When the Terminator warned “I’ll be back” 35 years ago, no one could have foreseen how true that catchphrase would become. Even so, “Terminator: Dark Fate” represents a welcome return to the its origins, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton reprising their roles, adding nostalgia and mythological heft that separates it from everything that has followed “Judgment Day.”
One blessing of the Terminator movies, creatively speaking, has also been a kind of curse — namely, that once you’ve established you can mess around with the timeline and potentially “save” the future, there are all sorts of opportunities to rinse and repeat the formula.
So while “Dark Fate” features some new models, the basic template remains very much the same, in a movie that counts original writer-director James Cameron as not only a producer but among the six writers credited with the story and script, directed — without much unnecessary flesh draped over the metallic shell — by Tim Miller (“Deadpool”).
Granted, the movie does incorporate welcome new blood, with another young woman, Dani (Natalia Reyes), now the target of a terminator (Gabriel Luna) who combines the shape-shifting qualities of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” — a staggering technical breakthrough at the time — with an almost “Venom”-like production design.
The intent was to position “Dark Fate” as a direct sequel to the first two films, ignoring the three additional sequels (and actually pretty good Fox TV series) that rolled off the assembly line in between.
Sent to protect Dani, meanwhile, is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an “enhanced” human, demonstrating that the killing machines aren’t the only ones capable of receiving an upgrade.
Dani thus finds herself in much the same predicament faced by Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, who is even more battle-hardened and cranky, if that’s possible, than she was in “Judgment Day.” After one of the great entrances in recent memory, Sarah joins in Dani’s defense, and the writers find a pretty ingenious way to bring an age-appropriate Schwarzenegger back into the mix, offering welcome dollops of humor courtesy of the interplay between the movie’s senior contingent.
Of course, the indestructible nature of the Terminators — never more so than this time around — and inevitable desire to keep upping the ante result in the movie going a couple of action sequences too far, straining plausibility and sheer gravity to their breaking points. More, in this case, becomes a bit less by the time the shooting’s over.
Nevertheless, the pleasures of a Terminator movie don’t really come from sweating the details, which have been a little head-spinning, frankly, ever since a guy from the future sired a kid who would later be the linchpin of saving humanity.
As noted, there has been a whole lot of mileage since then, as Terminators have changed looks, genders and capabilities, but the basic programming — a near-unstoppable killer that won’t deviate from its single-minded purpose until the job is done — never goes out of style.
“Dark Fate” earns its favorable judgment by cleverly and effectively adding to that legacy. The only drawback is that accomplishment merely makes it more likely that in one form or another, sooner or later, yep, they’ll be back.
“Terminator: Dark Fate” premieres Nov. 1 in the US. It’s rated R.