A dusty SUV screeches to a stop on a wreckage-strewn highway and out steps Linda Hamilton, aka Sarah Connor, looking like 25 miles of bad road, her face deeply seamed, her eyes baleful and glaring. She raises a rocket launcher and lets fly. KABOOM!
And right there, right then, it’s a true “Terminator” movie.
Accept no substitutes.
Let us here acknowledge that the three previous “Terminators” — 2003’s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” 2009’s “Terminator Salvation” and 2015’s “Terminator Genisys” — were forgettable missteps. Certainly James Cameron, the originator of the franchise, would just as soon they be forgotten.
He relinquished control of the franchise after 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” arguably the apex “Terminator” — though certainly a case can be made for “The Terminator,” the little low-budget movie that blew people’s minds in 1984 and redefined action pictures with its galvanic pacing, sleek visuals, imaginative story line and compelling performances.
With “Terminator: Dark Fate,” Cameron has returned to first principles. It’s a direct sequel to “Judgment Day,” making no reference to the intervening pictures and their tortured reimaginings of the series’ iconic characters and relationships.
Hamilton steps back into the role of Sarah for the first time since “Judgment Day” and instantly becomes the heart and soul of the movie. Weathered, sinewy and with a voice that’s a graveled croak, she enters the story to save the bacon of Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a self-described “enhanced” warrior from the future sent back in time to protect a teenager named Dani (Natalia Reyes) in the manner that Kyle Reese came back to save Sarah herself in 1984’s “The Terminator.”
Dani, we’re told, will be key to the survival of mankind in the post-apocalyptic future and is therefore the target of a new and “enhanced” super-duper Terminator called Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna, blank-faced throughout).
Got all that? This time-travel stuff and its attendant alterations in story timelines can get pretty tricky. Toward that end, Cameron — who shares story credit with four other writers — keeps the focus on the three main women, thereby turning the picture into a tale of female empowerment. It’s them against the world, with law enforcement after them as well as Rev-9.
Hamilton’s Sarah embodies weariness and rage — weariness because she’s been battling a series of Terminators over the years since “Judgment Day” and rage because, well, she’s sick of fighting to save humanity while breaking a lot of laws to do so. (She reveals she’s wanted by the authorities in all 50 states.)
Davis’ Grace, lithe and lethal, is as tough-minded as Sarah, but not as cynical. Reyes’ Dani at first functions as the picture’s scream queen, but over time she develops a courage that becomes a key reason why her character is so pivotal to saving the future.
Entering rather late is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yes, he’s back, with a beard — although it’s Hamilton who utters the series’ signature “I’ll be back” line, a knowing and funny salute to the franchise’s legacy.
Arnie, oddly, supplies a significant amount of humor here. His Terminator has developed a kinder, gentler side over the years, asserting “I’m a very good listener and I’m extremely funny.” Well, maybe not “extremely,” but yeah, he actually is.
The other obvious link that connects “Dark Fate” back to the original two “Terminators” is the over-the-top, virtually nonstop series of action sequences. Under the direction of Tim Miller (“Deadpool”), they’re very well-staged, but in a sense they fall victim to the series’ history. “Terminator”-style action beats have been adopted by virtually every major action picture made in the years since the ’90s. So try as it might, and it certainly tries hard, there’s not much new here. We’ve seen it all before.
★★★ “Terminator: Dark Fate,” with Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna. Directed by Tim Miller, from a screenplay by David Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray, based on a story by James Cameron, Charles H. Eglee, Josh Friedman, Goyer and Rhodes. 128 minutes. Rated R for violence throughout, language and brief nudity. Opens Nov. 1 at multiple theaters.