Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Them robots just keep on comin'. Amazingly a huge franchise sequel that almost delivers the goods!

Released in 2003, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 01 Aug 2003 by Craig Eastman
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By god, am I relieved. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines isn't a steaming pile of horse cack. In fact, it's considerably better than not being a steaming pile of horse cack; it's actually quite good. Quite what celestial alignment has had to take place for it to break the Law of Diminishing Returns remains unclear, but let's just say the tide might be coming in quite a bit higher some time soon, and if you feel like you've put on weight it'll actually be gravity shifting. Don't get me wrong; T3 isn't quite the consummately paced masterclass in tension the first movie represented, nor is it a groundbreaking sequel of T2 proportions. It is, however, a very decent FX chase movie in it's own right, and can just about hold it's head up along with the other two.

The action, as with the other two films, takes place pretty much in the present, with John Connor (Nick Stahl) now in his early 20's and living "off the grid"; no mobile, no credit cards, no health records and no home. Despite having apparently averted Judgment Day in the last film, John cannot shake the feeling that fate still has something in store for him, nor can he rid himself of his dreams of a scorched Earth crawling with Terminators. Unsurprisingly, his fears are about to be proven founded.

Stealing drugs from the local vet surgery in the middle of the night, John is rumbled by Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) who works at the practice and has had an emergency evening callout. Locking John in a dog cage, it dawns on her that she knows him from school, but their reminiscence is rudely interrupted by the arrival of a certain T-X (Kristanna Loken), yet another cyborg sent from the future to eliminate key members of the future human resistance. Having already dispatched a number of faces on her hit list, it now seems to be the time for Kate to take a dirt nap. Essentially an improvement on the T-1000 from the last film, the T-X is again liquid metal, this time over a polyalloy chassis and with the somewhat annoying ability to control machines. As the T-X closes in on the kill, she also cottons on to the presence of John, which is obviously something of a tasty Terminator bonus from her point of view. Seconds from fulfilling her mission, the T-X is sidelined by a certain T-800 (Arnie returning once again) who appears on the scene in the nick of time, crushing the T-X into the vet surgery with a well placed utility truck, and affording John and Kate time to escape.

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From this point on T3 is pretty much full-on wall to wall action, with nary the space for a breather. Obviously acutely aware of the need to compete with the clinical pacing of the first movie and the full-on thrills of the second, director Jonathan Mostow tackles the problem head first, wisely acknowledging the weaker scripting of this installment and keeping the pace at a suitably distracting level. It's not long before the first of several major chase sequences takes place, with the T-X commanding an improbably fast mobile crane vehicle in pursuit of the fleeing youngsters.

Arnie arrives fashionably late on a police motorcycle, involuntarily becoming hooked on the crane's boom, affording the FX guys opportunity to dabble in a little CG stunt work (very nicely done, Wachowskis take note), blow up and flip a very long row of parked cars, and ultimately use the boom to collapse the entire front half of a suitably large building, all with Arnie hanging on, and all without the crane losing any pace. Physics lecturers will be having heart attacks throughout this movie, but the rest of us will be too busy indulging in the sheer escapism to care.

From here the plot unfolds quickly yet steadily. It transpires that the T-800 was sent back not by the future John to protect himself, but by the future Kate to protect herself. John also faces a nicely scripted and thought out dilemma upon the revelation as to why Kate was responsible for sending the machine back; the machine was captured, reprogrammed and sent back by Kate after it had killed John, who is by that time her husband. Does John continue to allow the T-800 to help, knowing that it is not here to specifically aid him and will ultimately be his executioner, or does he attempt to spare his own arguably more important life by sacrificing Kate's safety here and now? Much to it's credit, the movie is awash with little moments like this that are well though out and do sufficient justice in fleshing out the Terminator universe for those who had worried this installment was simply a series cash-in.

It'd be nice if sequels frequently paid this much attention to maintaining the development of the source material, let alone second sequels, so another brownie point there for Mostow and screen/story writers Brancato, Ferris and Sarafian. It seems almost criminal then that little if anything comes of this revelation, but you can't feel too aggrieved in that at least it's there to be ignored in the first place.

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We learn from the T-800 that despite having averted the immediate arrival of Judgment Day, John and his (now deceased) mother Sarah did not succeed in preventing it entirely. Miles Dyson may have worked on the chip responsible for the machine's eventual sentience, but Skynet itself was not smashed by the destruction of Cyberdyne's HQ in the second movie. The only way to achieve that would have been to kill the military's man in charge of the Skynet program, who just happens to be Kate's father Robert (David Andrews). Having failed to terminate Kate, the T-X will now attempt to acquire and eliminate it's secondary target; Robert Brewster being the only one who can pull the plug on Skynet.

Despite warning from the T-800 that Skynet's nuclear war begins in a mere 3 hours and that they are to head to Mexico to avoid the worst of it, Kate orders the T-800 to take her to her father's installation out in the desert. The T-X arrives just ahead of them, right about the time Skynet takes control of the national defence network and begins activating launch sequences willy nilly, as well as prototype Terminator models built by the military. Although not the familiar humanoid machines, these terminators are dual-tracked Gatling canon-wielding mofo's that resemble early prototypes of the tracked Hunter Killer models in the future segments of the previous films. In addition, we also get a couple of peeks at early aerial HK's being tested by lab types before they go on the rampage. Again it's another nice nod to expanding the Terminator universe that deserves credit for it's thought and consideration of the fans.

