Movie Review: Terminator 3 – Ah-nuld Will Be Back…Again…And Again…

Good news first: The latest installment in this beloved franchise is not lame. In fact, it is a pretty decent flick, if not really good. In the past few years, venerable franchises like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, the Matrix and Star Trek have embarrassed themselves. In returning to another late sequel of another much loved saga, viewers are wise to be cautious. But lovers of T2 won’t be crushed. Now let’s just hope that Mad Max 4 (?) and Indy 4 (2008) won’t be clunkers either.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is the latest installment in the hugely popular Terminator series (T1, 1984; T2, 1991). The film’s very existence, however, is troublesome if you know the first two, because the second wraps up the story rather well. Like Godfather III, viewers may find this installment a bit unnecessary, and both are the ‘worst’ of their respective trilogies. T3 never really gets around the knotty problem of why T2 wasn’t the end of the road. But also like GIII, unfair comparison with its excellent predecessors should not undervalue the current effort.

T3 opens with John Connor (Nick Stahl), head of the future human resistance to the machines, living as an untraceable drifter (albeit one who never leaves southern California). Skynet, mankind’s machine opponent in the future, once more sends back a baddie Terminator to assassinate him (Kristanna Loken’s TX or Terminatrix), and the humans once again send an older model (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-101) to help him. This plot device, creative in the first movie, feels like a retread by now, so director Jonathan Mostow spruces things up by making the evil terminator ‘female’ (?) and giving her other targets besides Connor himself.

From there things quickly heat up as Schwarzenegger and Loken chase after Connor and one of his closest future lieutenants (Claire Danes’ Kate Brewster). The well-advertised action sequence with the crane truck occurs early in the movie (perhaps learning a lesson from Star Wars and Matrix Reloaded’s long expository tedium), and the action sequences after that are pretty serious stuff. The film purportedly cost $170 M, and as a summer action pic, it does not disappoint. F/X whiz Stan Winston was brought back again and does a great job recycling and reworking James Cameron’s (director of the first two) original visions of the Skynet machines.

The progress of the film’s narrative mirrors (rips off?) the second film. Once again the humans, assisted by Ah-nuld, are off to stop the nuclear armageddon of Judgment Day while under pursuit from a better terminator. The ending, however, is far more pessimistic than expected, (spoiler ahead) finding Connor and Brewster in an underground bunker to ride out the nuclear war. Indeed the most emotionally powerful scene of the film is the concluding image, from space, of ICBMs criss-crossing the atmosphere and the massive mushroom clouds of their impacts. That ending clearly sets up a sequel, and Schwarzenegger himself leaked on the Howard Stern Show last week, that he had agreed to T4 and T5, if he doesn’t run for office. Nonehtless, IMBD list T4 with a 2009 release date.

This is a solid film. As a summer action movie, it makes the grade of popcorn fun. The CGI is used to augment not replace real-life action, and it thankfully demurs from the contemporary trend of filming all action sequences as high-wire karate battles. There are no terminators on strings. In this ‘summer of sequels,’ it is better paced than the stop-start Matrix Reloaded, and the action and story are more ‘believable’ than the ridiculous X2, with its kung fu mutants so powerful that governments long ago would have eradicated them. And do I really need to tell you it is better than Legally Blonde or Charlie’s Angels 2?

As an installment in the franchise, it is also an achievement. It moves the story forward (where Star Wars I or Jurassic III barely do), and it creates tension and anticipation for the next chapter. It also pleasantly maintains the offbeat humor of T2, and clearly Mostow & co. studied the visuals and story of the predecessors to keep the films’ look synchronous. Mostow demonstrates real care, and it shows. I am hopeful however that an expanded DVD cut may improve its tie-in to the previous films.

There are several problems of course, including a plot-hole big enough to blast a terminator through. At the end of T2, the Cyberdyne plant (the company building the first machines) is destroyed, as are the materials of the terminators that warped back through time. In theory then, there should have been nothing left upon which Skynet would be built. But in T3, just 10 years later, Skynet is about to take over, and there is no mention of Cyberdyne. Huh? It is a shame that the military and Skynet scenes are so poorly fleshed out, because the erection of Skynet that T3 presumes radically de-values the action taken by the trio at the end of T2. Here is where a director’s cut may really help the continuing story.

