Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Director : Jonathan Mostow
Screenplay : John Brancato & Michael Ferris (story by John Brancato & Michael Ferris and Tedi Sarafian)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator), Nick Stahl (John Connor), Claire Danes (Kate Brewster), Kristanna Loken (T-X), David Andrews (Robert Brewster), Mark Famiglietti (Scott Petersen), Earl Boen (Dr. Peter Silberman), Moira Harris (Betsy), Chopper Bernet (Chief Engineer), Chris Lawford (Brewster's Aide)
When people think of the Terminator films, the first things that come to mind are big action and big special effects. Even though James Cameron’s 1984 original was a fairly low-budget blockbuster, it featured big chase scenes, a postapocalpytic future, and grisly-real make-up effects by Stan Winston that included a scene of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the titular cyborg cutting out his own damage eyeball with a scalpel. In 1991, Cameron upped the ante by making Terminator 2: Judgment Day the most expensive film then made, employing the use of revolutionary computer-generated effects to wow movie-goers with images no one thought possible.
Now, a long dozen years later, we have the belated Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, a movie that, given the ending of Terminator 2, wouldn’t seem possible (weren’t all the links to the machine-ruled future destroyed?). Yet, here it is, and the first strike against it is that, on cursory glance, it appears to be a last-ditch effort to rekindle Schwarzenegger’s fading career as an action star by plugging him into a new installment of an old franchise. The fact that James Cameron had nothing to do with the production doesn’t bode will for it either, even if it was put in the hands of Jonathan Mostow, the capable director of the road thriller Breakdown (1997) and the submarine actioneer U-571 (2000). Simply put, Terminator 3 is too easy a movie to dismiss right off the bat; it seems to have everything going against it.
Yet, Terminator 3 surprises by being a genuinely entertaining action flick that plays like a B-movie with A-level special effects (the reported budget was $170 million, and Schwarzenegger even ponied up some of his record $30 million paycheck to punch up the special effects sequences). Screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris (The Net, The Game) seem to have realized that they were up against a mountain of skepticism from the very beginning, and they responded wisely with a story that delivers virtually everything one would expect from another Terminator movie, but with a heightened sense of self-conscious humor. Schwarzenegger is, after all, 55 years old, and his Terminator character is depicted accordingly as an outdated relic that pales in comparison to his nemesis, the T-X (Kristanna Loken), a wicked female terminator that has the morphing capabilities of Robert Patrick’s T-1000 from Terminator 2, but can also control other machines. Some of the humor falls flat, as when the Terminator appropriates the phrase “Talk to the hand,” which would have been funny about 10 years ago when people actually used it. But, most of it feels just right, balancing the dictates of the movie series with the realization that dragging out the Terminator one more time in a post-Matrix world is a risky endeavor and one bound to fail if taken too seriously.
The story once again concerns John Connor, who is destined to be the leader of the human resistance in a future dominated by machines that have used nuclear weapons to annihilate most of the human race. Now in his early 20s, Connor (Nick Stahl, In the Bedroom) lives “outside the grid,” meaning that he has no identity in any computer systems. This doesn’t keep him safe, though, as the T-X is sent back through time to assassinate him along with 20 other future resistance leaders. Once again, though, a Terminator (Schwarzenegger) is reprogrammed and sent back to protect him and, in this case, a young veterinarian named Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), who is also destined to have an important role in the future.
So, in essence, Terminator 3 does little to alter the basic narrative arc of the previous two movies, not that we should have expected anything different. Mostow uses the well-worn narrative framework to connect a series of bravura action set pieces, including a stunningly loud chase through the streets of Los Angeles that includes the Terminator dangling from a giant crane driven at breakneck speed by the T-X, demolishing entire buildings along the way. Some of the action sequences bear the mark of the movie’s overall sense of humor, particularly one that takes place in a cemetery and involves the Terminator firing a massive machine gun with one hand while cradling a coffin on his shoulder with the other.
Whereas the previous two movies hinged largely on the idea that the future can be changed by present-day actions, Terminator 3 (by necessity) switches philosophical gears and emphasizes predestination. The reason the events of Terminator 2 didn’t stop “the rise of the machines” is because it is predestined to occur; the best people can do is stall it. This throws a kink into the movie’s time-travel escapades and makes one wonder why the machines in the future would bother trying to kill anyone in the present given their acceptance of the predetermined future. Yet, asking such questions in time-travel movies invariably leads to convoluted arguments that are best left alone. Nevertheless, Terminator 3 manages to end on a scene of striking significance, a twist ending that is not only surprising in the way it diverges from the expected norms of summer movie storytelling, but also in how it shrewdly establishes an open door for a Terminator 4 if this one proves to be a box-office success.
If there is one complaint about Terminator 3, however, it is that it is missing the key, but often overlooked, ingredient that fueled the first two movies: heart. As much as James Cameron is often dismissed as sentimental, his unironic insistence on human emotion and the transcendental power of love is the one thing that makes his sci-fi extravaganzas genuinely moving in addition to being exciting. The Terminator developed a heart-tugging romance between Sarah Connor and her human protector, Kyle Reese, and Terminator 2 became an unlikely ode to the power of fatherhood. These sentiments are touched on in Terminator 3, but they never really take hold. As a result, the movie never rises above its action roots to become something more.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick