I suspect this is the best of the Terminator sequels since T2, though I’m not especially inclined to look at any of them again to make sure – and it still has that retread feel all non-James Cameron-directed entries in this unsurprisingly hardy franchise are stuck with. It might be worth asking why so many muscular films from the era of The Terminator – Rocky, First Blood, Die Hard – maintain ongoing theatrical-release sagas with the now-aged original cast members aboard? Johnny Weissmuller wasn’t playing Tarzan in 1975, and James Cagney’s G-Man character from 1935 didn’t battle gangsters into the 1980s.
After the hard-to-care-about soft reboot of Terminator Genisys – a film that irritated you with its title – this gets a boost from reteaming game Arnold Schwarzenegger (‘and I am very funny’) with now tough old broad Linda Hamilton (a very welcome comeback) and at least getting Cameron on side with a co-story credit (other writers involved in this fairly straight-ahead chase-and-fight script are Charles H. Eglee, Josh Friedman, David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray). Even Edward Furlong is back, if only as a visual reference for another deaged CGI effect John Connor. It deserves points for casting folk with interesting CVs in the newbie roles, offering a triad of Natalia Reyes as the new prime target, Mackenzie Davis as the new human soldier from the future and Gabriel Luna (Ghost Rider on Agents of SHIELD) as the new bad terminator, and even layers in topical stuff about the current situation at the Mexican-American border (contrast with the weirdly airless version in Rambo Last Blood). Having skipped out on Deadpool 2, Tim Miller directs, marshalling a lot of flying-through-the-air near-slo-mo action stuff and firing off a great many guns which barely slow down even the human characters with direct hits.
A prologue establishes that this is the timeline last seen in Terminator 2 Judgment Day, and relegates all other sequels – and, presumably, The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV show – to the realm of might-have-been, along with that Skynet-dominated future cancelled when the world didn’t blow up at the end of T2. However, another Arnie droid (I’ve lost count of how many versions he’s played overall but it’s at least four) stalks at another point in the timeline and the doom is only delayed, with a new AI uberbad (Legion) responsible for the familiarpocalypse. Now, Mexican shop steward Dani, who is ticked off that her brother (Diego Boneta) has lost his factory job to a robot, is targeted by a smoothly shapeshifting terminator (Luna), who has a more sophisticated blend-in-with-the-locals program (he impersonates a stern Border Patrol official and even poses as a born-again Christian). Popping out of the blue lightning ball to protect Dani is Grace (Davis), an ‘augmented’ human soldier with a mission and a backstory which don’t get explained until later in the film (and does offer a revision of the mother-to-the-messiah premise).
After a few chase/escape/destruction sequences, the plot straggles bring in Sarah, who now has the ‘I’ll be back’ line, and Carl aka the Terminator, who at one point says he won’t be back and who has a genuinely weird, rather affecting relationship with humanity (plus a civilian job as a curtain specialist which he approaches with the same relentless logic he used to use in terminating people). As the film wears on, the fact that it’s just a series of set-pieces strung together by character byte speeches for the principle cast becomes more apparent, and even the wildly imaginative transformations (this terminator can detach its liquid disguise from its metal skeleton) become faintly numbing. For all that it delivers thrills, laughs and a few thoughtful moments, it’s a replicant of a movie rather than a breathing, bleeding, living thing. The production line rolls on.