There follows a mighty showdown between the T-X and the T-800 that just about outclasses Arnie's rumble with Robert Patrick's T-1000 in the previous movie, advances in FX meaning we now get a much better sense of heavy metal slugging it out with a decent feeling of mass and inertia that result in a satisfyingly meaty "crunch" whenever one puts the other's head through a bathroom wall. It's worth mentioning the bathroom here as it represents one of many nods to Arnie's past movies, with the T-800 smashing the T-X's head into a toilet much like Harry Tasker interfaced the poor bathroom assassin in True Lies with a ceramic urinal.

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Other nods include the T-800 telling Kate "I lied" (Matrix's pay-off line to Sully in Commando), a shootout in a cemetary a-la Raw Deal, and several nods to the preceding two Terminator movies amongst others. Incidental for the clueless, but a nice addition for the clued-up, these in-jokes are another unobtrusive welcome for the knowledgeable viewer. What isn't so welcome is the film's frequent attempt at humour that goes a little the wrong side of overboard.

Things start of forgivably with a restaging of T2's "clothing up" scene. Stealing the clothes of a gay male stripper, the T-800 leaves the establishment, pauses to put on the accompanying sunglasses and reveals...they're silver-framed, star-shaped "Tommy" glasses! A little silly, a little surreal, but forgivable in the context that the T800 a) quickly discards them and b) is programmed for functionality, not fashion sense. Things begin to get a little worrying when Arnie's neural network learning capabilities get an airing, the metal mickey-taker holding his palm up to an exasperated gas station clerk and telling him to "talk to the hand". Again forgivable. It all starts getting a little annoying later on though, and by the time the T-800 jauntily follows up Arnie's trademarked Terminator parting message with a cheery "I'm back!" I was wishing Mostow would put a cap on the giggles and a fresh clip in the guns.

One expects a bit of light-hearted banter from the human characters as a way of breaking up the eye-melting setpieces, but from a robot? In this instance he might as well have hacked up a wooden door with an axe, poked his head through The Shining style and delivered his line in a "here's Johnny!" tone. We are now beyond the stage where Arnie simply saying something mildly against his perceived character isn't funny just because it's him saying it, and the writers would have done well to leave the laughs to John, Kate and co. After all, they're the ones who need it most.

Another thorn in this reviewer's side is the breathlessly relentless pacing. It's nice to be frequently excited, but constantly barraging the viewer with a pyrotechnical onslaught of epic proportions eventually takes it's toll. For me the action was nice to look at, but seldom gave an impression of impending danger or peril for the protagonists. Wether this is purely down to the constant assault on the senses or merely an inherent shortcoming in largely CG stunt work I'm not sure, but either way this lacks the danger of either of the first two films.

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Cast-wise this is a strong installment indeed, with Stahl a far better Connor than the whiney Edward Furlong. His monologue at both the beginning and the end of the movies carries a sense of genuine singularity, and his performance throughout is as emotive as you could hope for from the script. He might lack a physical presence, but he's certainly one to watch for the future. Danes also makes a convincing action woman, wielding an AK with the best of them and taking a decent beating at one point. Arnie still has physical clout, and while his digital quipping may begin to cause concern, for the most part he's as effective and efficient as a Terminator should be. Speaking of efficiency, Kristanna Loken does a grand job for a newcomer, imbuing the T-X with a sensual female menace all of her own. Not required to do much, she nonetheless gives a performance reasonably reminiscent of Robert Patrick's T-1000. Now that would be an exciting contest... Special kudos for the inclusion of Earl Boen who returns incidentally as the stressed Dr. Silberman, popping up just in time to catch a glimpse of Arnie that brings all his old memories flooding back and sends him fleeing on foot into the distance.

Mostow gives the impression of really having taken his best shot, and when you consider the size of the shoes he's trying to fill his achievements seem all the more impressive. Perhaps a little too heavy on the accelerator, any action movie that feels 20 minutes shorter than it actually is has to be pushing most of the right buttons, and Mostow can rest assured he's done an altogether fine job. Brad Fiedel's pervasive Terminator Theme may be sadly lacking, but otherwise everything else seems pretty much present and correct. Indeed, in many ways T3 has advantages over T2, being devoid of that movie's meandering sentimentality and sluggish "no nukes!" posturing.

Terminator 3 has both the audacity and sequel-friendly concession to throw a curve ball for an ending, leaving the audience pondering the outcome and in no doubt as to the possibility of a fourth movie. This seems almost inevitable given the now essentially serialised story arc, assuming of course the movie is successful enough for the studio to fund another, although wether Arnie is going to be in a state fit enough to attend is dubious. Perhaps a Terminator with a sentient killer zimmer? Either way I have only this to say at the prospect of another movie; watch the bloody budget guys! $170 million? Arnie may well have pocketed North of $30 million, but that leaves quite a chunk that I find it hard to believe accounts for all the admittedly impressive effects. Maybe they bought a small country to film it in?

I have renewed hope for the Terminator franchise. If they do make another it surely must see the return of Mostow who has here proven his worth, and the two young leads at the very least who have done likewise. In that event, I shall perhaps approach that movie with a higher expectation than those I sported waiting in the queue for a ticket to this installment. Fortunately I was proven quite wrong, and hats off to everyone involved for such a decent job. The weakest of the trilogy? Well of course, but given the pedigree of the others that's not necessarily to say it's poor. Quite the opposite in fact, T3 has turned out to be really rather good. Blow me down.

From my island of objectivity, I have awarded this film 4 out of 5 Disko Units. It is...a machine!

Jonathan Mostow
Cast list:
Arnholdt The Schwarz (T-800)
Nick Stahl (John Connnor)
Claire Danes (Kate Brewster)
Kristanna Loken (T-X)