TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES
Piece of garbage or unacknowledged classic? Can it be both?
Directed by Jonathan Mostow
Written by John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris, and Tedi Sarafian
With Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator), Nick Stahl (John Connor), Claire Danes (Kate Brewster), and Kristanna Loken (The TX)
Spoiler alert: severe, because why bother without the best part?
Let's get it out there: I don't hate Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines the way, apparently, I'm supposed to. In fact—I even like it. The necessary follow-up to that bold(ish) claim is that I do still know it's not especially good.
And what a Goddamned mess it really is. Just to begin with, it's badly broken as a sequel, reconceptualizing the Terminator franchise's future history (again), while being almost entirely content to riff on its predecessors' greatest hits and routinely forgetting that the Terminator is a recurring type rather than an actual recurring character. And the one thing that might have really justified another Terminator picture, twelve years later, was impossible: if you ever made a movie that felt bigger than T2, you'd have to be a James Cameron-level genius—and, speaking charitably, Jonathan Mostow is not this thing.
Yet Terminator 3 is broken in such interesting ways! It's broken in many terribly uninteresting ways, too, but let's just get through the synopsis, and separate the sins from the sinners later.
Six years after Judgment Day was fated to arrive, the world's still here. Sarah Connor lived to see August 29, 1997, then died of cancer rather than participate in this movie. But her son, John Connor, persists. While Judgment Day might have been averted, John can never shake the fear that the future that nearly killed him twice is still out there, somewhere beyond tomorrow—still searching for him, still ready to finish the job.
Since this is a $200 million actioner and not some sci-fi allegory about PTSD, John's right. Terminator 3 doesn't break with the Terminator franchise's customary urgency: five minutes haven't passed before two terminators arrive to once again make John's existence a nightmare. At least Mostow, contra Cameron, isn't arrogant enough—this third time around—to think that we think the Austrian T-800 might be bad. No, this film's monster is the TX, a mightier terminator than any we've seen before. She combines the strength of the T-800's hyperalloy endoskelton with the infiltration toolset of the T-1000's polymimetic liquid; she adds powerful onboard weaponry and a nanotechnological magic wand that gives her command over any electronic device she touches.
"But doesn't the endoskeleton mean that she's vulnerable to being bludgeoned or torn apart or exploded, making her much less mysterious and dangerous than the last film's evil terminator?"
"Cool! So how does your movie end?"
But the target this time isn't John, for his plan to hide from Skynet's database has worked all too well: instead, the TX is here to kill his lieutenants. Special emphasis is placed upon Katherine Brewster, present-day veterinarian, future second-in-command of the resistance and wife of John Connor, whom John has—can you believe it?—just met-cute this very night, having broken into her office to steal drugs, even though Eddie Furlong has been recast.
John's interminable sucking continues; Kate immediately beats him up and locks him in a kennel. But at that moment the two terminators converge, and the T-800 rescues his two charges, while the TX remains but a step behind them. Until, that is, she isn't, and the film turns from another retreat before an unbeatable enemy into another race to stop Judgment Day—which, in case the Terminator hasn't mentioned it yet, is scheduled to begin in three hours. Now armed with their mission, the Terminator, John, and Kate rush to Kate's father, General Brewster—and I know you won't believe this—to prevent him from activating Skynet, ending the world as we know it.
In other words: T2 without Sarah Connor or the T-1000. Or, for that matter, the highly-controlled impressionist cinematography, or the well-considered morality play, or the score that didn't wander off for ten minutes at a time, returning only occasionally to give us a few arbitrary notes before returning to the void. (But seriously, Terminator 3's score is extraordinarily lazy.)
Filling in for Sarah as best she can is Kate. The character is obscenely overdetermined—even for someone who is, literally, a pawn of fate. Claire Danes sells it as well as she can, but then again, there's Terminator; Kate and John are no Sarah and Kyle. One can't help but feel that the Terminator's description, "healthy female of breeding age," sums Kate up; and if the script had not overlaid upon the two a laughably unlikely preexisting relationship, the miserable implication of post-apocalyptic coupling based on sadsack sex could've been striking. Given where the two end up, why not make a counterpoint to Sarah and Kyle's genuine love?
Pictured: John Connor's "wife," i.e. the sole person either of them could touch for about three years.
In any event, if Kate is essentially fine, the T-1000's replacement is emphatically not, barely meeting the minimum requirements for Terminator film villainy: being more powerful than the hero, and being a nominally emotionless robot from the future.
You may have noticed that I keep saying "she" and "her," when I properly referred to the T-1000 as "it"; unfortunately, there is no mistaking that the T(erminatri)X is female, and much of what is bad in Terminator 3 is bound up in the particulars of her gross, Maxim spread conception. The gendering begins with liquid metal breast augmentation, and continues when the TX experiences something like an orgasm, at the taste of John Connor's blood. It ends in a fight scene in a men's bathroom, which I think is meant to be read as some kind of sleazy robot hatefucking—but there is novelty, I suppose, to images of a superwoman being ineffectually pummeled with a urinal. Yet despite many descents into lewdness, the TX's TseX never has the slightest narrative function: like a stripper, she's there for the audience to masturbate to later.
