For decades, The Terminator has been thought of as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s franchise. He’s the guy who appears in five out of the six movies to date — and the sixth one was so desperate to include him even though he was Governor of California at the time that they made a CGI Ahhnuld who could fight Christian Bale. What Terminator: Dark Fate makes clear is that while the Terminator may be Schwarzenegger’s signature role, he wasn’t the key ingredient that made these movies really work. It was Linda Hamilton.

Dark Fate features Hamilton’s return to the series after a 28-year absence and it’s no coincidence that it is also the best Terminator movie since Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Her, character, Sarah Connor, was killed off-screen (supposedly by a heart attack), before the events of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Dark Fate ignores that film and the sequels that followed and instead imagines an alternate timeline — this is Terminator, a franchise built on the concept of alternate timelines, so that’s not a hard pill to swallow — where Sarah survived, and kept fighting to prevent the future war that she’s been obsessed with since the 1980s.

Terminator 2 showed us what a couple years of paranoia and preparation could do to a person, as its Sarah metamorphosed from meek diner waitress into hardened warrior. You can imagine what a couple decades have done to Sarah. She’s even more angry, even more suspicious of others, and even more salty. She makes an absolutely killer entrance into the picture, easily dispatching a Terminator that has given the rest of the cast fits for 20 minutes. Right before she goes to check and make sure the thing is dead once and for all, she dryly remarks “I’ll be back.” The message couldn’t be clearer: Sarah Connor is the focus this time around — and it’s time everyone recognized she’s the coolest and most interesting character in this franchise.

Paramount

In fact, Sarah Connor getting sidelined by her own franchise is one of Dark Fate’s subtextual elements, because the film, directed by Tim Miller from a script by a fleet of screenwriters including franchise creator James Cameron, is sort of a remake of the original Terminator with some new characters. It’s the year 2020, and Judgment Day — the fated nuclear war between mankind and machines — has never come to pass. But the future is still sending robots back to the present to wipe out threats to its eventual domination. This time, their target is a young woman named Dani (Natalia Reyes). She lives a quiet life, working in a Mexican auto factory with her brother Miguel (Diego Boneta), but for some reason a new liquid metal Terminator (played by an icy Gabriel Luna) arrives from 2042 intent on murdering her.

Dani’s survival rests in the hands of Sarah Connor and another fighter from the future, this one sent to protect her. In previous films, the heroic soldiers sent back through time were humans like Kyle Reese or reprogrammed Terminators like Arnold’s T-800 from Terminators 2 and 3. Mackenzie Davis’ Grace is a bit of both. She insists she’s human, but she’s also “augmented” with all kinds of biomechanical upgrades that allow her to go toe-to-toe with Luna’s “Rev9” Terminator. And while he’s very much in a supporting role this time, Schwarzenegger’s O.G. Robot (Cyberdyne Model 101, he reminds us) is on hand as well as another element of this elaborate game of multidimensional (and multitemporal) chess.

Schwarzenegger is always memorable in these Terminator movies, and his new cyborg adds some entertaining new twists to his typical deadpan schtick. It’s clear from the beginning, though, that Dark Fate belongs to his female co-stars, particularly Davis and Hamilton, each kicking an impressive amount of robotic ass while bringing significantly more passion and intensity than one might expect from the fifth sequel in a long-running franchise with a so-so-reputation. Hamilton, who’s been out of the spotlight for most of this decade, is going to surprise people with the amount of power and melancholy she delivers. This is not a cash-in gig for her.

Paramount

Tim Miller isn’t James Cameron, but he’s a solid hand behind the camera. Dark Fate’s chases and fights sequences are mostly skillful and thrilling, with a lot of elaborate slo-mo shots (probably because the Terminators move so fast, our puny human eyes would not be able to follow the action otherwise). To Miller’s credit, he also got these impressive performances out of Hamilton, Schwarzenegger, and Davis; there were times when I was actually a little bummed out when another shootout would erupt because I was having so much fun watching Sarah Connor banter with the Terminator. The best Terminators are about the characters and the pyrotechnics in near-equal measure, and Dark Fate balances those two sides fairly well, at least until the final act. (The score by JunkieXL, featuring the original Terminator theme by Brad Fiedel, is nicely attuned to both of those halves.)

I can (and have) defended each of the later Terminator sequels, but there’s no question Dark Fate is the best of the bunch. In the first two films, Judgment Day was supposed to occur way back in 1997. Generating dread out of an apocalypse that’s 20 years behind schedule is no easy feat, but Miller, Cameron, and their writers come up with a very plausible explanation for the Terminators’ return, one that’s rooted in the timely suspicion that even if we’ve averted robotic doom until now, society can only teeter on the brink of extinction for so long before it topples over completely. At least until then we’ve got Linda Hamilton back.

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