James Cameron’s 1991 Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the Godfather Part II of action blockbusters, a sequel that both surpasses and enhances its predecessor, opening up a narrative and emotional world in ways only hinted at in the original. So it’s no surprise that further installments in the Terminator series have struggled to live up to the first two installments, although that hasn’t stopped various studios and producers from trying. After the failures of the last two movies in the series (2009’s Terminator Salvation and 2015’s Terminator Genisys), both of which were positioned to launch new trilogies that never came about, it makes sense that the producers of Terminator: Dark Fate would want to wipe the slate clean, going all the way back to Judgment Day to make a direct sequel to Cameron’s masterpiece.
Cameron himself is on board for the first time since 1991, credited both as a producer and with contributing to the story (alongside four other writers). Like David Gordon Green’s 2018 Halloween, Dark Fate ignore years of intervening sequels to pick up the continuity from Judgment Day, although in a franchise built on time loops and paradoxes, it almost seems unnecessary. Cameron and his collaborators (including Deadpool director Tim Miller) resurrect Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who was killed offscreen in 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, but otherwise they chart an entirely new course, even with Arnold Schwarzenegger also returning as a variation on the original-model Terminator, a seemingly unstoppable cyborg killing machine from the future.
As in previous sequels, the apocalypse that was supposedly averted in earlier movies is still on its way, even though it’s been modified slightly. The new target of the newest Terminator is Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), an auto worker in Mexico City who will play a key role in the future human resistance against the machines (just like Sarah and her son John). The all-encompassing artificial intelligence that takes over the world has been given a new name (Legion instead of Skynet), but it’s basically the same thing, and the Terminator Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) sent to kill Dani is like the liquid metal T-1000 from Judgment Day with the exoskeleton of the original Terminator inside.
As always, the humans also send an agent back in time to protect the target, and here that’s Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a human resistance fighter with cybernetic enhancements that give her an advantage in fighting Terminators. Dani and Grace also team up with Sarah, who’s spent the last two decades stopping Terminators sent back in time from various futures, even though Skynet no longer exists. Hamilton, who’s barely been seen on the big screen in years, brings the weight of time to her portrayal of Sarah, taking her beyond the hardened warrior of Judgment Day and giving her a mix of bitter cynicism and resigned weariness, to go along with her still-formidable fighting skills.
Schwarzenegger has a much smaller role (and doesn’t show up until more than an hour into the movie), but he too imparts a sense of wear and tear, both mentally and physically, to this aged version of the Terminator, similar to the role he played in Genisys. Thematically, Dark Fate picks up a lot of threads from those maligned intermediary sequels, along with its explicit callbacks to Cameron’s two films. It’s a more streamlined story than the muddled time-travel nonsense of Genisys, and it feels more urgent than the future-set Salvation, but it lacks the emotional resonance and indelible characters of Judgment Day. Not surprisingly, only Hamilton, playing the sole actual returning character, draws effectively on the investment in averting the apocalypse and providing for a hopeful future.
Miller stages some exciting, well-paced action sequences, although nothing as groundbreaking or memorable as Cameron’s work in the first two movies. Dark Fate never makes a case for itself as an essential sequel, and it doesn’t expand the franchise’s world in any meaningful way. But it’s a consistently entertaining action movie with some solid performances and special effects, and unlike the last two movies, it doesn’t do any damage to the franchise, either. At this point, that’s about the best we can hope for.