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Terminator: Dark Fate Movie Review

Aye, Robot

If you liked 1992's "Terminator 2: Judgement Day," good news: you're gonna love 2019's "Terminator: Dark Fate," because it's pretty much the same movie. But saying so might be a case of praising with faint damns, because while this latest entry in the near-indestructible "Terminator" franchise calls back hard and often to its blockbuster predecessor, it plays like a satisfying homecoming rather than a pale derivative. "T2" was a peak accomplishment, ably blending rollicking action with well-earned sentiment - not to mention director James Cameron giving his own "Aliens" a run for its money as "best franchise sequel ever" - and "Dark Fate" does well in borrowing its DNA.

The overarching "Terminator" mythology concerns Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, Chuck), who in the original film learns that she will give birth to a son, John, who will someday save the human race from sentient machines bent on its extermination. To prevent this, a relentless, indestructible mechanical assassin dubbed the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger, "Maggie") is sent back in time to kill her. Some clever plotting driven by strong audience attachment to the character brought the Terminator back as a good guy in the first sequel, and "Dark Fate" continues along this track.


Ms. Hamilton and Mr. Schwarzenegger reprise their franchise roles in "Dark Fate, reuniting as leads for the first time since "T2." The movie makes us wait a while for their initial face-to-face moment, and the buildup pays off beautifully. But first we meet Dani (Natalia Reyes, "Birds of Passage"), who serves as "Dark Fate's" John Connor: she's a young woman who's unaware of the huge role she will play in the future, but the future is aware of her, and a Terminator has been sent back to wipe her out and alter the timeline. Also hailing from the future is Grace (Mackenzie Davis, "Blade Runner 2049"), an "enhanced" human whose augmented strength, speed, and senses make her a formidable match for a Terminator, but also come with a few considerable shortcomings.

Gabriel Luna (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) plays the latest iteration of a Terminator, one that incorporates several alarming technological developments, including the unit endoskeleton's ability to split off from its human "shell" and act independently. This of course immediately doubles its threat level as an adversary, while also exponentially increasing the possibilities for cool fight choreography. Mr. Luna is a worthy successor to Robert Patrick's T-1000 from "T2" - he has the same compact frame and imperturbable mien that appears innocuous but nonetheless telegraphs a consistent sense of menace, and you absolutely believe that he will pursue his target relentlessly.

"Dark Fate" sets up its action along the same lines as "T2," and there is great pleasure in seeing the balance of the familiar story beats with the tossup of new characters settling into existing roles, and catching up on iconic characters first introduced 30-plus years ago. Ms. Hamilton's return as Sarah Connor is most welcome and anchors the story emotionally while tying it closely and genuinely to the "Terminator"/"T2" storyline. This requires a dash of retconning up front, but then, the whole series has generally lent itself to such shifts, while simultaneously hoping that viewers will wave off the timey wimey stuff. Where we pick up with Sarah is exactly where you'd expect her to be following the events of "T2," and Ms. Hamilton steps easily into the boots of this older, tougher, hard-bitten veteran, effectively conveying the impacts of a war that she seems to have been fighting solo for decades.

It would be spoiling to say much about Mr. Schwarzenegger's role here, except that writers David Goyer ("Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice"), Billy Ray ("Overlord"), and Justin Rhodes ("Grassroots"), working from a story by franchise progenitor Cameron, find a new spin for the Terminator - not an easy feat after five films. This take on the T-800 extends the franchise's exploration of identity, human nature, and emotional connections, while allowing space for Mr. Schwarzenegger's artfully dry delivery to play up the humorous contrast between what the Terminator was built for and where he ends up. (Drapes; I'm just going to say, drapes.)

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If you're looking for action, "Dark Fate" definitely delivers. The fight scenes boast a fluid choreography that is thrilling to watch, even as the havoc and destruction soar to inconceivable levels. BPBS's Joe Lozito observed in his "Terminator 3" review that "Terminators seem to have a knack for picking the largest possible vehicles to chase their prey," and this law is in full effect in the latest outing. Want to see a Humvee get pitched out of a gigantic airplane and parachute onto a hydroelectric dam? You will. Luckily, director Tim Miller, who made a splashy debut with 2016's "Deadpool," has a knack for staging large-scale action, and "Dark Fate's" showstopping setpieces brim with kinetic energy but always remain focused on moving the story forward.

"Terminator: Dark Fate" is a satisfying mix of spectacle and sentiment that effectively caps a story three decades in the telling while also setting up new chapters for the future. You can't go back in time and see "T2: Judgement Day" in the theater for the first time - well, unless you're actually a Terminator, and in that case you've probably got other things to do - but you can go see "Dark Fate" - and you should.


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