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Terminator 3: It's Good To Be Back
by Emory Rowland
16 August 2003The Terminator

Although wildly entertaining and pleasantly reminiscent of its predecessors, Terminator 3 as a whole did not resonate like the first two films.


Time and success have a way of building expectations when it comes to great sci-fi film sequels. If the original Terminator didn’t excite you, then you’re probably not a sci-fi fan. If the excellently done sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, didn’t thrill you, then check your pulse. The shockwaves from the Terminator movie series remain strong approximately 20 years after detonation. The wait hasn’t been easy for fans. Somewhere amid the speculations, the worries, and the heartless game of musical directors' chairs, there at long last emerges Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

Skynet, the computerized nemesis of the human race, is again sending a cybernetic organism back in time to terminate people. Their machine-dominated world did not become a reality. The “judgment day” alluded to in the past is not averted, but simply delayed by good old-fashioned human resourcefulness. This time the target is not merely John Connor, future resistance leader, or even his mother, Sarah, who survived the last two attempts. Those who associate with Connor in his youth, his potential “lieutenants” in the future resistance, must be terminated by Skynet’s emotionless killing machine, the feminine Terminator called the “Terminatrix,” played by Kristanna Loken. The more advanced “T-X” sports shape-shifting technology, an onboard weapons suite, and a feminine flair to help her accomplish her objectives. Cyborgs have always had a penchant for stylish leather. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines retains the important symbology of the past films. Does it have the substance of its predecessors?

James Cameron’s conspicuous exit, a suspicious new director, and a few missing big names like Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong have led some to contend that the film was doomed to rest with Alien 3 and Rambo III in the crowded movie trilogy graveyard. The obvious and insanely mountainous problem of succeeding director James Cameron, creator of the treasured first two films, was given to Jonathan Mostow, whose most notable work is U-571. But Mostow has some dependable assets to work with, namely a titanic budget of $170 million, proven special effects conjurer Stan Winston, and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who assumes the familiar robotic role of protector as in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In the end, newcomers Nick Stahl and Claire Danes delivered substantial value as well.

Actor Nick Stahl fills the lonely shoes of John Connor, who has reached his twenties and lives a life disconnected from society, still haunted by a lingering fear of judgment day. He doubts his mother’s maxim, “There is no fate but what we make.” He never discovers the who's or why's of judgment, as did such classical witnesses of judgment as Adam and Eve, Noah, and Lot. He knows only that it must occur and its instruments are Skynet-controlled machines. The prophets of history have been serious and sad individuals like John Connor, sometimes doubting, sometimes running, but ultimately warning of impending judgment that may be delayed, only not avoided. But who's or why's don’t matter so much because the film doesn’t target the brain or heart, but a bit lower toward the adrenal glands. And that suits many action fans just fine.

All three Terminator films have in common the theme that something stronger and more powerful than the protagonist has been sent from the future to kill him. Amid fear of an evil machinocracy, a guardian angel figure materializes to intercept the threat. In Terminator 3, Schwarzenegger, as the reprogrammed Terminator T-850, defends the hero and heroine as their superhuman bodyguard. “My mission is to protect you,” he declares. At times, he looks like a magic genie as he is ordered around by Connor and Kate Brewster, his future wife, played by Claire Danes. Indeed, the sense of these two coming to grips with their unlikely fate as they head toward a Logan’s Run-like postapocalyptic salvation nabs at the heart as the film flirts with greatness.

Very soon into the film, the chase begins transporting you to the familiar Terminator milieu, where a steady tempo of speed and demolition continues until the end. The first big action scene raises the bar for Hollywood vehicle chases through the ceiling. Connor escapes from the T-X in a frail animal clinic truck, soon discovering Brewster locked in the back and not very happy with the situation. As they argue back and forth, the T-X pursues them in a large heavy crane truck with more wheels than can be counted. Police and fire vehicles remotely controlled by her also tag along. Finally, the Terminator T-850 commandeers a motorcycle and chases the convoy, soon catching up, and, of course, ending up on the hook of the crane truck being swung around by the T-X. Vehicles fly through the air and crash everywhere as the T-850 stubbornly holds onto the crane hook, slicing through actual buildings.

Of the many Hollywood car chases, none--not even those of the revered The Matrix--approach the strength and fun of this one. This is not to suggest that any of the action scenes following the crane truck chase were bad. In fact, several were quite good, like the bathroom brawl where the Terminators throw each other through walls. But any action coming after this cannot help but have an anticlimactic effect following such world-shattering intensity. With that scene, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines became in the most literal sense possible, a blockbuster.

