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Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 02 July 2003
For a while, James Cameron toyed with the idea of doing a third “Terminator” movie, but legal entanglements and lack of real interest led to his leaving the project. Others found their way through the maze of legal snarls, and got Arnold Schwarzenegger to return to his most famous role by offering him lots and lots of money. Schwarzenegger needs a hit, too, especially if he decides not to run for Governor of California (well, I wouldn’t vote for him). In that case, he’ll need to continue to make more movies, and to do that, will have to remain thoroughly bankable. He’s getting on in years, and his generation of action stars is beginning to falter – Stallone has essentially vanished, Willis isn’t doing well at the boxoffice.

So here’s Arnold, once again cast as the flesh-covered killer robot from the future.

Would that James Cameron had directed this entry, or at least written it. He’s not a particularly good screenwriter, but he really knows the world depicted in the “Terminator” movies. The writers of “Terminator 3,” John Brancato and Michael Ferris, and director Jonathan Mostow don’t seem to.

Cameron’s scripts were smart and consistent with the imagined technology at their core. By comparison, the script of “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” is stupid, going for effect rather at the loss of narrative logic, and featuring technology way, way beyond what’s now possible. It’s also poorly structured, with its big wow, slam-bang action sequence near the beginning; the smaller-scale action scenes that follow simply cannot come up to this astonishing display of destruction. “Terminator 2” began with a dazzling chase, too, but there was another near the end, and the climax kept up the level of tension. The very end of “Terminator 2” – in terms of story, a near-disaster – is small-scale, intimate and lacking in action.

The biggest error was in returning to the story of John Connor (now Nick Stahl), the kid from “Terminator 2,” now grown into a young man. “Terminator 2” paid finish to that storyline, ending the film on a grim note of hope: nuclear Armageddon had been averted, but John and his mother (not in this entry) were clearly going to have to lead lives of eternal wariness that the machines of the future might find a way to take over even without the existence of Skynet.
Producers Mario F. Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna, who felt proprietary about the Terminator franchise, should have insisted on an entirely new storyline that would still involve the Arnold model Terminator android. But instead, someone made the chuckleheaded decision to, in essence, claim that “Terminator 2” was a lie; Doomsday has not only not been averted, it’s once again just hours away. Most of the human race will be wiped out, and the machines will take over.
John Connor narrates the opening and closing of the film; he’s now a seedy wanderer living “off the net” (no driver’s license, no address, no computer access), though what his goals are remains unclear.
Soon, however, there’s the gaudy arrival of a Terminator from the future; the TX (Kristanna Loken) materilizes nude in a Beverly Hills window display, kills (offscreen) a woman for her stylish red leather pants suit, then inflates her breasts to catch the attention of the cop who stops her speedy driving, so she can grab his gun. Note: this is the only scene in the entire movie that has anything even remotely to do with a “female Terminator,” a truly silly idea. The T-1000 (played by Robert Patrick) in “Terminator 2” could make himself (or itself) look like anyone, including women. He even turns into Sarah Connor (thanks to Linda Hamilton actually having an identical twin sister), and another woman also. As well as a floor.

The TX represents a big backward step in terms of Terminator technology. The T-1000 was made of liquid metal; the TX is a standard mechanical robot covered with liquid metal, and magnetic metal at that. There are none of the eye-popping, jaw-dropping effects scenes that so enhanced “Terminator 2.” She has her long hair tied up in a bun – but why does she need that? And she wears high heels, which wouldn’t seem to be much help in the action scenes. Although Loken really gives it her all, the lame script traps her into being essentially a boring Terminator. Bring back the T-1000.

Arnold, of course, plays a new Terminator, his good-guy robot having been melted down at the end of “Terminator 2.” But even though John Connor knows (a) this isn’t the same machine, and (b) it’s out to help him, he keeps acting as though it’s the same Terminator he dealt with before, and as though it’s really a menace. So the Terminator has to spend a fair amount of time convincing everyone – at one point, even himself – that he’s here to save Connor.

