Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, Kristanna Loken, David Andrews, Mark Famiglietti, Earl Boen
Directed by Jonathan Mostow
Expectations: I remember liking the crane chase and the ending… and not much else.
If you’ve seen Terminator 2, you will know that by all accounts there shouldn’t be a Terminator 3. They destroyed everything related to the Terminators and Skynet, averting Judgement Day and saving the world from a future robot war. “But what if–” said the greedy executive, “What if they only pushed Judgement Day back?” Herein lies the foundation of Terminator 3, and it’s a rocky, unstable one at best. So understanding that this is where the film is coming from, it makes complete sense that it’s something of a mess.
What’s a little harder to take as a Terminator fan is how the film gives John Conner amnesia about the terminators. He actually asks Arnold’s T-800 if he remembers him! Remember him? John, don’t you remember the Terminator that came to save you as a teenager was lowered into a vat of molten lava? This one’s completely different! I can understand a normal person making this kind of error, but the future leader of the human resistance that has supposedly been educated and trained specifically in all things Terminator since birth? Come the fuck on! I get that the scene is there to help the first-time audience members or ones that don’t have a great working knowledge of the Terminator mythology, but we don’t need to make the main character forget something so integral to the series just so Arnold can explain it to us. Ugh.
This scene continues with John lamenting that now he’s going to have to re-teach Arnold everything, reminding those of us who actually remember T2 of the wonderful interactions between John and the Terminator. These scenes add some humor to the very dark narrative of that film and they humanize the Terminator and endear him to the audience. He’s more than a machine, and it all adds up to the thumbs up in the lava ending being one of emotional resonance, even though he’s an unfeeling terminator robot that we really shouldn’t care much about. Terminator 3 reminds you of that and then proceeds to never mention or attempt to re-create any of that, so the relationship between the Terminator and the humans is meaningless and their actions later in the film carry no weight whatsoever. I’m not arguing that they should’ve just re-done what they did in T2, but the script is definitely lacking in emotional resonance and needed it some form.
The story is also far from the most involving work. Obviously any sequel coming out 12 years after the previous film, without the original writer/director, is going to be met with trepidation and fan outcry that it’s not “the real Terminator.” In the case of Terminator 3, it’s not just a vocal minority; Terminator 3 really is a far cry from the greatness of the originals. It’s interesting to attempt a story that bridges the “present” and the future robot war by showing us when Skynet is activated, but it’s one of those things that you hear a lot about in the originals that you don’t actually need to see. OK, now I know the exact circumstances that led to the activation of Skynet… does that change anything? Does the information inform anything in the mythology? Nope, not in the slightest. It’s just superfluous bullshit that merely dispels the mysteries of the original films poorly.
Jonathan Mostow’s direction is also not up to the James Cameron standard. The film is completely missing the series’ hard edge of an impending apocalypse, even though this one’s the closest to said apocalypse! Terminator 3 feels like the studio cash grab that it is, and this sterilization really rubs me the wrong way as a huge fan of the original films. Mostow is also not terribly subtle in his construction of the film, doing things like showing us a speedometer cresting 80 mph as John tells us in narration that he’s “running as fast as he can” from his destiny as a future leader. Really?
Things like a janky story and ham-handed direction can be overlooked in an action film, though, and there is a healthy amount of action in the film. It’s definitely entertaining, and they manage to cram a lot into the film, but this is also the problem. We all remember the chase from T2 with the dirt bike, the Harley and the semi-truck in the LA River. It’s lean, to the point and very memorable. Its counterpart in Terminator 3 is the crane chase, which is basically five minutes of non-stop explosions, cars crunching and glass breaking. Every inch of the screen is filled with visual detail, to the point of creating a kind of visual noise. It looks like it’s mostly practical FX work, too, which is impressive (specifically the “crane through the building” thing), but it’s not refined enough visually to stick in your memory. I remember that the crane scene is fun, but I barely remember anything about it and I just finished the movie!
While I think that Terminator 3 is very misguided, I can’t argue that as an action film it is relatively enjoyable. You have to kind of divorce yourself from the idea that this is a sequel to Terminator 2 — maybe it’s an alternate Terminator universe? — but if you can do that it’s entertaining. I mean, I hate on the movie quite a bit, but I’ve seen it 4 times. So I can’t complain too much! The standout is definitely the crane chase, but the film picks up a lot of steam in the 3rd act after Skynet is activated. The battle between terminators at Skynet headquarters is fun, too, with terminators getting bashed through bathroom stalls and having their faces slammed through walls, etc. A lot of it was achieved practically as well, adding to my enjoyment considerably. I would rather it all took place in a better location than boring corporate bathroom/offices, but whatever.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is definitely not a sequel worthy of the Terminator legacy, but despite all the obvious flaws I still enjoy it enough to not grumble to myself too much while I’m watching it. When it comes down to it, there are a lot of explosions, car crashes and, of course, my boy Arnold, so it really could be much, much worse. I love the ending, too; it doesn’t redeem the shit story, but it definitely leaves me with a better taste in my mouth than I would have expected with all the stuff that bothers me in this one.
Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger is the most recent Terminator film, Terminator Genisys! I don’t really want to see it, but I’m going to watch it anyway! See ya then!