In 1984, an unsuspecting young woman going about her ordinary day was ambushed by a strange phenomenon—an encounter with a technological object, neither quite human nor fully machine, that seemed to have arrived from the future bearing an urgent message for the present. 35 years later, the girl has become a middle-aged woman, and though the intervening years have seen high points (1991’s nimble-footed and politically astute Terminator 2) and low (2009’s turgid and muddled Terminator: Salvation), it’s fair to say the effects of that first encounter have never really gone away.
That account applies to Sarah Connor, the character played by Linda Hamilton in the first two Terminator movies and who reappears, for the first time in nearly 30 years, in Tim Miller’s new installment, Terminator: Dark Fate. But as it happens it also describes me, an initially teenage fan who thrilled to the visual novelty and pop-cultural freshness of the first Terminator (can you imagine The Terminator ever feeling fresh?), marveled a few years later at the cutting-edge special effects and sharp social satire of the sequel (that molten-silver villain! Those parallels to real-world police brutality!), and lost any real interest in the series as soon as Hamilton left it. Three decades later, I find myself a grizzled and jaded film critic, the veteran of more bad Terminator sequels (not to speak of the products of other apocalypse-fetishizing franchises) than Sarah Connor herself ever had to endure. Sure, she now carries an ammo bandolier and a truck full of battle-grade weapons while I wield a spill-proof laptop case with a Totoro sticker on it, but on some level we’re the same, Sarah and I. We’re stronger than we were then, but also more wary, and especially now that the end times are unfolding all around us in plain sight, it’s going to take more to win our trust than another round of the by now rusty catchphrase “come with me if you want to live.”
The original creator of the Terminator story, James Cameron, who returns here as a producer and co-writer, has given viewers permission to wipe our memories clean of the three unbeloved intervening sequels, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, the aforementioned Terminator: Salvation, and Terminator: Genisys. Dark Fate takes the franchise’s world-building back to where it was at the end of T2, when Sarah Connor and her teenage son John, with the help of the ruthless cyberassassin turned loyal robo-friend played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, had just successfully averted the future takeover of the planet by a sentient network of machines called Skynet. In an opening flashback, we witness a tragic coda to the events of the last movie, then fast-forward to 22 years later in Mexico City. Once more, innocent people are going about their days when a naked emissary from the future suddenly descends in a floating blue orb.
But this time the time-traveling interloper is a technologically augmented human named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) assigned to protect a young factory worker named Dani (Natalia Reyes). Protect her from what? That becomes clear soon after, when a second orb descends containing a state-of-the-art terminating machine, the Rev-9 (played, in its human-appearing guise, by Gabriel Luna). Like the liquid-mercury being embodied by Robert Patrick in T2, the Rev-9 is capable of impersonating various human forms, but its neatest trick is the knack of forming the oozing black substance from which it’s made into sharp weapon-like limbs: Picture sword-shaped arms made of what looks like licorice-flavored hard candy. Later, the Rev-9 will also demonstrate an ability to separate from its own metallic skeleton and fight as two separate villains in one.
After an exhaustingly long car chase, the ferocious but overmatched Grace is joined by another woman bent on keeping Dani from harm: the much-missed Sarah Connor, now gray of hair, grim of expression, and armed with a rocket launcher. It is great to see Hamilton in the role again—at my screening, her initial appearance was greeted with scattered applause—but the movie relies too heavily on the nostalgic goodwill that she, and later a salt-and-pepper–bearded Arnold Schwarzenegger, are able to generate just by being themselves.
Sarah makes occasional gloomy references to what her life for the last 22 years has been like: “I hunt Terminators and I drink till I pass out,” she tersely informs her new partners in death-avoidance. But we never get a glimpse of what that bleak day-to-day existence might look like outside of the hunting part. The closest thing Sarah has to a personality trait is that, out of paranoia of being surveilled, she carries her cellphone in a potato chip bag. I’m not asking for long soliloquies about her inner life, but if this movie wants to claim the feminist cred it seems to be expecting a pat on the back for, shouldn’t the heroine’s long-awaited return include more than a hint or two about how what she’s gone through has affected who she’s become?
No matter; the real point of all the first act’s orb-floating, car-chasing, and licorice-arm-sword-slashing action is to get us to the door of the original T-man himself, who shows up well into the first half, living a low-profile existence whose details I won’t spoil. Schwarzenegger, who’s lived a lifetime in the public eye since his early Terminating days, has relaxed into his status as a combination action hero, retired politician, and running pop-cultural joke. His presence provides a lightness the rest of the movie strives for in vain, and his scenes with Hamilton (whose character, for reasons I also won’t spoil, now hates him) have a crackle that derives not from the actual (weak) dialogue they’re given, but from the connection they and we recall from earlier, better installments of the franchise.
Mackenzie Davis, who played an uber-competent fantasy babysitter in last year’s domestic drama Tully, here displays other, less nurturing talents, namely the cyber-enhanced ability to turn her willowy-yet-ripped frame into a ruthless battle weapon. The transformation of the designated Terminator-killer into a young woman could have been a way for the franchise to rethink its aims and its audience, just as the choice to make the person she’s protecting a woman of color (and a Mexican who, at one point, attempts to cross the border without documents) could have had real political resonance. Instead, though it gestures near the beginning at a storyline about the loss of factory jobs to mechanization, Terminator: Dark Fate seems uninterested in questions of technology, dystopia, gender, race, or even the logic puzzles of time travel. It’s all about the wham-bam with barely a thank you to the three ma’ams at its center. (Reyes, as a victim who’s essentially tied to the railroad tracks in scene after scene, plays the most thankless role of all.)
By way of christening this $150 million franchise battleship, the familiar Ah-nold catchphrase “I’ll be back” is returned to on two separate occasions. One of the characters speaking it says the famous line verbatim; the other puts the promise into the negative, making it clear that if their brusque instructions aren’t heeded this time around, they’ll be blowing this time-traveling taco stand for good. Which one of the two characters is right may be decided by this weekend’s box-office receipts. Speaking for myself, I’m fine with the concept of terminating The Terminator—and there’s no need to blue-orb back any more augmented hitmen or -women to do it.