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Wednesday, July 2, 2003

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (***)


"The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves."
Those words drive all of the action and comprise the overwhelming ideal behind James Cameron's The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In those movies, John Connor sends a man and a Terminator from his post-apocalyptic future to the past. The man, Kyle Reese, was sent because he was meant to be John Connor's father. The Terminator was sent to protect John as a boy. Their missions were to protect Connor and his mother Sarah from being wiped from existence by Terminators sent by Skynet, the global defense network which will become self-aware and decide that the human race is fit for termination. In T2, John and Sarah Connor, aided by their Terminator, set out to destroy CyberDyne, the company that would eventually create Skynet. They succeeded. Skynet was destroyed. The Terminators that had traveled back to help and stop the Connors were also destroyed. They had succeeded in averting catastrophe. The future was indeed not set. Mankind was free to make a different fate for itself.
In my mind, there was never a need for a sequel.
Here now is Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, that very sequel, and one that goes entirely against the ideal of its predecessors in order to validate itself and the entire saga's time travel storyline. Ten years after the events of T2, John Connor (Nick Stahl) is now an adult but is living as a vagabond in order to be untraceable by Skynet, which it turns out was constructed anyway, just by a different company. A new Terminator, TX (Kristanna Loken), the most advanced model yet, has traveled through time to wipe out Connor and everyone who would survive Judgment Day and play vital roles in the future war against the machines. Among those targeted for termination is Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), a veterinarian with ties to Connor's past and is an even greater part of his future. Protecting Connor and Kate is Arnold Schwarzenegger back as another Terminator (Series T-800, model 101 in the previous films, but referred to as T-101 in T3.) The three heroes spend the bulk of T3 running from the TX before making a move to save Kate's military bigwig father from termination and stop Skynet from initiating nuclear war, which leads to their ultimate fate as the machines rise and Judgment Day comes.
Basically, the Terminator, John Connor and Kate Brewster are hurtled along a series of death-defying car chases trying to escape the TX. Connor and Kate are eventually maneuvered into a secret unused government bunker, where they can be safe from harm as Judgment Day come to the world above. They learn that they were never meant to destroy Skynet or prevent Judgment Day. Their fate, their destiny, is to survive the holocaust and lead the human resistance against the machines throughout the future. The future that, it turns out, is set. It has to be, because otherwise, John Connor could never have sent Kyle Reese back from the future to be his father, and if he hadn't done that, he couldn't exist at all.
It turns out that in T2, John and Sarah Connor did not succeed in destroying Skynet; they only delayed its construction by a decade. Skynet's construction is inevitable. Skynet is fated to be built, to drop the nuclear bombs. 3 billion humans are fated to die so that John Connor could lead the rest against the machines and defeat Skynet in the future. It has to be that way for this story to happen at all. Okay. I understand this. Terminator 3 does not go against the first two films; by its story, it resets the time travel paradox and enables the first two films to exist. Unfortunately, by doing so, T3 takes away the very ideals that allowed its predecessor to resonate, to be more than simply the story of humans fighting time traveling cyborgs in special effects action extravaganzas.
Watching Terminator 3 unfold, the impression and feeling I got was that this was a form of fan-fiction. It replicates the look, ideas, and action of a Terminator film as best it can, but can't quite replicate the mind, nor the heart, and certainly not the voice of T1 and T2. That voice, James Cameron, is of course missing from T3. The movie is competently made, the action well executed by Jonathan Mostow, but watching it, I got the sense of a skilled hired hand at work. I got no sense of Jonathan Mostow's personality or vision while watching T3. I couldn't sense the new director taking this material and making it his own or doing anything to move the material forward. What we got instead are chase scenes, lots of chase scenes. T3 hurtled along at a breakneck pace. I wish T3 took its time and gave more weight to the characters and how they think and feel about the fact that the end of the world is a few hours away.
Nick Stahl's John Connor is a departure from his younger self as played by Edward Furlong in T2. I did miss Furlong's presence as I was interested in how he would have played this older character, but Stahl did a nice job playing a darker, broodier John Connor. This John Connor is not the smart-alecky punk with heart and potential Furlong played. Stahl's John Connor has lost his mother (Linda Hamilton, also sorely missed) to leukemia and has lived in isolation, no longer sure of who he is now that he believes his destiny has been changed. And when he learns his destiny hasn't changed, that in fact his future is set, he hates that even more.
