Sunday, December 18, 2005

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Everything about this movie sounded dreadful....

The Adventures of John Connor were wrapped up (albeit, not too cleanly) back in 1991 with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. James Cameron, who had years ago gone into cinematic exile after Titanic, was not going to be involved, and this was important since the universe of the Terminator had wholly sprung from his imagination. Instead, they roped in the much lesser known Jonathan Mostow, who had the efficient if The Vanishing aping Breakdown under his belt, as well as a poor man's Das Boot in U-571.

There would be no Edward Furlong all growed up (which might have been a good thing) to play John Connor. No Linda Hamilton reprising her role as gun-slinging mommy Sarah Connor. The only person that seemed to have any connection to the previous Terminator movies was, well, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the shine had been wearing off his action star persona for awhile. His campaign for governor of California was revving into action around this same time, and hearing him recycle his one-liners in speeches ("Gray Dah-vuss...yur Terminatud!") was a painful affair. "I'll be back" was only amusing the first one-hundred times I heard it.

Well, at the very least we could see Judgment Day, the post-apocalyptic war between man and machine that had only been portrayed in flashbacks (or are those flash-forwards?) in the previous installments. As long as there was a semi-reasonable explanation of why Judgment Day was occurring in the first place since the processor all the self-aware machines were built from was destroyed in the second movie, seeing John Connor troll around a nuclear wasteland and organizing the humans in their battle against the machines might justify the movie even existing. Alas, it was found out that Terminator 3 was going to take place in modern time with the typical "Terminator rescues Connor from more advanced Terminator" plot that was exactly the same as the previous two installments. The point of having this sequel now was exactly nil.

The complete and utter lack of expectations for this film work in its favor. The Terminator franchise is admired in many circles, but not rabidly revered as is Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. With the bar set very low, Terminator 3 just needed to not suck ass. Surprisingly, it doesn't.

The movie opens with John Connor (now played by Nick Stahl in an adequate performance) as a young man, living as a drifter with no bank accounts, no permanent residence, and no steady job; staying completely "off the network" in case another Terminator is sent through time to kill him. Judgment Day was supposed to have happened in 1997, but that had come and gone. Why Connor is still living like a hunted man is not really explained with much depth.

His instincts do happen to be right though, as the T-X, the "new" version of the Terminator, arrives before the opening credits are finished. Combining the liquid metal healing properties of the T-1000 along with a plasma cannon, a flame-thrower, an assortment of buzzsaws, and the ability to control other machines using "nanojectors" (whatever the fuck those are...,) all in the body of a hot blonde (Kristanna Loken) the T-X is the most bad ass Terminator yet, and begs the question of why Skynet didn't just send this one in the first movie, when all it would have to contend with is Michael Biehn.

Of course, Arnold comes back once again as the T-800, the typical old "living tissue over a metallic endoskeleton" Terminator. I could nit pick about why a cyborg would age about 20 years in the course of these movies, but I doubt I would look as muscular as Arnold does at age 56. Apparently the six-pack is gone though, since when he arrives in our timeline naked of course, no shot goes lower than chest level. The Terminator still has a fetish for motorcycle leather, his clothes this time being taken from a gay male stripper in a scene that depending on your outlook, either A)hilariously sends up the beginning of T2, or B)starts the movie like it's a Saturday Night Live parody.

The T-800, of course, explains to us why after T2 this movie exists at all, summing it up as "Judgment Day is inevitable." Destroying the microprocessor in the T2 pretty much just added six years worth of R&D time to Skynet. Seeing as this opens up a whole new can of time-paradox worms, at this point just throw up your hands and admit that the Terminator series gave up most of it's hard sci-fi notions by the end of the second movie and just enjoy the special effects laden destruction.

The action sequences are top notch. Twelve years has of course increased the amount of digital trickery that movies are capable of, and while none of the effects in the Terminator 3 are as groundbreaking as the ones in T2, they look damn good. The car vs semi chase scene is a top notch demolition derby, holding it's own in a summer that also had the over-the-top chase scenes from Matrix Reloaded and Bad Boys II. That all the chase scenes in the Terminator movies seem to take place between some limited combination of semis, motocycles, pick-up trucks, and helicoptors, is something we can for now ignore. The scene in the cemetery where the Terminator unloads a huge machine gun at police cars and SWAT vans and miraculously doesn't kill anyone is much more painfully derivative.

John Connor and his Terminator pick up one Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) as they escape from the T-X, since she is destined to become one of Connor's lieutenants in the coming War Against the Machines. While Ms. Danes doesn't get to be My So Called Life annoying here, she isn't given much to do except act as the incredulous bystander who is fed exposition the audience who haven't seen the other two movies will need to catch up on; that and to add a third act plot point. Kristanna Loken does fine as the T-X, acting appropriately vacant and robotic. Still, it falls short of the icy focus Robert Patrick gave his shape-shifting T-1000. Peformance-wise, the weakest link here is Schwarzenegger. The T-800 has, over the course of the series, had almost every bit of menace leeched from his character. When he stoically mutters "Get out," before flinging some hapless driver from their vehicle, it feels about as "huck-huck funny" as hearing the pre-school aged Olsen twins say "Rock on, dude" on Full House. While he doesn't have any scenes as bad as the "Chill out, dickwad" one from the previous movie, "Talk to the hand" comes really fucking close.

Terminator 3 doesn't have the low-budget relentlessness of the first movie, nor the epic spectacle of the second. It takes the wise route of not taking itself too seriously while not devolving into a Naked Gun like parody (except for in the aforementioned male strip club scene.) For all it's faults, it doesn't generate a lot of bad will in the audience, and that the movie ends on a somber note for a summer action film comes off as natural and admirable. It also paves the way for sequels, which may or may not be forthcoming since Schwarzenegger's tenure as governor has probably dulled the last of his action star edge. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, is certainly the lesser film of the Terminator, um, trilogy. But while it isn't vital to the series, it doesn't feel as tacked on as say Predator 2 did.


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