Why this tangent, in a series that had confined its sexualization of robots to the fact that terminators have phony genitals? Well, blithe misogyny can certainly explain it, but why discount homosexual panic? Someone must've realized, early in the screenwriting process, that terminators come through naked as the day they're assembled, and they determined that this would be the Terminator film that didn't make you feel gay for having to look at Robert Patrick's dick for one quarter of one second.
Hooray! I'm safe until the lights come up and I'm confronted with the sight of other healthy males of breeding age!
Now, this aspect of the TX's badness doesn't have anything to do with Kristanna Loken, as irrevocably gendered as she is. No, her performance is atrocious for completely different reasons. It's the work of an actor who sought to emulate the menace that Patrick so slickly embodied, but had no idea how, except with crushing obviousness. Meanwhile, a director kept yelling "bigger!" at her, until she was—well—cumming at the taste of John Connor's blood.
Honestly, Mostow's kind of a disaster overall, unwilling to let competent filmmaking tell a story when artless condescension can actively distract from it instead. Just look at Loken, stretching her neck half a foot every time she wants to turn one of her remote-controlled vehicles in the first chase. Mostow is helplessly committed to impressing upon the dumbest viewer he can possibly imagine that the TX controls machines, long after dozens of not-even-subtle visual signals have already made it crystal fucking clear that, yes, she can control machines. (Note further—preferably with a roll of your eyes—how quickly this business stops once the Terminator's explicitly listed the TX's capabilities.)
Flash forward an hour, and witness the TX end the film snarling like a rabid badger. True, Terminator's horror climax also freed its villain to show emotion. Mostow attempts the same thing, likewise removing his villain's cumbersome human guise—but Cameron still kept a lid on it, for Christ's sake. Let's not even get into Mostow's random choices for when and how to use slow motion, which could not contrast with Cameron's mastery of the technique more if he were doing it by accident.
Not everything unpleasant about Terminator 3 can be pinned on Mostow, though—not with a script this sloppy. We've listed some of its obnoxious conveniences, but let's briefly touch on its patent stupidities, like the idea that this particular T-800 killed John in the future. It was able to get close to him because John had become accustomed to his face—that is, the only face John would immediately recognize belonged to a Terminator. (Plus, at this point, you start wondering why Future John and Future Kate don't send a T-800 back with a note pinned to its chest: "Hello, I am a robot from the future. Please deliver me to CNN and cut my arm open on live TV. P.S. don't activate Skynet." Presumably they don't do this because it would actually work.)
But!: Terminator 3 has its compensations. One of them, despite Mostow's plebeian direction, is the action. Tellingly, the closer Mostow sticks to remixing T2, the more thrilling his sequel is; but in perfect fairness, he makes those remixes his own. Loken's bobblehead notwithstanding, Mostow adds enough inventive twists to his remake of T2's truck chase that it ought to be remembered as one of the highlights of the whole franchise, rather than just "the best part of the worst one." Especially since neither part of that statement is true.
The elevating force present from beginning to end, however, is Arnold Schwarzenegger. At the time, it was to be his final performance, and he's having a blast. It's infectious, too—Schwarzenegger in fun mode, after all, is one of cinema's greatest pleasures. The result is that Terminator 3 is even goofier than T2, but so help me, I enjoy it. Yes, when the Terminator shoulders his way into a strip club, accosts a gay stripper, and steals his leather ensemble, it's incredibly dumb and arguably offensive; but when the stripper tells him (most sassily!) to talk to the hand, and the Terminator talks into his hand, it is also very funny.
I'm part of the problem.
If anything, they don't go far enough; besides that truncated sunglasses gag, there's an unbearably delightful deleted scene, featuring the human the Terminator was modeled upon and demonstrating that Ahnuld can do accents.
Yet the Terminator here is sometimes more rigorously presented as a robot (sorry, "cybernetic organism") than in T2. If Linda Hamilton was the one who evened out T2, Schwarzenegger fulfills the same function here, rendering almost every line—whether it be jokes or exposition or the dead-eyed declarative statements of a killing machine—in the same extremely limited palette that is never quite free of either emotion or nuance. The script is eager to saddle him with scenes that no performance could overcome, but Schwarzenegger nonetheless almost always makes his persona work for his character, and moreover he makes it work for every other character—whose own performers, frankly, get massively out-acted by the man whose legend says he couldn't act at all.
That leaves Terminator 3's best part: its ending. True, after a whole film that exists largely to worship at its forebears' altar, it is awfully willing to trash them; but that's what I love about it, too. The first Terminator says the universe is predetermined, a four-dimensional solid that cannot be changed. T2 already contradicts that, arguing that the future can be chosen. Terminator 3 demurs: the future is fluid, but powerful world-historical forces, like the rise of the machines, can never truly be stopped.
It both helps and hinders, of course, that this notion must be bound to a sucky Chosen One. But give him credit anyway: Nick Stahl, who's been relatively interesting as the most psychologically damaged John Connor in the series, finally manages real acting, in a heartbreaking scene where—if you're looking closely—he gets his fondest wish, and hates himself for it, before realizing it's time to do what he's gotta anyway.
But really, I'm most impressed that Terminator 3 was willing to do what even Cameron couldn't: really end the story, and on its darkest possible note. This is the movie about the good guys who lost. This is so rare, and so precious, that I have never been able to dismiss the greatness in Terminator 3, even when I know it is surrounded by so much bad.
Other reviews in this series:
The Terminator (1984)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Terminator Salvation (2009)
Terminator Genisys (2015)