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Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)::rating::3.5::rating::3.5

The first two Terminator films stand as beloved artifacts of my childhood.  Edgy, angry, and propulsive, they were gritty sci-fi alternatives to the giddiness of Star Wars.  After T2, series brainchild James Cameron stepped away, and all the air went squealing out of the balloon.  Sequels continued to dribble out, all of them distinguished by varying degrees of suckiness.  The innovation and swagger of the earlier films was replaced by cheap one-liners and ham-fisted plot construction.

With Terminator: Dark Fate, Cameron returns to the fold, as producer and co-writer.  He brings with him the magic wand of retroactive continuity:  Remember all those crappy movies?  They never happened.  Or, more accurately, they’ve been broomed to an alternate universe–along with X-Men 3, several Halloween movies, and all eight seasons of Newhart.  Fate is a follow-up to T1 and T2 only, and it will go to great lengths to remind you of that.

The story begins in the halcyon days of the late 90s.  Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and son John (Edward Furlong) have successfully saved the past from the future.  Or, the future from the past.  Or–god damn it, whatever.  Anyway, they’ve prevented the rise of the machines, but several Terminators still prowl the countryside, like mechanical ronin.  (Skip to the next paragraph to avoid a spoiler right…NOW!)  One of these killers catches up to our heroes, and kills John.  It’s pretty startling to see this iconic character–the literal linchpin of the entire franchise–dispatched in such quick, flippant fashion.  I spent the rest of the movie internally debating whether this was lazy, stupid, or admirably brave.  Final answer:  Somehow, someway, it’s all of the above.

Jump ahead to the present day, and two more assassins emerge from their time-traveling cocoons.  The Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) is a hybrid of both villains from the first two films:  He has the indestructible skeleton of the T1 baddie tucked into the mimetic liquid metal monster from T2.  When the going gets rough, the Rev-9 can split these two bodies and do battle on two fronts.  (Side note:  Rev-9 sounds like a Toyota SUV that needs more legroom.)  Rev’s overmatched opponent:  Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a human soldier tweaked with cybernetic enhancements.

RAV4 and Grace race for Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), another young woman meant to hoist humanity out of the rubble.  Rev seeks to slice up Dani like a Salad Shooter™.  Grace vows to protect her at all costs.  During their initial cyber-scuffle, Sarah inserts herself into the fray.  Calloused and bitter, Sarah has dedicated her life to thrashing Terminators.  Sarah and Grace form a shaky alliance to keep Dani alive.  Along this journey, they must turn to an iconic frenemy for help.  (Those who’ve seen the trailers can probably figure it out, but I still won’t spoil it.)

Now, let’s start with the good news:  Dark Fate hits a lot of the same high notes as previous installments.  The action scenes are well-staged and epic in ambition.  We get the usual car chases and melee brawls, but also a massive, gravity-defying set piece on a crashing cargo plane.  The new performers imbue their characters with shades of humanity and vulnerability.  Reyes has the same combo of pluck and naïveté that Hamilton brought to T1.  Davis is a standout as a ferocious warrior who’s both blessed and cursed with empathy and sympathy.  While those two are outstanding, this movie belongs to Hamilton, as the broken badass with one more war to fight.  Her performance anchors the film.

Now, the bad news.  And this is gonna sound strange:  Dark Fate hits a lot of the same high notes as previous installments.  The script trips all over itself with nostalgia for the first two films.  We get winking references to classic one-liners, action beats that mimic previous installments, and even cues on the soundtrack that evoke familiar tracks on T2.  Some of this is to be expected with any movie sequel, but Dark Fate goes completely over the top.  All of this combines to remind the viewer just how great those original films were.

Despite its missteps, Dark Fate makes for a pretty satisfying experience.  T2 tied things up so well, it was difficult to imagine where any narrative could’ve gone from there.  Successive movies answered that by sinking and spinning, like a tire in deep mud.  This is probably as good of a third movie as fans of the series could ever expect.  It has big, pile-driving action and characters worth rooting for. Films like this are kinda like pizza:  Even when they’re not the best, they’re still pretty damn good.

128 min.  R.

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