Following 2015’s ropey reboot Terminator Genisys – in which Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to the franchise, joined by Emilia Clarke – team Terminator has gone back to the circuit board. James Cameron, director of the first two hit movies, has been tempted back as producer and is credited with co-devising a story that’s meant to be a “direct sequel” to 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Original Sarah Connor actress Linda Hamilton is back in the fold too, and the three movies and short-lived TV series made without them have been waved off as occurring in “alternate timelines”. Yes, it’s all kind of shameless, but the results, nimbly directed by Deadpool’s Tim Miller, are so satisfying that you probably won’t care.
After a brief but key flashback sequence featuring digitally de-aged versions of Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, Edward Furlong’s Thomas Connor and Schwarzenegger’s T-800, the action proper begins in Mexico City. Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) is a seemingly ordinary young woman living with her brother and father whose workday is interrupted by a shockingly violent visit from a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna, suitably cyborg-like) – an advanced Terminator sent from the future to destroy her. Grace (Mackenzie Davis, from Black Mirror episode ‘San Junipero’), a self-described “augmented human” with enormous strength and heightened senses, has also been sent from the future to protect Dani at any cost. Before Dani can even begin to process what’s happening to her, Hamilton’s Sarah Connor has also turned up, without warning or introduction, to fend off the formidable Rev-9.
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It would be a shame to spoil what happens next, but Sarah’s initial presumption that Dani is exactly like her – a woman targeted by a malignant AI system from the future because she’ll eventually give birth to the man who saves the human race – isn’t quite right. Grace, Sarah and Dani struggle to shake off the Rev-9 by themselves, mainly because it can’t be obliterated by firepower alone, so they seek help from Schwarzenegger’s T-800, now masquerading as a normal human-being whose wife and adopted son haven’t realised he’s a 400lb machine. Schwarzenegger brings every ounce of his iconic heft to the role and delivers some crowd-pleasing deadpan zingers. But at its core, Terminator: Dark Fate is a story about three female protagonists: increasingly gutsy Dani, single-minded Grace, and belligerent Sarah, who’s portrayed brilliantly by a grizzled and embittered Hamilton, beaten-down by everything that’s happened to her over the years.
Along the way, Miller delivers some savage action sequences including a gut-churning early car chase, but it’s the compelling characters and ever-present tension that make this sequel really fly. One hinted-at final act showdown doesn’t quite happen, which could be interpreted as cleverly ambiguous or a bit of a fudge, but it’s not anticlimactic enough to spoil the closing scenes. This “direct sequel” to Terminator 2: Judgement Day is a surprising and rousing return to form. Dare we say it, you’ll be back for more.
Terminator: Dark Fate arrives in cinemas on October 23