The Terminator franchise is a brawny business. With a legend built on a mysterious combination of Jim Cameron’s vision and Arnold’s body, the films have earned industry respect as well as raving acolytes. The design hasn’t shape-shifted with each incarnation (like the remarkable Alien films). The Terminator movies repeat by definition—they’re all about time loops, after all.
Yet the series retains a combination of surprise and self-consciousness, owing in part to heady SF-ish conundrums (most famously, John Connor sends his comrade Reese [Michael Biehn] back in time to become his father), but also startling visual and conceptual innovations (Arnold as villain, Arnold as hero, Sarah Connor’s biceps). This even though the basic Terminator tale is one of Cameron’s favorites, in which a reluctant but sturdy girl is beset by fate and aided by a good-looking boy.
All this means that Jonathan (U-571) Mostow’s gutsy endeavor to crash the franchise, T3: Rise of the Machines, can’t possibly meet expectations. And still, it comes hard.
And it does okay. A noisier, burlier version of T2, overlaid with a soberer vision of the future, T3 is compelling almost in spite of itself. Though officially distanced from Cameron (who’s otherwise engaged these days), John Brancato and Michael Ferris’ screenplay mostly amplifies what’s been done already: more explosions, more car crashes, more burning and shredding of the now wholly outdated T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose 55-year-old body remains its own spectacular effect), and more penetrations of and by the slippery-silvery Terminator, here, the T-X (Kristanna Loken).
During these elaborate, fast-cut stunts, T3 is a noisy battering ram of a movie. But other moments reveal an unexpected range of tone, from cleverly affecting to darkly funny to downright apocalyptic. John Connor (Nick Stahl) is now a 22-year-old loner, self-medicating (Budweiser and downers) when he’s not zooming around on his motorcycle. In voiceover, he explains that he’s trying to “live off the grid” (no phone, no address), so he can’t be found. This even though he wants to believe that, ten years ago, he and his mom (Sarah/Linda Hamilton, now dead of leukemia and fondly remembered) stopped Skynet’s annihilation of the planet, a.k.a. “Judgment Day.” Still, he’s given to repeating his mom’s mantra (actually, his own, passed on by Reese in 1984) that “The future has not been written.”
The poor kid is definitely his mother’s son. His nightmare visions look a lot like hers, featuring the familiar metallic and red-eyed Terminators marching over human skulls, while also envisioning his eventual triumph. This time, that image has John standing on a pile of urban rubble, a tattered U.S. flag behind him. And then he wakes up, and his nation is as dirty and mean as ever, defined by its heedless nationalism, all-purpose capitalism, and rapacious military. So, while sober generals and eager techs wrestle with a global computer virus that apparently needs Skynet turned on to stop it (uh-oh), restive savior-to-be JC is on the run from monsters in his head.
And so, T3 follows its predecessors in using John to explore the tension between destiny and free will. The obligatory romance involves John’s former high school classmate, Kate (Claire Danes). Presently a veterinarian (recall Sarah’s affection for her iguana), Kate is not a little hesitant to be a next-generation “mother of the future.” She brings added consequence, in that her dad Robert (David Andrews) is the head supersecret weapons designer in charge of Skynet. Apparently, Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) died for nothing, but Robert suffers as well, condemned to utter the atrocious line: “I’ve opened Pandora’s Box!”
Kate’s first moments on screen set her up for a bruising fall: shopping for her upcoming marriage to Scott (Mark Famiglietti), Kate’s dad cancels a scheduled dinner. But even as Scott happily picks out china patterns, she’s looking bored and fretful. Within minutes, he’ll be splattered all over their bedroom, freeing Kate up to hook up with John (whom she remembers as a “delinquent”: “Look at you, sitting there like the bad boy thing still works!”).
