Look, Dark Fate is probably the best Terminator film we were going to get

James Cameron, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger all make a welcome franchise return in Terminator: Dark Fate

Cameron may not be directing but, with a bit of generous squinting, Dark Fate resembles Cameron’s first two Terminator films thanks to his involvement, writes Steve Newall.

In its opening minutes, Terminator: Dark Fate makes decisively clear that it’s continuing on from the narrative of Terminator 2, and ignoring the subsequent execrable sequels. To follow the advice of Mark Twain, let’s avoid using a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do—they were shitty. In fact, as this profanity-happy R-rated rewrite of franchise history might say, they were pretty fucking shitty.

A recent rewatch of T2 reaffirmed how masterful James Cameron’s filmmaking is, and how its sequels suffered without his involvement. After Cameron moved on from Terminator films, overly complex ideas were poorly conveyed in sequels, action scenes didn’t have his white-knuckle intensity, and the emotional punch of dealing with the knowledge of looming armageddon and an unstoppable killing machine he’d so ably captured was absent.

Cameron’s return to the Terminator universe—not directing, but as producer and with a ‘story by’ credit—lands Dark Fate on the right side of the ledger without completely overcoming the faults of its predecessors. While the film welcomely reunites Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, director Tim Miller (Deadpool) and a sprawling team of writers (five others are credited along with Cameron) can’t replicate the laser focus of the first two films in the series, even if it resembles them with a bit of generous squinting thanks to Cameron’s plotting.

The action-heavy ride explodes out of the gate with some familiar nods that come close to a T2 greatest hits in its opening 15 minutes. Introducing Dark Fate’s trio of newcomers—Dani (Natalia Reyes), targeted for assassination; Grace (Mackenzie Davis), her augmented time-traveling protector; and a shapeshifting Terminator in pursuit (Gabriel Luna)—it’s some of the most effectively-staged action of the film, and manages to distract from awaiting the re-appearance of old faves.

When Hamilton and Schwarzenegger do turn up, they both enjoy multiple crowd-pleasing moments. Hamilton seems to relish her turn as an older Sarah Connor, and she excels at getting the audience on her side, even if her performance leans towards over-the-top rather than 1991’s uncomfortably believable intensity. As for Arnie, well, enjoy finding out for yourself what a Terminator gets up to when left to its own devices for nearly three decades. He’s deadpan hilarious, and unsurprisingly slips right back into a machine physicality (even if he seems to be moving with a little more difficulty nowadays).

The devil’s in the details though, and under Miller’s direction, we’re subjected to a few more jumbled digital action sequences than is really necessary. Dark Fate also ends up lacking the consistency of the films it picks up the baton from, in everything from its plotting to emotional beats. But if the film has piqued your interest—even just in finding out what happened to Sarah Connor soon after T2 and the decades since and how exactly Schwarzenegger gets to turn up as a T-800 again—you’ll be pleasantly surprised by some, if perhaps not all, of what you find here.

Look, now that we’re six films into a series that had become a run of disappointments, this is probably the best Terminator film we were going to get, and it’s enjoyable enough with that in mind.