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Terminator: Dark Fate review -- Linda and Arnie are back, but it's no T2

Linda Hamilton faces Arnold Schwarzenegger once again, but they deserve better.

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He'll be back.

Paramount

In every Terminator movie, a new Terminator turns up with a new gimmick. It began in Terminator 2 with a liquid metal robot that could take on any form, and continues right up to new movie Dark Fate, which features... a liquid metal robot that's a bit like the one in Terminator 2, only with more CGI.

That's the thing about Dark Fate, in theaters now. It wants to be Terminator 2, and it isn't.

Dark Fate opens with a clip of Linda Hamilton from the 1991 classic. The other Terminator sequels -- Rise of the Machines, Salvation and Genisys -- melt away like an android lowered into a vat of fire. In their place, Hamilton resumes the role of human hard-ass Sarah Connor, reunited with Arnold Schwarzenegger's muscle-bound mechanoid 28 years after we last saw them together.

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She'll be back.

Paramount

But first we head to present-day Mexico. Colombian star Natalia Reyes and Mexican singer Diego Boneta are a working-class family targeted for termination by a machine... the robot that's taken their jobs.

Then another robot turns up with severance on his mind, and we're not talking about paychecks. Yes, there's a new Terminator in town, a homicidal cyborg from the future played by shark-eyed Gabriel Luna. The only thing standing in his way is mysterious Mackenzie Davis, swinging sledgehammers and chains in the first of many kinetic fight scenes.

Luna's Rev-9 Terminator is a new model that does the liquid metal thing, only the liquid is black, and it can also split in two, or something? This is never fully explained, and it doesn't factor into the action. Think of the jaw-to-the-floor moments involving liquid metal in T2: walking out of the flames, the parents on the phone, the dinner-plate exit wounds... 

The Rev-9 is kinda cool, but doesn't have anything like those memorable moments. And decades after T2 pioneered CGI I'm not even convinced the effects are better. You can really see when it's actually Luna on screen and when it's a computer-generated character whirling weightlessly around. T2 may have dated some, but it feels real in a way Dark Fate's action scenes can't match.

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They'll be back.

Paramount

Original Terminator and T2 creator James Cameron was involved with this movie, developing the story with Deadpool director Tim Miller. As with the disappointing Alita: Battle Angel, however, it seems Cameron's involvement is no guarantee of quality if he leaves someone else in charge while he's off noodling with the Avatar sequels no one asked for. Interestingly, the producers tapped various noted sci-fi authors for ideas, including Greg Bear, Neal Stephenson and comics iconoclast Warren Ellis. But if you're excited to see that movie, you'll be disappointed to hear the only idea that made it to credited screenwriters David Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray was to "redo T2."

I hate to keep harping on about Terminator 2, but Dark Fate brings it on itself. It's simply too indebted to T2 as it retreads the earlier film's structure, character dynamics and action set pieces. But it can't match T2's  compelling journey, snappy dialogue or thrilling action. The leads are sort of the same and the action scenes are sort of the same, but they don't connect with any of the urgency and character-driven excitement of the earlier film. The twists aren't as twisty as they think they are, the secondary characters are just kind of there. At least Salvation and Genisys, for all their flaws, tried to do something different with the formula.

It is great to see Hamilton back in action, of course, but she's parachuted into the middle of things to trade stilted banter with Davis. T2 worked when Sarah's love for her son clashed with her mission to save the world, but there isn't much sense of internal struggle here.

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I'll be Mack.

Paramount

Davis' character is pretty badass but it seems she's mostly been sent back from the future to explain huge chunks of backstory. Later, Arnie is lumbered with the same mission. One of the reasons Arnie was so perfect for the role of the Terminator in the first place was that he couldn't talk like a human being. Now they've got him reading lengthy chunks of exposition. It doesn't help that the reasoning behind his aged appearance is so goofy it makes Genisys' tortuously convoluted time-travel nonsense seem airtight by comparison.

Dark Fate does offer a provocative update to previous bad guys in the series, as the new model takes on the guise of a US border agent. This allows him to direct the might of the American military-industrial complex at our heroes, from gunships to Reaper drones. The sight of this unstoppable Latino slaughtering his way through a bunch of immigration agents certainly has a sly charge.

Ultimately, though, the whole film can be summed by the opening sequence. After the clip from T2, we see the classic Sarah Connor again, just as she looked then -- but it's a moment we haven't seen before. This brief prologue shows us what happens after Judgement Day was averted, featuring T2's stars -- Hamilton, Arnie and even wayward teenage actor Edward Furlong -- made young again through the magic of computer-generated visual effects.

It feels like the CG smoothing of wrinkles is everywhere at the moment, from Gemini Man to The Irishman, but seeing our old friends once again is undeniably thrilling.

Yet the joy instantly becomes cringeworthy, as this prologue undermines Terminator 2 by killing a major character in such a cursory fashion it just feels silly. Even Hamilton was unhappy with this scene, and it feels like the most staggeringly wrong-headed way to begin proceedings.

In Terminator 2 there's a moment where Sarah Connor comes face-to-face with what she thinks is the murderous robot from the previous film. He isn't the same robot, it just looks like him. That's Dark Fate: it looks like Terminator 2, but it's not the same.

Originally published Oct. 22.