It's strangely comforting to see the end of the world looming once more in "Terminator: Dark Fate." You can already guess how it begins: Out of the nighttime shadows emerges a sentient slab of metal and muscle, a butt-baring, ass-kicking emissary from the future that will not rest until its deadly mission is complete, and probably not even then. By now, there is something curiously quaint, even comforting, about this menacing opener, which kicked off James Cameron's original "Terminator" 35 years ago and has remained a visual mainstay of its four highly variable sequels.
Maybe it's because the world seems so much more complicated and terrifying now than it did in 1984, but surely there are darker fates that might await us than one in which the machines have taken over. (The machines are smart; they probably solved climate change.) If anything, the fact that our evil A.I. overlords keep attempting variations on the same time-traveling assassination plot is less terrifying than reassuring — a reminder that our foolish, vainglorious species can nonetheless be awfully hard to kill.
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So too are certain studio blockbuster franchises, especially when time travel is involved: Unbound by the dictates of narrative logic, even a flailing action-movie cycle can rewrite and regenerate itself in perpetuity. Directed by Tim Miller ("Deadpool"), "Dark Fate" is a good-enough hybrid of fiery nonsense, fan gratification and pop-savvy series regeneration that wisely erases, or at least neutralizes, a lot of forgettable recent history. The last three sequels — "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" (2003), "Terminator: Salvation" (2009) and "Terminator: Genisys" (2015) — have effectively been written out of existence, relegated to the ash heap of alternate-timeline history.
The new movie bills itself as a direct sequel to 1991's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," a designation that the marketing executives at Paramount are no doubt hoping you will interpret as a return to form as well as basics. And up to a point, it is. This is the first time in 28 years that we've seen Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator shooting the breeze (among other targets) with Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor, and their long-overdue reunion is an inescapably poignant one, deepened by the passage of time and charged with undercurrents of rage, bitterness and crusty humor.
It's also the first picture since "Judgment Day" to reunite the "Terminator" mythology with its creator, Cameron, who is given producing and story credits here, and whose lean, none-too-taxing approach to narrative clearly informs the screenplay by David Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray. (The writers have also done a fine, presumably intentional job of replicating Cameron's flair for memorably tin-eared dialogue.) Miller, like most directors, isn't remotely in Cameron's league as a maestro of action technique. But he gives the visual-effects-encrusted combat scenes a nicely visceral intensity, with just the right ratio of spatial coherence to logistical chaos.
But "Terminator: Dark Fate" is more than just a trigger-happy trip down memory lane. Much of it takes place in Mexico, a shrewd and refreshing change of scenery, and its new faces are almost as diverting as the older ones. That time traveler from the future is Grace (Mackenzie Davis, intense and committed), an estimable human warrior with a cybernetically enhanced body and a mission not to kill but to protect. She drops into present-day Mexico City just in time to rescue a young woman named Dani Ramos (the excellent Colombian actress Natalia Reyes), who has no idea why she and her family are suddenly being targeted by a killer cyborg called a Rev-9.
The robot is played with chilling blankness by Gabriel Luna, a handsome shield for a skeletoid body whose obsidian-colored guts keep splitting apart and oozing back together, like salt-water taffy from hell. One warehouse brawl, several multi-car pileups and a few horrific casualties later, Grace and Dani have just managed to outrun their pursuer with a crucial assist from Sarah Connor, who enters the movie with her signature growl, a mouthful of expletives and a rocket launcher at the ready. Her son, John, the series' longtime messianic linchpin, is nowhere to be seen, and Sarah now lives off the grid, making it her lifelong mission to kill every Terminator that crosses her path. That determination will, of course, eventually lead her to cross paths again with her old Austrian-accented frenemy, which is when things really get cooking.
The particulars of their reunion are best left vague here, my way with exposition being no less clunky than the movie's. But it's worth noting that in a year even more overrun than usual with tacked-on Hollywood sequels, there is something about the sight of these two extraordinary faces — Schwarzenegger's graying, deadpan mug opposite Hamilton's sharply furrowed scowl — that sends a tremor of pleasure through the pop-cultural firmament. Their dynamics reminded me, at least early on, of the most recent reincarnation of "Halloween," if you can imagine Hamilton playing an armed and traumatized Laurie Strode to Schwarzenegger's deathless, expressionless Michael Myers. A therapy session between these two would furnish an interesting enough feature on its own.
But for the most part, the psychodrama is limited to a few angry glares, snarled threats and exquisitely Schwarzeneggerian wisecracks. (Analyzing his newfound capacity for human interaction, the Terminator observes, "I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny" — and who can argue?) There's no time to linger on the past anyway, given the proximity of the future — and by future, I mean more than just the movie's looming techno-apocalypse. Like a lot of recent Hollywood franchise extensions, this one views the entertainment industry's ongoing push for gender parity and racial equity as less a restriction than an opportunity, a chance to reenergize an old formula with fresh ingredients.
It's fun to watch Schwarzenegger play backup to three formidable women — each one hailing from a different "Terminator" time frame, and one of them a Latina who represents the gravest possible threat to our fascist future. It's also refreshing to see the series engage in a bit of self-critique, establishing that Dani is powerful — and interesting — for reasons that go beyond what might someday issue forth from her womb. In time, the action shifts to a train carrying Mexican sojourners toward the border with Texas, with a crucial stopover at a detention center where Grace pointedly identifies her fellow detainees as "prisoners" — and then does precisely what a hero would do in that particular situation.
I don't mean to oversell the political subversiveness of "Terminator: Dark Fate," whose real-world reference points are nothing if not calculated — which doesn't, of course, make them any less meaningful or sincere. Sometimes it doesn't take much to revitalize a dead intellectual property. Sometimes all it takes is a movie in which "Hasta la vista, baby" isn't the extent of the characters' Spanish.