Terminator: Dark Fate ★★½

Mind you, is there any other kind of fate when you're going up against something called a Terminator? This title does hit a new low in creativity for a series that spent the previous installment revisiting the first installment, and a new low in logic when the series' whole thing is blowing up the idea of fate. It's still such hard work to change fate that although Skynet is finally defeated, a new army of evil AI's is now traveling through time to take out a Mexican woman who will have a hand in thwarting their robopocalypse, the subliminal pandering to the American left being round out by the resistance sending a female cyborg to protect her (Okay, Mackenzie Davis, we get it; you like '80s sci-fi). This is also rounded out as the "Judgment Day" to "Genisys" by Skynet's an upgraded liquid metal-shapeshifter Terminator, the type of top-of-the-line killing machine that only one woman can take down. Linda Hamilton and Sarah Connor are both brought out of semi-retirement to guide our heroines to Texas, seeking help from the fickle frenemy who managed to kill John Connor on several occasions in this one timeline. Man, if ever there was a time for Arnold Schwarzenegger to quit riding off of fellow Republican Sylvester Stallone's action hits, there are all kinds of reasons for it to be at the point of warring with Mexicans over the border. Maybe don't take it from the guy who thought that "Genisys" was as much a return to form as this series is going to get that this works much better than "Rambo: Last Blood", not that it works nearly as well as "Genisys".

There's a new threat on the horizon, and with a name as generic as Legion, of course this is all about rebooting the franchise from scratch on what has now become sci-fi clichés, and the standard storyline for these installments. The tweaks to evil robots chasing future saviors of humanity and their time-traveling bodyguards are trivial (Mostly just new settings and tech), except when it comes to further blowing up this series' manic timeline flowchart into another convoluted mess. Like "Genisys", this tries to hold things together by either swiftly evolving character arcs or forcefully holding your attention with indulgently witty punch-up and on-the-nose homages to predecessors. In a lot of ways, this answers for the complaints of convolution and meta over-indulgence in "Genisys", so I don't know what to tell the majority who disagree with my perception of that film's wit, character and creative twists on first-rate genre thrills. For me, this plays things so safe that character writing is bound by fan service and other contrivances, and is glossed over alongside potentially maddening convolutions to get to the next sprawling action sequence. This just has no actual ambition, foregoing the daunting vision that the next critic and I aren't likely to agree on, and diving deeper than ever into the slam-banged plotting, over-the-top spectacle and bloated wit that we can all agree dampers this formula. Alright, next critic, this one is inconsequential, but it's still faithfully fun.

It's always interesting to see what's new with the old world in this ever-twisted timeline, packed into an epic adventure across Mexico and America that doesn't dwell in its overblown mythos. Like I said, this tries to regulate plot on unevenly developed characters, though it's mostly the charisma of Natalia Reyes that gives weight to the bland or irrationally over-noble Dani Ramos, while Mackenzie Davis nails her dramatically layered bodyguard, and Linda Hamilton revives Sarah Connor with more badass command than ever. Not to devalue the feminist twist any more than the condescending heroine worship, but this almost turns around with the return of T-800, with more of the sympathetic pathos and endearing cleverness that won me over in "Genisys", and more of Arnold Schwarzenegger's iconic presence. Well, it's just a happy accident that the series mascot's ironic humanization and sharp self-awareness play into the fan service that these writers think is so damn clever, alongside dry comic relief, melodramatic breakthroughs and action movie posturing. There are genuinely witty and substantial moments, muted by the noise of Ken Seng's lavish cinematography, Tom Holkenborg's thunderous score and the stellar special effects, offering little more than just top-form spectacle. Tim Miller directs all of this technical sweep, slick plotting and dark quirk to the detriment of true tension, until he throws all of it and the kitchen sink into unimaginably humongous action sequences. Die-hard fans of either the franchise or a hearty action blockbuster will walk away satisfied, but about all this gave me was neat ideas that came to nothing and neater style that came at their expense.

Sans the ambition of the predecessor that only I admired, this is just more recycling of its franchise's most basic formula, with just enough convoluted mythos, annoying fan service and contrived characterization to emphasize how emptily excessive the genre thrills and action are, and fuel the compelling ideas, clever writing highlights and solid acting that hold you through sweeping adventure, production values and action that make "Terminator: Dark Fate" another lofty and thrilling, but especially unevenly ambitions installment in an ever-twisted sci-fi saga.

2.75/5 - Fair