Arnold might get top billing, but the Terminator movies worth watching—1984's The Terminator and 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day—belong to Linda Hamilton and her earnest, hard-edged turns as Sarah Connor, the series' terrified waitress turned brutal soldier. While Schwarzenegger glared and catch-phrased and strutted around to "Bad to the Bone," Sarah Connor got shit done. Sarah Connor made those stories interesting. Sarah Connor made those movies matter.
Alas, even though Hamilton—like Terminator creator James Cameron—largely bailed from the series after Judgment Day, the movies kept lunging forward without her, and like a stupid, janky kill-bot, the series got shakier and shakier with each step. No one ever needs to remember Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines or Terminator: Salvation or Terminator: Genisys, and no one ever does—but now here's Terminator: Dark Fate, the latest attempt to revive the franchise, and a movie that also pretends nothing past T2 ever happened. (If that's the case, can those of us who sat through those other sequels get our money back?)
If nothing else, Dark Fate has one thing going for it: Sarah Connor. Linda Hamilton's back, which means there's a Terminator movie worth watching again.
Well, it's worth watching, I guess, if you, like me, have devoted entirely too much of your ever-shrinking lifespan to thinking about terminators. For everyone else, Dark Fate's appeal—which largely hinges on seeing Hamilton, Arnold, and various bloodthirsty murderbots back in action—might be limited. Deadpool director Tim Miller does a lot of things right: His action sequences are messy but intense; he knows to let Hamilton, with her wry eyebrows and smoke-scratched voice, steal scenes whenever she feels like it; and he somehow pulls off the insane-sounding task of making a Terminator movie that's legitimately, consistently funny.
But at the end of the day, Dark Fate is another sequel that tries, with mixed success, to reboot a rusty series, and several of the attempts it makes to feel current land with a wet thud. (Dark Fate makes sure to mention automation and immigration, but it's depressingly toothless when it comes to saying anything about them.) And while the vast majority of the action is decent—Miller clearly knows to look to Cameron for tips on orchestrating ambitiously stylized violence—one ill-advised sequence, which can best be described as, uh, an "airplane fight," seems to last for hours and adds nothing. Ironically, the sequence feels crammed in to raise the scope of the film's action beyond what it needs to be—something that's become a weary cliché in the age of CGI-infused blockbusters, and a tendency that can be traced right back to T2.
Just as it's easy to forget how deeply goofy Terminator 2 can be (again: "Bad to the Bone"), it's easy to forget how ruinously dark the first Terminator is. (In 1984, Arnold's first uttering of the now-winky line "I'll be back" was a prelude to him coming back to a crowded police station and fatally shooting every single cop inside, except for one, who he pulverizes with a car.) Tonally, Dark Fate aims somewhere in the middle; while there's plenty of brutal termination (much of it coming from the blandly villainous Rev-9 killbot, blandly played by Gabriel Luna and a massive network of CGI artists), there are also plenty of those aforementioned jokes. Mackenzie Davis is solid but underused as a tech-augmented human from the future who's been sent back to fight the Rev-9, while Natalia Reyes, as the Rev-9's target is... totally fine?
"Totally fine," actually, might be the best way to describe Dark Fate. But as an entry in the beleaguered Terminator franchise—which, looking back, probably never should have been a franchise in the first place—it kind of begs to be graded on a curve. Given the legitimate awfulness of the last three Terminator movies*, Dark Fate being totally fine feels like a huge win.
*Quick aside for anyone, who, like me, has devoted entirely too much of their ever-shrinking lifespan to thinking about terminators: Yes, the too-short-for-this-world Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV show was great, and long before she played Cersei on Game of Thrones, Lena Headey was the only other actor to play Connor with anything remotely approaching Hamilton's heart and grit. For what it's worth—and I imagine it's worth quite a bit—two of the six credited writers for Dark Fate are Cameron and Josh Friedman, the showrunner for The Sarah Connor Chronicles.