapping in one character and situation for another with a nearly mathematical precision. As a result, it’s not a film of galvanizing imagination. Yet “Dark Fate” puts flesh on the metal bones of its concept.
When we meet Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young woman working with her brother on an assembly line in Mexico City, she seems the quintessence of unremarkable, and that’s by design. Dani is the equivalent of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in the first “Terminator” — a woman who must be protected, because (we presume) it’s her fate to give birth to a future leader of the war against the machines. But the real thing Dani is giving birth to is her own sense of agency, and Natalia Reyes plays her with a perfectly modulated slow-building fire that may remind you of the young Michelle Rodriguez.
Grace (Mackenzie Davis), the figure who has been sent from the future to protect her, is like Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese fused with the good-guy Terminator Arnold played in “T2” — but Grace isn’t (quite) a Terminator. She’s an Augment, which is to say a living breathing human being bionically enhanced with ferocious strength and a handful of super-engineered body parts. Mackenzie Davis, in choppy short hair that brings out her quietly possessed quality, imbues her with a breathless magnetism — she’s the movie’s focal point of energized valor, of a brave new world of power women rising up to claim their destiny.
As the film’s relentless Terminator baddie, Gabriel Luna sports a purposeful glower (and, at moments, a kind of terse subliminal grin, a sign that he’s enjoying his destructive mission) that marks him as the next-generation rendition of Robert Patrick’s scowling cyborg assassin in “T2.” It’s not just the prototype of the character who has gotten an upgrade; so have the shape-shifting effects that define him. Like the cutting-edge model of an old Apple product (look, it’s pewter now!), “Terminator: Dark Fate” revels in the new metal, which is to say: black tar is the new mercury. Whenever Luna’s Terminator is chopped or struck, the wound (before instantly healing) turns into a gush of obsidian lava that drips and flows and reforms. He also has the ability to separate himself completely from his gleaming creepy-grin endoskeleton.
In “Dark Fate,” the very premise of the “Terminator” series — the elevation of A.I. into a fascist force that sets out to destroy the civilization that created it — has gotten a facelift. Skynet, the murderous computer omni-mind, has been defeated in the future, but the characters now face the threat of…Legion. Which is basically the same thing.
The real wild card of “Dark Fate” proves that even the most classic element of this series can become new again. Linda Hamilton plays Sarah Connor as an outlaw who’s been knocking off Terminators ever since Arnold’s T-800 killed Edward Furlong’s John. Hamilton, in rough hair and aviator shades, pointing guns the size of cannons, anchors the film with a regal sort of been-around-too-long-to-give-a-f—k Madame Max charisma.
Thirty-five years of saving the world have taken their toll, melting Sarah down to a figure of sheer will, living on booze and vengeance. Yet Hamilton, playing this burnt-out husk of a savior, is triumphantly funny and alive. In “Dark Fate,” she’s like Susan Sontag as a badass, never more so than when an officer at the U.S. Border Patrol Detention Center in Laredo, Tex., threatens to put her in her very own “cage.” (That word has all the social commentary the film needs.) She establishes the movie’s human stakes, letting us know why this battle still matters. And so, in his way, does Arnold. I won’t reveal much about Schwarzenegger’s re-appearance except to say that his character has been cut loose by the future defeat of Skynet. Sarah despises him for what he did to her son, yet it’s their hostile and mournful connection that gives the film its spark.
And so does the action, which Miller stages with dream-like clarity and flair. “Deadpool,” which I’m a huge fan of, is his only previous feature, and Miller’s mastery of the physics of action reverie in that movie — to the point that he could dazzle you with the ballistics of combat and deconstruct them at the same time — was rather awesome. In “Dark Fate,” he doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but his weaponized clashes are gripping, never more so than when they’re on wheels, or (at the climax) on a dueling set of jumbo planes. What has changed in the 28 years since “T2” is that the rise of comic-book films has made the battle of borderline indestructible titans something we see in the movies more weeks than not. “Deadpool” was technically part of the “X-Men” universe (though the title character’s satanic-bitch sense of humor was a superior force to almost any power possessed by those mutants), and “Terminator: Dark Fate” could almost be about an evil offshoot of the X-Men — stalking robots who convert to metal and back again. But “Dark Fate,” if anything, comes close to being the “Logan” of that series. It’s a heavy-metal fantasy with a heart that, astoundingly, isn’t made of tin.