The addition of Claire Danes to the Terminator pantheon was a good choice. The Kate Brewster character makes sense for John Connor; that he had a woman he loved who fought alongside him as he battled the machines in the future. (Although I'm not sure how much Kate took John's "You remind me of my mother" comment as a compliment.) Even more interesting was the development that John Connor was killed by a Terminator in the future, and Kate reprogrammed that same Terminator with the mission of saving them from the TX in the past, as per Kate's memory of her own past. It was an interesting twist that Arnold's Terminator obeyed Kate's orders and not Connor's. By the time late in T3 that Kate took up arms and destroyed a hunter-killer attack robot, I began to see that a possible Terminator 4 could easily move into the territory of Kate programming a second TX to fight alongside her in a sequel.
Kristanna Loken has been compared unfavorably to Robert Patrick's work as the T-1000 in T2 and I think that's a little unfair. If the TX turned out to be underwhelming, it wasn't Loken's fault. James Cameron took great care in explaining how the T-1000 worked and showcasing its abilities. I wish the same weight and care had been given to the TX, which is armed with more weaponry than its predecessor but isn't given as much attention to detail. The TX has the T-1000's polymer shell over a metal endoskeleton, which allows it to perform the T-1000's shapeshifting tricks while literally being armed with flame throwing and electric artillery. Unfortunately, the TX's abilities are given about as much emphasis as any of the guns used by Arnold's Terminator. Loken's TX is a different breed of Terminator altogether, clearly not above utilizing the surface sexuality of her appearance as a weapon. The gorgeous Loken did a terrific job with her role and created a new and interesting style of Terminator villain. However, certain things bothered me. The TX enters the picture in classic Terminator fashion, arriving in a time bubble as a beautiful naked woman, who then kills a woman, steals her clothing design and her car. The idea behind the creation of Terminators is that they are for infiltration. Why would Skynet create a beautiful, clean supermodel for a job of infiltration when the humans of the future are filthy, ragged, and war-torn? Surely, the TX would stand out in that environment instead of blend in. It would have made more sense for the TX to arrive formless and then steal the car and appearance of Kristanna Loken, especially since it arrived in Beverly Hills, where it could easily blend in with Loken's appearance. Furthermore, as infiltrators, Terminators are supposed to blend in and be largely inconspicuous until they locate and are in pursuit of their target. Why then was the TX driving recklessly after stealing a car? And why did it need to steal a cop's gun when its own arms are far more powerful and lethal transformable firearms?
Arnold is indeed back and while, even in his 50's, he does physically look like the Terminator of old, this new Terminator sure does talk a lot. The bulk of the exposition in this film is doled out to Arnold, who drones on and on about the plot of the movie. This is not the same Terminator that young John Connor taught to say "Hasta la vista, baby." This Terminator never grew to understand why humans cry. (There is a funny line by Connor: "Great! Now I have to teach you all over again!" Unfortunately the movie never made the time.) However, someone apparently took the time to install a "how to quip in action movies" program in the new Terminator. This new Terminator has a ready database of bad action movie cliché jokes. The barrage of one-liners and would-be catchphrases ("She'll be back." "I'm back." "You're terminated.") grew to be irritating.
Late in T3, the TX literally kicks the Terminator's head off in their battle. When the Terminator rebooted after the T-1000 overloaded its system in T2, it was a moving scene, as if the Terminator was reborn from the dead. In T3, the Terminator simply screws his head back on, business as usual. His later reboot and mission restatement in order to save John and Kate from the TX was unfortunately lacking emotional impact. In T2, James Cameron took great pains in developing the Terminator's growth as a character from his interaction with young John Connor, to the point where his "I need a vacation" line after destroying the T-1000 was a dose of humanity the Terminator well-earned. T3 pales in comparison.
Perhaps the most glaring omission in T3 is the lack of a score. The familiar Terminator fanfare plays over the closing credits, almost too little, too late. Most of the movie plays without a musical soundtrack of any type. This robbed the action and chase sequences of a good deal of visceral impact. Similarly, the opening credits, which in a Terminator film should be ominous and moving, were simple and non-descript. All in all, very disappointing in that respect. Without music, a movie feels incomplete, and T3 is no exception.
I think Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is ultimately as good a Terminator movie as could be made without James Cameron's guiding vision. I was more disappointed with the execution and details of the picture than I was with the overall story told. As a jumpstart to the franchise, it does what it sets out to do and more Terminator movies can indeed be made after this, unless T3's box office tally proves otherwise. While I'm sure James Cameron is happy that his good friend Arnold is indeed back in the role that made him a superstar, I wonder if deep down he hates Terminator 3. I kind of hope he does**. And I hope he's so motivated that he finally returns from his Titanically long exile and directs another movie. James Cameron is the one who I really want back.

** In an interview, James Cameron indicated that he in fact "loved" Terminator 3. Bah.