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Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines C+
Year Released: 2003
Ask yourself right now: "What do I want out of Terminator 3?" The answer will have a direct bearing on how much you enjoy this movie. Those looking for a slam-bang summer adrenaline fix have nothing to fear. Director Jonathan Mostow has a knack for taut action, and despite advancing age, Arnold Schwarzenegger knows how to deliver on the role that defined his career. For those anticipating something more, however -- something closer to James Cameron's iconic predecessors -- the third installment in the Terminator series is a decided letdown. The action lacks the depth or complexity of Cameron's films, focusing too much on the pyrotechnics while ignoring the subtler elements. Cameron is a storyteller; Mostow is simply an efficient action director. The difference ultimately makes Terminator 3 the poor country cousin of the trilogy.
On the plus side, there are much worse films to spend your time on these days. The basic Terminator scenario makes terrific popcorn fodder, and Mostow delivers some startling variations on the series' expected set pieces. Schwarzenegger tops a winning cast, the newcomers of whom make up for some absent faces. Nick Stahl, playing the future savior of mankind John Connor, has an appealing world-weary quality to him as he anticipates a coming Armageddon. Linda Hamilton (who played John's mother Sarah) is sorely missed, but Claire Danes fills in admirably as veterinarian Kate Brewster, a naïve innocent whose hidden strengths emerge (like those of Hamilton's ditzy waitress) when she's shoved into the maelstrom.
And the maelstrom packs a respectable wallop. Once again, the machines who rule the post-apocalyptic future have sent an unstoppable killer back in time to destroy their enemies-to-be. This time, the model is the T-X (Kristanna Loken), a requisite state-of-the art cyborg who can change form at will and whose chassis hides all kinds of scary surprises. She has a laundry list of targets, intended to engineer the machines' rise to power by triggering a world war, and Connor is again a top priority... along with Brewster, his future second in command. As before, a protector is sent back in time to keep them safe -- another version of Schwarzenegger's ubiquitous T-800 -- only now, the newer models have rendered him hopelessly obsolete. To make matters worse, Judgement Day is nigh; the events of the second film only postponed the end, and by the time Arnold arrives, just a few short hours remain before the nascent machines trigger a global holocaust.
Terminator 3's drama centers on a "now or later" dilemma, which has a lot of potential. Does Connor risk everything to try and prevent the apocalypse, knowing that if he fails, he won't be around to save the world that's left? Or does he hide and wait, knowing that fate has decreed ultimate victory over the machines after the nukes have fallen? Play it safe and sacrifice billions, or go for broke and risk humanity's extinction. It's a juicy conundrum which Mostow unfortunately treats far too bloodlessly. Instead, we get a lot of things that go boom, which have the same ruthless efficiency as the Terminators themselves. Admittedly, the film hits its best notes here, with a series of chases and gunfights that Mostow unloads at a firecracker pace. The topper is a lengthy sequence involving a portable crane careening through LA, with T-X at the wheel and Arnold hanging precariously from the hook. Mostow's technique is so sharp that we can't help but be thrilled, despite some questionable effects and a few significant logical gaps. The robots themselves, from Stan Winston studios, are full of wondrous invention, and the script provides some clever jokes (many at Schwarzenegger's good-humored expense, though one bears an uncomfortable homophobic tang) that keep the action from becoming too grim.
As fun as all that is, however, it remains in the realm of the knee-jerk. Terminator 3 brings so much attention to its special effects that its logic and sense of direction start to falter. The internal continuity -- the Terminator mythos if you will -- is serviceable, but it skims too quickly over the details, and jibes awkwardly with the events of the first two films. The impact of the good guys' decisions are ultimately lost, and though the cast gives it their all, they're never more than supercargo in a mechanical plot. Presumably, that's the idea (this is a film about robots after all), but the lack of attention leaves the storyline hollow. Cameron, with his obsessive attention to detail, never would have let things slip the way they do here.
The T-X herself is the most prominent example. Her gadgets and hardware are really cool -- with arms that can morph into devastating weapons and joint-popping flexibility that would put yoga masters to shame -- and Loken delivers the Terminator Skunk Eye™ with the requisite chilliness. But her character lacks the little touches that made both Schwarzenegger's villainous original and Robert Patrick's follow-up T-1000 so hard to forget. The script saddles her with too much to do -- besides killing Connor, she has a list of future lieutenants to slaughter, as well as helping the machines orchestrate their nuclear apocalypse -- which robs her of her predecessors' terrifying single-mindedness. Furthermore, Terminator 3 relies solely on the fact that she's a woman (and the bells and whistles of the effects) to establish her character. It's not enough. The most memorable thing about the T-1000 was not that he was made of liquid metal, but that he impersonated a cop... with all that that implied. The subtlety is lost on Terminator 3, leaving Loken to fill in the gaps with little more than a catwalk strut.
Such are the risks involved in a film like this. As a part of a supremely well-regarded franchise, it demands a high level of quality in every arena, and average efforts just don't cut it. Terminator 3 has what it takes to compete with the other blockbusters this summer, but its lack of humanity denies it any longevity. The first two films are classics. The third is just another carnival ride: fun perhaps, but ultimately disposable. Ten years from now, it will probably be a footnote, a vaguely competent afterthought to an otherwise superior legacy. Enjoy Terminator 3 while it lasts; this time, I don't think it will be back.
Review published 06.30.2003.
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