As sweet and smart as Danes plays Kate, this sort of heartfelt relationship stuff is, as always, only a means to get to the machines. And if it’s impossible to forget the particular evil connoted by Robert Patrick’s ears, T3‘s girl Terminator, clad in red leather, holds her own. Somewhere between thrilling and overkilling, the film deftly cuts between scenes showing her arrival and that of the T-101. The T-X first shows up inside a Beverly Hills boutique window, which means that she copies a mannequin’s form—lithe with a perfectly glassy face.
Much updated, this model sticks her digital finger directly into a cell phone to locate targets (a long way from the T-101’s use of a phone book or even the T-1000’s cop car interface), and includes a built-in DNA reader, initiated when she licks blood (nasty). She also slams into action with an unnerving iciness, and with precious little dialogue. Drawing from the feline movements of the T-1000, she’s even more resilient; after the T-101 lists her many improvements, John observes, “So, she’s the anti-Terminator Terminator?” ‘Bout sums it up. Her only moments of nano-teched pleasure—tight little half-smiles—are visible when she’s slamming the Terminator into buildings, roads, walls, cars, and, during one brutally lengthy throw-down, a series of urinals.
Indeed, the now woefully obsolete T-101 understands his own limits, as well as their context—namely, the restrictions of human imagination. This might be the best way to describe the film’s failings, its inability to break out of the framework laid out in Cameron’s first and second versions of the loop. For all the dazzling effects and showy crash-and-burns (and every vehicle the T-X comes near explodes sooner or later), it’s a family drama, with erring parents and rebellious kids. The survival of the species is backdrop.
While the T-101 remains circumspect about the dire future awaiting John and Kate, he’s determined to complete his mission, to protect them, to be the best, most committed, and most confounding daddy that either of them will ever have. (John repeats this observation for you, in case you’ve forgotten that Sarah said it last time out.) Making this machine the best dad (and another machine the absolutely worst mom, I suppose), T3 follows through on T2‘s schizzy take on human messiness and technical efficiency. Being as it’s a sequel, and everything must be bigger, here the consequences for the conflict are worse, the machines’ failings even more unavoidable. As decent and paternal as the T-101 wants to be, it’s stuck. A machine, it can only do what it’s programmed to do. You know, like a lot of dads.
En route to his predictably sensational end, the machine is by turns witty masochist (when Kate shoots him in the face, he literally chews the bullet and admonishes her: “Don’t do dat”) and blithely amoral sadist (as the couple to be reminisce, he notes, “Your levity is good, it relieves tension and de fear of death”). Even as it makes apposite use of Stan Winston’s gory-face makeup and the still excellent evil-Terminator liquid metal effects (digital artists for the X-Men and Hulk series, take note), the film is still snarky.
This is the detail that makes the series feel fresh despite its many repetitions. It has always had a clear sense of humor about the Terminator, an extreme incarnation of blockbuster violence if ever there was one. Mostow’s film is rife with jokes, destructive and deconstructive. Of course, it refers to the first films’ famous lines (“She’s back,” “Get in if you want to live”), but it also makes shrewd comedy of the ever-refined Arnoldian Self. Schwarzenegger is especially good at this, sternly amiable about his iconic status (such self-deprecation will likely help in his political future), maintaining his straight face no matter how much goo and metal and fried skin it has hanging from it.
The T-101 enters this film out in a tumbleweedy desert, with the usual electrical zapping and thunder cracking. Making his way to a honky-tonk bar (it worked so well in T2), he marches in stark naked, the Ladies’ Night patrons giving the point of view camera the once-over as he scans the room for the appropriate costume. He zeroes in on the leather-clad gay dancer, demanding, “Take off your clothes.” Gyrating to “Macho Man,” the dancer hisses back, “Talk to the hand!” The Big T obliges, leaning into the guy’s palm and growling, “Now.” And that’s enough of that scene.
Cut to Arnold emerging from the bar, wearing the dancer’s gear, complete with Bootsy Collins-style star-shaped sunglasses. As this moment suggests, the film loves itself too much. But it also understands why.