The latest attempt to recapture the magic in the Terminator franchise has some radical ideas and mediocre execution. This puts it above the other failed attempts to keep this franchise alive, but that's not saying much. It's got a lot more in common with the dystopian vision of Elysium than the rest of the series. But still, this is mostly the same thing we've seen time and time again.
A major point in the film's favor is the reintroduction of Linda Hamilton. She's been absent since 1991's Judgment Day, but her presence here is strong. She's given a lot more to do than Jamie Lee Curtis was in last year's Halloween sequel, which similarly tried to deal with grief and trauma while ultimately settling that for some decent slasher action. Even though she may have helped shut down Skynet, she's still in the business of hunting Terminators when they show up.
The latest model is the Rev 9 (Gabriel Luna) can melt and rebuild himself at will and even split in two for double the carnage. He's been sent back in time to kill Dani (Natalia Reyes), a worker at a car factory in Mexico. Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is also sent back to protect her, and she's almost as good as Terminator, infused with some scientific nonsense that makes her stronger, faster and better equipped to fight the machines.
Tim Miller, who directed the first Deadpool, has an eye for a good chase scene or action throwdown. But none of it is that memorable, and its heavy reliance on CGI makes the first two films' mix of practical and computer-aided effects look even better. Where the film really stands out is in its plotting. Few major movies focus on women, let alone an action movie, let alone one where three women are the definite leads, doing most of the action and giving them at least some characterization.
But the middle section of the film is among the most radical things I've seen in a blockbuster. Dani, an undocumented immigrant, is smuggled into the U.S. and immediately apprehended by ICE. Stuck in a detention center where the conditions are poor and the guards even joke about cages, she's a sitting duck for the new Terminator. In his human form, he appears Latino, but switches into a good ol' boy dialect when talking with other guards and cops on his way to complete his mission. In the midst of the chaos as he chops his way through the mass of people, Grace frees all the other detainees. Part of this is to help protect Grace, but the movie appears to present this liberation as a good thing.
It's too bad the movie doesn't follow through on more ideas like this, falling back on things it knows the audience will love, like seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger again. I will say its attempts at girl power are better here than the lip service in something like Avengers: Endgame, but it would have rung a little more true without Arnold here. It's less convincing when it comes to the humanity-within-the-machine stuff, as evidenced by such clunky lines as "So you grew a conscience?" and "Do you love her?" "Not in the way a human does."
Terminator: Dark Fate is passably entertaining, but could have been much more. That makes four whiffs in a row. Maybe some day James Cameron will stop making Avatar sequels people don't want and make a Terminator sequel that people actually do.