★ ★ ★ 1/2

Any Terminator fan can tell you that Sarah Connor — former waitress, mother of the anti-machine-resistance messiah, all-around survivalist badass — stops Skynet from turning the world into a dystopic junkyard and saves 3 billion lives at the end of 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Her faith in her fellow man has been restored, and the notion that even an android can learn compassion has softened her heart, if not her rock-hard muscular arms. We last see Sarah speeding into the unknown with her son, John, having secured a future in which humanity gets at least a temporary stay from extinction. Fin.

What our heroine was unable to prevent, however, was the creation of a bleak timeline in which the franchise repeatedly belched out numerous sequels that . . . let’s say “diluted” the brand a bit. There are undoubtedly folks who ride or die for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) and Terminator: Salvation (2009) and Terminator: Genisys (2015), or so various rumors would suggest; we’ve personally met a few dedicated Stans of TV’s short-lived The Sarah Connor Chronicles. But the overall sense of cashing in hovers over these continuations and dizzying detours through the world (what do we call it: the Termi-verse? The TCU?) that James Cameron established with that initial one-two punch. We needed a savior, one who could alter the course of history so that the announcement of a new entry would not inspire Bronx cheers and bone-deep cyncism. Who better to rescue us than Ma Connor? Come with her, beleaguered intellectual property, if you want to live!

It’s not a stretch to say that Linda Hamilton is the main reason you should rush out to see Terminator: Dark Fate posthaste. Never mind the fact that there’s an actual character named Grace tasked with keeping someone from harm; the 63-year-old actor is the real saving grace here, in terms of both the movie and the series as a whole. Like Connor, she’s got help on her mission. For starters, Cameron is back on board as a co-writer and a producer, declaring all non-Cameron additions non-canon. Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as yet another mechanized frenemy. Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire) is the “augmented” guardian angel sent back in time, and Natalia Reyes, the Colombian actor at the center of the compelling indigenous-gangster epic Birds of Passage, is the young woman that the cybernetic supersoldier must protect at all costs. Both of them are great additions to the mix.

And there’s a lot of scene-setting that happens before the star steps into the picture. We get a glimpse of Connor in a late-Nineties flashback — digitally de-aged, naturally (see: the moving pictures circa late 2019) — which reveals that postponing the apocalypse did not grant her immunity from tragedy. We meet Grace (Davis) and the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), your next-gen model of relentless killing machine. They’re both after Dani (Reyes), a Mexico City resident who, much like Sarah once upon a time, is the key to winning a future war against a megalomaniacal AI. The enhanced human and the liquefying assassin bot face off with sledgehammers and arms that morph into onyx-like blades, respectively. A frenetic getaway scene goes from bursting through factory walls to blowing up cars on a freeway. Director Tim Miller (Deadpool) has a knack for staging action; he can make a movie that moves, if not quite like Cameron’s original go-for-broke B movie. Everything seems like pleasant enough blockbuster-ish business as usual.

Then a truck pulls up, we see boots hit the ground, and there she is: Sarah Connor 1.0, sunglasses on, stoic and iconic as fuck, gunning down a sprinting shape-shifter and employing a rocket launcher for a finishing move. It’s the sort of movie entrance that the character (and the actor) deserves, the kind that prompts spontaneous, uncontrollable cheering in theaters. She even gets to steal the franchise’s best-known line. Her weathered survivor will charitably share the screen with newcomers and old co-stars alike, but from this moment on, Dark Fate is Hamilton’s property. She calmly slips the superior sequel into the back pocket of her faded work pants and walks away with it. Everyone else is acting in her movie.

That includes Schwarzenegger, back as a T-800 who’s gone domestic, i.e., lives with a family in the backwoods of Texas and can tell you everything you’d ever want to know about drapes. Connor has a grudge against this particular old-school model; she also recognizes that Dani doesn’t get to save the world without his help. The opportunity to see these two bicker and banter — her passionate and wary, him purposefully flattening his lines for maximum robotic effect — isn’t treated like lazy boilerplate nostalgia. Their friction is fuel here, as is the history and lions-in-winter gravity they each bring to the roles. Good, bad, or ugly, Terminator movies are all forward momentum by default, a series of chase scenes strung together and hung over a cat-and-mouse narrative exoskeleton. These two performers gift Dark Fate with some much-needed flesh and bone; Hamilton provides the sinew, heart, and soul, but then again, she always did in these films, which is why her reappearance helps make this a return to form. And Ah-nuld is happy to settle into the passenger seat so she can take the wheel.

You can feel the movie occasionally poking at stuff outside the multiplex, especially when it stages an early set piece inside an immigration detention center along the Tex-Mex border. (A major blockbuster making a Latinx woman the savior of humanity at this particular moment in time is a political statement, whether you care to recognize it as such or not.) But once the big Austrian lug hooks up with the core trio, the movie settles into a recognizable catch-and-release groove. The good guys go on the run. The Rev-9 pursues them via drones, helicopters, cars, by robo-foot. They fight on military cargo planes, first at 30,000 feet and then as it plunges back down to earth; at the bottom of a reservoir; and also, inevitably, in an industrial setting filled with metal-crushing machinery, because game recognizes game.

In other words, Dark Fate is Action-Cinema Mash-Up Spectacle 101 — half lumbering T-800, pushing itself forward with single-minded purpose and brute strength, and half Rev-9, all digital sleekness and bleeding-edge tech flexing. It’s treading over very familiar ground even when it’s not purposefully dropping series in-jokes and callbacks, especially once everybody assembles for the climactic showdown. And while the thrill over CGI, which Cameron pioneered with T2 all those years ago, may be gone, the thrill over seeing an OG action-movie heroine step back into those combat boots is still very much present. The scowl, the screen presence, the hard stares, her hardboiled patter alternating with pleading line readings, the sense that a pulse matters more than pixels — Hamilton reminds you exactly what’s been missing from these films. Who knows whether she’ll be back. She’s here now, and what a glorious difference it makes.