GREG'S GRADE: B
A common complaint when it comes to sequels is something along the lines of "It wasn't necessary" — which is itself an unnecessary thing to say. Is any movie needed, truly?
Would there be a hole in the world if, in 1984, James Cameron hadn't made a low-budget action movie about a time-traveling, killer cyborg and turned an Austrian bodybuilder into an international movie star?
So let's dispense with the "unnecessary" argument with regard to "Terminator: Dark Fate" — or any other movie, for that matter.
"Dark Fate," the sixth film in the franchise, is the first entry since "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991) to have Cameron on board (as producer and sharing the story credit) and plays as a direct sequel to "T2," ignoring "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" (2003), "Terminator Salvation" (2009) and "Terminator Genisys" (2015). And while it's nowhere near the groundbreaking achievement of "T2," which holds up today as one of the best action movies ever made, "Dark Fate" is the series' strongest installment since that one and the first to move past the overdone story of John Connor and Skynet.
"Dark Fate," directed by Tim Miller ("Deadpool"), doesn't undo the events of "T2" like the previous sequels did. Sarah Connor, and her son John, defeated Skynet before it was even created, preventing Judgment Day — the day when the machines become self-aware and fight back against humanity — and saving 3 billion lives. Unaware of the future they so narrowly avoided, the human race continued to fiddle with A.I., and by 2042, a new iteration called Legion has taken over.
Like Skynet before it, Legion decides its best chance of quelling the human resistance is to terminate one of its key figures in the past. It sets its sights on a young Mexican woman named Dani (Natalia Reyes) and sends a new killing machine known as the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) to take her out in 2020. The resistance sends Dani a lone protector, Grace (Mackenzie Davis), who's human but "augmented" with enhanced speed and strength.
After Grace and the Rev-9 — which, in addition to its T-1000-like shapeshifting abilities, can separate its more human exterior from its mechanical endoskeleton — duke it out in a factory and a car chase with some of the most spectacular vehicular mayhem this side of the "Fast and Furious" franchise, Dani gains another ally with the miraculous appearance of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). She's spent the past decades hunting Terminators, with help from a mysterious texter who gives her the exact locations where they will appear.
Things pick up when an old T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) appears midway through the movie. With Skynet nonexistent and no mission to fulfill, he's spent the past two decades building a life for himself. He has a wife and stepson. He has a drapery business. His name is Carl. He wears cargo shorts. With gray hair, white beard and a lined face, Schwarzenegger shows his age, and it works wonders with a role he's played five times now. Spending so many years among humans, he's come to understand them, developing empathy and wisdom, and Schwarzenegger wrings subtle emotion from his robotic monotone.
But "Dark Fate" primarily is a film about a trio of women fighting for the future of the human race. Some of its best scenes feature the three of them on the road, each unsure of exactly who the others are and who they can trust.
It's virtually unprecedented to see a woman in an action hero role at the age of 63, but Hamilton, who had been away from the franchise as long as Cameron, is an absolute beast. Her grim determination and the weight of everything Sarah has been through were sorely lacking in the three films Hamilton sat out. Davis infuses Grace with loyalty and tenacity worthy of the original movie's Kyle Reese while riding an emotional story arc of her own. Screenwriters David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray spend less time fleshing out Dani, though they set her up for bigger things should there be another sequel.
While the character dynamics grow livelier as the film goes on, the action sequences — and there are many — never reach the heights of the opening factory brawl and car chase. With the copious effects needed for the creation of the Rev-9, there's a weightlessness to much of the fisticuffs that lessens their impact.
But the movie gets enough right that it feels like it belongs in this franchise, which is a compliment and something you couldn't say about the three previous installments.
Rated R for violence throughout, language and brief nudity. 128 minutes.
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