** SPOILERS **
The venerable science fiction series about villainous killer robots, Battlestar Galactica, has a saying: "All of this has happened before, all of it will happen again." This credo also applies to producer James Cameron and Deadpool director Tim Miller's Terminator: Dark Fate, which, if you were to ask them, is Terminator 3. What's that, you say? There already was a Terminator 3? Silly rabbit, there have been several Terminator 3s: in order of release, this includes the Universal Studios theme park ride Terminator 2 3D: Battle Across Time (which boasted the three stars of Terminator 2: Judgment Day in its cast), then 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, then 2008's TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Three separate timelines, three sequels to Terminator 2. Well, Terminator: Dark Fate says to throw them all in a vat of molten metal and toss in 2009's Terminator: Salvation and 2015's Terminator: Genisys for good measure. None of them count anymore. There's only one Terminator 3 now and it's Terminator: Dark Fate, got it? Come with it if you want to live.
Like nearly every Terminator movie, Terminator: Dark Fate rehashes all of the (all-too) familiar beats of the original 1984 film, The Terminator: A killer cyborg from the future is sent to kill an innocent young woman who is destined to make a difference in a future war against the machines. The ragtag human resistance sends a lone warrior, a protector for that woman. This time, the target is a Mexican girl named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) and her protector is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an augmented human who can physically go toe-to-toe with a Terminator... for a little while. As a badass action heroine, Davis does her best in the reimagined and gender-swapped Kyle Reese with robot muscles role but, through no fault of her own, she ends up being overshadowed by the franchise all-stars, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Coming for their heads is the newest Terminator model, the Rev-9 (Diego Luna) and, since this is the new Terminator 3, it's basically a newer version of the T-X (Kristanna Loken) from T3; the twist is that the Rev-9 can separate its liquid metal form (icky black goo like Venom, this time, instead of cool silver mercury) from its endoskeleton so they can tag team some humans. Luna plays the Rev-9 with a little bit of charm and it integrates better with humans than any other Terminator model in the movies. However, despite all of its abilities and killing power, the Rev-9 gets smacked around a lot and, amusingly, it seems to get real frustrated at how its targets uncooperatively won't let it do its job and terminate them. The climactic showdown even starts with the Rev-9 urging those defiantly-unwilling-to-die humans to just give up already. It's weird to see a Terminator negotiate terms after chasing them from Mexico City to Laredo, Texas. But what would have made Dark Fate really super-duper great is if the Rev-9's liquid metal form talked to his endoskeleton and they bantered and complained about what a pain in the ass this mission is.
Meanwhile, Hamilton reprises her role as a grizzled, grey-haired, heavily-armed Sarah Connor. A lifetime of fighting Terminators has ravaged her once-youthful looks and Sarah is more tragic than ever because, after everything she went through in the first two films, it turns out Skynet sent multiple Terminators after her son John Connor (Edward Furlong, who reappears as a 14-year-old via digital wizardry). A couple of years after they stopped Judgment Day in T2, one of those Terminators (Schwarzenegger) caught up with them at a Guatemalan beach and put a cap in John. And thus, the franchise that could never figure out what to do with John Connor followed the example set by Terminator: Genisys and got rid of him, seemingly for good. After all, there's no need for John Connor to lead the Resistance in a future that's now null and void. After John literally bit the bullet, Sarah spent the last 22 years following the marching orders of a mysterious sender of text messages; every text was the coordinates of where a Terminator was and Sarah somehow terminated all those Terminators all by her lonesome. Okay, sure. When one particular text sends her to Mexico City (she's wanted in all 50 states), Sarah Connor runs across Dani and Grace and finds herself involved in a brand new battle to save the future - but it's one that, for once, she isn't the centerpiece of.
Miller's Dark Fate serviceably checks off all the boxes in the Terminator movie checklist: naked Terminator coming through a time bubble, check. A car chase with the Rev-9, check. "I'll be back!" (said by Sarah this time), check. And so forth. For the most part, the tropes are done pretty well but Dark Fate also feels rote and overly mechanical because it's all too familiar. Still, even though it takes two-thirds of the movie to be over until he shows up, the highlight of Dark Fate turns out to be Arnold Schwarzenegger, who once more plays the classic Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 series T-800 Terminator... named Carl. Yes, he is the same Terminator who killed John Connor in Guatemala (something Sarah, understandably, has a hard time letting go of) but after that, Carl, a 72-year-old Terminator, gets interesting!
With his mission over - in fact, now that the timeline has been rejiggered, Carl is the only Terminator who has ever successfully accomplished a mission to terminate a target (but he's not one to brag) - and no Skynet in the future to come back to, Carl realized he has the rest of his life ahead of him. So he did what no other Terminator has done: he found himself a woman, helped her raise her kid, got a job cleaning drapes, bought a house, started drinking beer and watching football, and waited for Sarah Connor to show up in his doorway one day. What's great about Carl is that even though he terminated John Connor, he actually fulfilled everything John tried to teach his T-800 in T2: Carl learned the value of human life. Further, Carl felt such remorse for killing John that he was the one who secretly sent Sarah all of those texts telling her where all the other Terminators were. (He could have helped her hunt them too but that's neither here nor there.) As Carl, Schwarzenegger finally finds a new way to have fun playing the Terminator and, as he correctly points out, he is extremely funny. But he's also ready to join Sarah, Grace, and Dani to do some terminating and future-saving because once a Terminator, always a Terminator.
Unfortunately, Dark Fate's final act is actually its worst: the climactic action sequences involving the Rev-9 fighting all of the humans in a cargo plane, the humans escaping in a humvee that plummets into a lake, and then everyone fighting the Rev-9 in a hydroelectric dam ('the killbox') is so badly shot and staged, it's literally an excruciating eyesore to look at. Not to mention the frenetic action really should have killed everyone, especially old lady Sarah, long before they got to the dam. Regardless, when the T-800 and the Rev-9 go Terminator e Terminator some of the old thrills do emerge, especially during Carl's final sacrifice to save his human friends. Thematically, Dark Fate ends with a cool twist where Dani isn't the new Sarah Connor, she's actually the new John Connor, destined to be the leader of humanity in the future war against the new Skynet (which is called Legion in 2042). When Sarah and Grace end up being the final two left alive, the switcheroo that Sarah kind of spiritually gets her son John back in the form of Dani and Sarah gets to teach her how to be the future leader of humanity is a rather nice and poignant touch.
Ultimately, bringing James Cameron back to the franchise indeed worked necessary wonders because, at its best moments, Dark Fate does legitimately feel like a real Terminator movie and not like the clunky fan fiction the scrap heaps of Rise of the Machines, Salvation, and especially Genisys felt like. All in all, like a slightly better version of a cell phone, Terminator: Dark Fate does turn out to be an upgrade as the new Terminator 3, if only incrementally. While it wraps up in a tidy fashion, Dark Fate's ending leaves the door open for another movie, unfortunately, and it's not hard to imagine that, despite Carl's promise that he "won't be back", somehow they can finagle Arnold to come back again for another one if Dark Fate makes money. So, now that the newest model of Terminator 3 has arrived and doesn't completely suck, the next step (if there is one) for the franchise is finally stop rebooting Terminator 3 and start rebooting Terminator 4.