As well as Kate Brewster (Claire Danes). She represents the lamest coincidence of the film – which is filled with coincidences. (For example, at the climax, John Connor turns out to be an expert on particle accelerators, and Kate is revealed as an ace pilot.) We first meet her in bed with her boyfriend, but she’s called out on an emergency to the veterinarian office where she works. John Connor has broken in and downed various pills (an idea completely ignored after this sequence) because he has to stay high, or something. And gosh, guess what? They were high school almost-sweethearts. The revelation by the Terminator later on that they are “destined” to be married doesn’t really make up for the weakness of this coincidence.

The big message of “Terminator 2,” that our future is what we make it, is turned on its head in this entry. We are the pawns of fate, “Terminator 3” claims, and there’s simply no getting out of it. The future is immutable, it cannot be changed. This represents the wrong kind of thinking to bring to the Terminator table; in Cameron’s Terminator world, the future really could be changed, if we were wise and quick enough. This new/old idea, that the future is just as unchangeable as the past, is depressing and uninteresting.

Meanwhile, the bad TX has been ticking off names on a list, killing surprised young people who had no idea they were going to be part of Connor’s uprising in the future. She arrives at the vet’s office just after Kate has locked John in a cage, and there’s some destruction. Especially when the Arnold Terminator shows up, having arrived in his usual manner, including going to yet another bar to steal yet another set of leather clothes, and then a motorcycle.

After some very destructive fights, John takes off in the vet’s truck with Kate imprisoned in the back end. The TX follows, using its swell technology to operate several police cars, fire trucks and the like in an effort to smash John’s vehicle. The TX herself drives a gigantic crane truck, which smashes through and/or flips over buildings and vehicles as it thunders through downtown Los Angeles. The Arnold Terminator roars in on the motorcycle, and there follows one of the most astonishing car chases ever seen, as if the “Matrix Revolution” chase were redone with real vehicles. This is the highlight of the film, and something worth seeing.

Especially in “Terminator 2,” James Cameron kept up a steady infusion of humor, bringing a lightness to the epic that it sorely needed. Here, the writing team and director Mostow can’t seem to conjure up anything more than references to the earlier films, although the shot of the Terminator solemnly donning star-shaped sunglasses is briefly amusing. Dr. Silverman (Earl Boen) turns up for a scene that is amusing enough, but which exists just to have him appear in the film, the only actor other than Schwarzenegger who’s in all three “Terminator” movies.

There are several big action setpieces in addition to the downtown L.A. chase, and Mostow shows he’s very good at this, as he did in 1997’s “Breakdown,” the one with Kurt Russell trying to find his missing wife out in the desert. But Mostow doesn’t seem to work as well with actors as he does with the staging and editing of action scenes. Nick Stahl, who was very good in “In the Bedroom,” is drab and uninteresting as John Connor. Even Schwarzenegger’s enterprising robot isn’t as much fun this time around, partly due to his glum, repetitious performance. In “Terminator 2,” Arnold’s robot character gradually became more human, until by the end, he is even making wisecracks. (“I need a vacation…”) This Terminator is without nuance or shadings, he’s just a robot and not John’s friend.

Warner Bros. and some international investors poured a huge pile of money into this project, and it shows. The production design by Jeff Man, the photography by Don Burgess (“Spider-Man”) and other technical aspects are top-notch. The Terminator’s deteriorating face and animatronic effects were by Stan Winston, the visual effects supervisor was Pablo Helman, and the digital animation supervisor was Dan Taylor. The music is by Marco Beltrami, but it’s hardly memorable, hardly up to the level of Brad Fidel’s work in the previous film. The welter of credits make it hard to pick out who’s responsible for the excellent sound work; it’s played at a volume so thunderous you can feel it in your sternum.

So much of “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” is here just for effect, and not as part and parcel of the background story. There are some ideas that are interesting, but the very unpleasant ending, and the constant reuse of ideas from the first two “Terminator” movies keep this one feeling stale. Not all surprises are worth springing, and most of those here require resetting Cameron’s little universe of killer robots and desperate assassination targets into a new and unwelcome configuration. Clearly, everyone involved hopes there will be a “Terminator 4,” but if there is, it’s going to require input from someone at least as imaginative as James Cameron. The people involved here just are not up to the task.

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