This suggests another major change – in the series’ tone toward, for lack of a better word, predestination. Cameron, for all his love of machinery (Aliens, Titanic, The Abyss), has always had a humanist touch – directed action by committed humans can make a difference in the world. The mantra of the resistance in the earlier Terminator films was ‘there is no fate but what we make.’ In this film, Mostow drops that to stress that Judgment Day is ‘inevitable.’ Schwarzenegger’s robotic character even talks, a la Darth Vader, to John Connor about ‘your destiny.’ While perhaps necessary language to keep the story rolling for more sequels, it is a significant break with the tone and guarded optimism of Cameron’s work. In this one, humans are screwed, and there ain’t much we can do.

Perhaps the biggest issue fans will notice is the lack of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, Edward Furlong as John, and Cameron in the director’s chair. There was great controversy over these changes, and many fans were deeply skeptical that without these returnees, the film would be little more than a cash-in on a popular icon or an effort to prop-up Schwarzenegger’s sagging appeal or gubernatorial ambitions. Why Cameron refused the sequel is a mystery. He has spoken not publicly on this. But without him, both Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn (the good guy from T1) refused to return. And Furlong’s absence has been variously ascribed to drug issues and his prickly attitude. Judging by Stahl’s flaccid performance, he was much easier to direct about.

The replacements work relatively well. Hamilton’s character is disposed of with little ado, perhaps too little. Stahl does a passable job as John. He seems genuinely burdened by the weight of the possible future, but his dialogue is flat and unimaginative (“sometimes things happen that just can’t be prevented” – yawn). Danes doesn’t get to do much either besides scream and run, like Hamilton did in T1. So…maybe she’ll come back in the next one as a pumped-up super mom smoking Marlboro Reds? Yeah!

Loken, as the antagonist, gets much more to do, but like Robert Patrick (the bad T-1000 terminator in T2) she doesn’t get to say much. She clearly models her stone-faced performance on his and does well enough. But with so little dialogue and few expressive movements, we notice, perhaps more than is fair, her attractive physical appearance. She is a former fashion model, and it is just hard to find that as menacing as the T-1000.

This issue is perhaps the greatest ‘sell-out’ of T3 to the logic of Hollywood in respect to its predecessors. There is no narrative requirement for a female terminator – or male, to be fair. And the ‘terminatrix’ could have looked like Janet Reno or Oprah Winfrey. Instead it is painfully clear that Mostow chose Loken for her striking good looks. He wisely chose to retain his credibility by avoiding an easy, full frontal nude shot of her, but her selection nonetheless betrays a ‘Seven of Nine’-style sell out to the teenage boy demographic. This continues a disappointing Hollywood trend to recruit female talent from the modeling business rather than acting schools. Instead of skilled actresses, who are perhaps attractive as well, the method now is to recruit models and then hope they can act – think Natasha Henstridge, Denise Richards, Naomi Campbell.

The heart of the film of course is Schwarzenegger. His terminator this time has more to do and say, and the stiff, awkward robot jokes still work. This is clearly Schwarzenegger’s signature role, and it is good to see him back in form after such clunkers as The End of Days or Batman and Robin. And it simply must be said that, at 55, he looks astonishing. Too much of the film, however, rests on him this time around. In the other films, there were meaningful human characters with strong actor performances to supplement the big guy. Sarah could have done a decent job with John on her own, for example, in T2, and Hamilton added that sense in her portrayal. This time around you have the impression Connor and Brewster would die immediately without the governator to guide them. This focus on Schwarzenegger’s terminator character may please those for whom that is the big appeal of the series, but it clearly impoverishes the wider narrative that the humans’ characterizations and arcs are so limpid this time through.

Recommendation: Casual Viewers: If you have seen the other films and thought they were passable fun, you will probably enjoy this one. Just take it as more summer movie entertainment. It will help a lot to have seen the first films though (there is surprisingly little re-cap in this one), so if you need to, rent them before you go back. If you are totally new to the franchise and don’t generally care for the sustained action genre, you will be bored. Die Hard Fans: You will see it no matter what I say, but I think you will like it. Mostow tries hard to capture the spirit of the first two, some 19 years after T1, and he does a better job than we expected. The narrative mostly works, and the action scenes are as big and bold as you want them. And you will be psyched for the next one. 3.5/5 STARS.

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