Schwarzenegger is 55, about the same age as Rodney Dangerfield when he shot Las Vegas Undercover. You won’t see a lot of close-ups, but you see enough to assure you that he’s really going to stand out in the AARP meetings in a few years. He hasn’t added much to the frigid but benevolent robot role explored in Terminator 2, besides some very well done uninflected one liners. But, did the role really need anything more? As the T-850, Schwarzenegger faithfully executes the anticipated mannerisms, but with upgraded programming, such as “psychological subroutines.” Only Yul Brenner in Westworld and Brent Spiner in Star Trek: The Next Generation surpass Schwarzenegger’s subtle imitation of the mechanical.

One important scene has the T-850 struggling to carry out orders from two separate contradictory programs. One command is to kill John Connor and Kate Brewster, the other is to protect them. You can’t help but think of an android that violates one of Asimov’s three principles of robotics getting confused and having to shut down as a consequence. Of course, in the end, the T-850 manages to do the right thing.

If you’re suspicious of attractive young models as actresses, relax. Kristanna Loken is not afraid to risk breaking a nail or anything on the set. She carries herself well as the T-X villain, just as you would expect a mean and beautiful female machine to comport itself. She’s a great admirer of Robert Patrick’s work in Terminator 2 and put a lot of effort into fulfilling the role of Terminatrix. In addition to weapons training, she studied miming techniques and an Israeli martial art called "Krav Maga" in preparation for the role.

Nick Stahl plays the adult John Connor as the likable loner who narrates his sadness, at times reminding one of Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese in The Terminator. You get the impression that Connor might have lived an ordinary life if he weren’t cursed with the knowledge of Judgment Day.  He who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Claire Danes’ portrayal of Kate Brewster is the biggest surprise. She shows strong emotion and is convincing as the distressed damsel who turns angry vigilante. Kate Brewster is one of the few characters who showed strong growth.

Stan Winston’s résumé includes work on the previous Terminator films, as well as special effects credits with Aliens, Artificial Intelligence: AI, and Jurassic Park III. It is at times difficult to judge the special effects because of the inability to distinguish which frames are CGI and which are stunts. It seems that a blending of effects and stunts occurs in such cases as destructive fights and the big crashes that Terminators nonchalantly dust off and walk out of. The limited future war scenes could not have looked better.

Certainly the shape-shifting of the T-X’s chrome endoskeleton serves as an example to appraise Winston’s work. Many have said that the Terminator 2 effects were superior to those of Terminator 3. It does seem that less attention is given to the shape-shifting effect in Terminator 3. This makes sense given the effect is not an integral component of the T3 story. The actual endoskeletal material that liquefies comes out shiny and silverish, with the reflective quality of discount supermarket aluminum foil and the texture of dollar store thermometer mercury. Regardless of whether you think the T-X effects are better or worse in T3, it seems that at least some consistency was lost. Nevertheless, it’s hard to give Winston an overall grade lower than a B plus.

I’m the T-D0F1. I’m from the future. My mission is to destroy T3, the mother of T4.

In the midst of the chase, John Connor and Kate Brewster make discoveries. The Skynet defense system headed by Kate’s father, Robert Brewster, is about to take control of the nation’s military and civilian computer networks. They must save him from termination by the T-X and save the world from judgment in the form of nuclear war, which comes in about three hours. After this, they’ll simply go their own ways, avoiding their marriage arranged by fate. But their plan fails. The T-X pursues as they try to escape the fires of judgment day. Soon begins the showdown that all action films have had since Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Mostow has injected a lot of the same spirit from previous Terminator films into Terminator 3, cleverly causing you to undergo a bit of what weightlifters call “muscle memory.” Although wildly entertaining and pleasantly reminiscent of past films, Terminator 3 as a whole did not resonate like the first two films. That’s not to say it didn’t achieve greatness, just not the type of greatness Cameron achieved in the good old days. The key change from Cameron to Mostow proved too dissonant for some fans. Cameronistas resent Mostow’s style as action over substance. Reading their remarks on the movie forums would have one believe the film represents more of a lowering of humans than rising of machines. T3 is not T2. Mostow is not Cameron. Let James Cameron be James Cameron, or at least Jim Cameron, and let everyone else be themselves.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines had to hold its ground and simply not be bad. It held. It did more than that. It succeeded. Humor, action, and preservation of the Terminator motifs give the film life. The word “terminated” will continue to live as a great movie euphemism. Whether or not the Terminator series will rise again, only time will tell.

Emory Rowland is a creator of Clickfire.com, a free resource website empowering webmasters with viewpoints, tools and content
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