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For better and worse, Terminator: Dark Fate is a throwback for the franchise

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It simplifies down to basics and brings back the old stars for a new run

Photo by Kerry Brown / Paramount Pictures

The Terminator franchise has always had a fundamental problem: past the hit film that kicked off the story, nothing that happened in the series really mattered. The timeline got complicated, screenwriters monkeyed with the story mechanics, directors brought new special effects into the battle to keep the action fresh. And yet every Terminator story basically assumed the same thing: that a sentient, murderous AI called Skynet would rise, design a series of powerful kill-bots called Terminators, largely wipe out the human race, then send Terminators back in time to kill off anyone who might have a prominent part in resisting the genocide.

Every movie or TV episode in the series was a desperate battle for survival, but because of the perceived demand for sequels, that survival never seemed to change anything for anyone — not for the human race, which was still doomed, and not for Skynet, which never learned to mix up its strategies a little in the interest of maybe winning a fight for once.

Arguably, Skynet’s relentless dedication to trying the same plan over and over, no matter how often it failed, was a feature rather than a bug. From the beginning, with 1984’s The Terminator, the series was primarily about one thing: the merciless, pyrrhic single-mindedness a machine soldier could bring to its missions. Terminators chasing humans throughout the franchise lost limbs, had their skin torn or burned off, and eventually got cantaloupe-sized holes blown in their heads every few scenes, but they still kept implacably coming.

The franchise has followed the same principle: no matter what the protagonists do to fight the future, Skynet keeps rising, and Terminators keep traveling back in time on murder missions. The first movie made it seem like it was possible to win against a Terminator and against fate. But the relentless pileup of sequels made it clear that the fight was never anything more than an exhausting delaying action, and the best humanity could hope for was to keep a few key personnel alive long enough to ensure humanity would only mostly die off.

At first blush, the new Terminator: Dark Fate seems like an actual step forward for the human race. This film is a direct sequel to 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and it dismisses 2003’s Terminator 3, 2009’s Terminator Salvation, 2015’s Terminator Genisys, and the 2008 television series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles as alternate-timeline stories, all successfully prevented by freedom fighters Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton in Terminator and T2) and her son John. At the end of T2, Sarah and John seemed to have changed the timeline in a way that would prevent the rise of Skynet and avert global Armageddon. The sequels suggested otherwise, but now, Deadpool director Tim Miller and a team of six writers (including Cameron with a story credit) are rebooting to suggest that the Connors did at least have some worthwhile effect on the future.

Photo by Kerry Brown / Paramount Pictures

The problem is that this new future leads to the exact same place as the old one. Skynet doesn’t emerge, but in its place is a different AI named Legion, which still develops Terminators and still sends them back in time to take out key resistance leaders. This time, the main target is Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a perfectly ordinary Mexican factory worker who’s understandably baffled when a shape-changing killer robot (played by Gabriel Luna) attacks her and her brother at work and a grim white woman named Grace (Mackenzie Davis) charges in to rescue them. Before long, Sarah Connor (Hamilton, emerging from semi-retirement at age 62) joins the fight, and they all wind up on the run together.

Dark Fate’s creative team certainly hit on the most crowd-pleasing, nostalgia-courting gambit with this installment in the franchise. By bringing back Hamilton, clumsily reintegrating original Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger, and peppering the script with “I’ll be back” jokes and other references, they’re courting original viewers and encouraging them to bring their kids into the franchise fold. They also mostly focus on action rather than exposition, which keeps the story moving briskly. But in the process, they lose a lot of opportunity to consider what the Terminator franchise means or to give this installment any sort of unique flavor.

Most notably, they take the time to clarify that Armageddon has been delayed and that Legion, which came later, isn’t Skynet. But they don’t bother to make one distant human-hating AI distinctive from the other. There’s no sense of motive or meaning for Legion or even a hint of who created it, beyond “the military.” Both it and the latest pursing Terminator are entirely generic enemies, vaguely ginned-up tech threats meant to enable a long string of car chases, gunfights, and explosions.

Photo by Kerry Brown / Paramount Pictures

What flavor Dark Fate has mostly come from its casting and setting. Certainly, it’s a new twist to have Latinx characters take such a prominent role in the film and to focus on a mostly female central cast. Grace, Sarah, and Dani each represent different brands of feminine toughness: Grace is a military vet with a tough, self-sacrificing mindset, while Sarah is a world-weary, seen-it-all smartass who’s turned trauma into an aggressive cynicism she wears like ablative armor. Dani, initially the kind of naïve ingenue who has to be physically hauled out of every new battle because she’s frozen with grief or terror, rapidly grows a spine and a war-specific morality as she decides she isn’t willing to leave any more people behind to die, no matter the cost.

The other fresh aspect of Dark Fate is the latest Terminator model, which comes with some new tech options designed to make fights more unpredictable. Given the choice between Terminator’s rigid, weighty antagonist and T2’s sleek, fluid one, Dark Fate’s team says “Why not both?” Luna makes a surprisingly personable Terminator, not quite as soulful as Garret Dillahunt in Sarah Connor Chronicles, but certainly more charismatic and human than most of the people who’ve played the series’s killer robots. He’s also blandly terrifying in kill mode.

But by closely emulating past Terminator models, Miller and company run into the same major problem those films had: they can be extremely repetitive, with a glowering kill-machine charging across the screen as the protagonists blast it with everything they have, or flee through a series of increasingly improbable and dangerous scenarios. Dark Fate’s combat sequences vary. Some, like the factory fight and a nerve-wracking sequence in a Mexican-American border facility, are staged clearly and cleanly, with an emphasis on hand-to-hand action and the price of physical contact with a Terminator.

Photo by Kerry Brown / Paramount Pictures

Others are packed with CGI blurs and muddy action and are hard to follow in even the most basic “who’s where, and are they dead?” kind of way. And when Dark Fate does deign to explain what’s going on, it delivers its exposition in a self-important, hushed, clumsy way, as if audiences should be astonished by the most basic plot revelations. In particular, Dark Fate handles the question of why Dani is important to the future as if it’s a brilliant, ground-breaking twist, instead of the most obvious thing possible. The script’s self-important, back-patting, “Women can be warriors too!” attitude around that plot point matches very oddly with its frankness everywhere else about how Hamilton and Davis handle their fights.

But at least the human factor in Dark Fate is strong, probably the strongest this series has been since Sarah Connor Chronicles. Hamilton overplays the scenes where she drops her guard to talk about John’s fate and her response, but as a takes-no-guff heroine who treats everyone like a nuisance, she’s a pitch-perfect veteran action hero. And Davis aces the combination of human vulnerability and machine implacability that other, very conceptually different protector-types have brought to this series. Even Schwarzenegger, deliberately reverting to his ’80s lack of expressiveness, brings a kind of appealing dignity to his role.

And that dignity is important in a series that can feel like it’s endlessly, despairingly spinning its wheels, forcing its characters to fight the same wearying battle a thousand times over without making any progress. Dark Fate certainly makes it clear that the best they can currently hope for is to keep Dani alive a little longer while writing off the rest of humanity. Past Terminator movies — the ones now brutally retconned out of existence — varied the formula by moving into the future. Dark Fate, for better and worse, jumps back to the franchise’s heyday and tries to recapture the glory days. For the most part, it succeeds, but only for people who really enjoy seeing this same battle for stasis play out over and over again.