Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
(SPOILERS) A Terminator 3 was as inevitable as Arnold’s waning career. He was never going to stick to his pledge not to do a third without James Cameron (who had already made one too many, even if the second cemented his bankability and gave him a lavish box of effects tricks to play with). The ‘90s saw a steady downward career trend, not reversed by a second of the decade’s collaborations with Cameron and being sent to da coola in the debacle that was Batman and Robin. By the time Rise of the Machines arrived, Arnie was barely scraping by on the strength of international receipts. He needed its success; it at least allowed him to go off governating with a modicum of credibility. Which is about the amount of credibility Rise of the Machines possesses.
If T2 isn’t all its reputation cracks it up to be, it’s a masterpiece next to its 12-years-later very belated sequel. Which is a shame, as T3 has a few good ideas going for it, ones that are significantly more daring than what was, for Cameron, becoming a laboured family action movie ethic (the cosy T2 unit coming after the cosy Aliens one) and a willingness to pull his punches and opt for a saveable future and a good guy cyborg. T3 is credited to John Brancato, Michael Ferris and Tedi Sarafian. Assembled credits include Tank Girl, The Game, The Net, Surrogates and (!) Catwoman, as well as Terminator Salvation.
Not the most auspicious of résumés, then. However, the last of those pictures is important as, whether or not you care for Ts 3 and 4 very much, it ‘s certainly the case that they are tentatively willing to grapple with the ramifications of all this meddling with timelines, and what must be going on with Skynet. Indeed, while the execution of T3 is frequently barely more than passable, some of the actual plot elements are rather good.
Sending a Terminator back with a mission to take out John Connor’s lieutenants if it can’t achieve the main target is pretty damn sensible, and shows the writers have at least tried to think about the nuts and bolts of this future scenario, aside from a shot of an old John giving orders in a broken landscape. Likewise, even if its stodgily delivered, pairing up John with someone involved in the US military, and therefore giving him connections with which to broker a resistance, combats the rather miraculous notion of him just rising from the ashes.
It’s also an interesting development, if one borne from the necessity of the 1997 judgement date passing by, to have the T2 timetable shifted; Cyberdyne are no longer the initiators of Judgement Day. And yet, it turns out to be inevitable. The scenes at the Air Force base provide a needed balance to the hows and whys, and the trap of the computer virus that causes the military to activate Skynet is quite nifty, even if the realisation doesn’t have the same power (existing on the Internet is a rather anticlimactic sign of desperation in the science fiction genre).
The fatalistic aspect (although how the Terminator knows this – “You only postponed it. Judgment Day is inevitable” – is questionable, unless it has crunched some algorithms and come up with a probability) of the picture sees it veering towards another great franchise downer, and least on paper: Alien 3. Sarah Connor has died of leukaemia off screen, while John has become a waster/drifter. The Terminator that comes back to save him killed him in the future. Then whole thing ends with the nukes going off. It’s a blast!
And yet the entire exercise is all but still born. One is tempted to place this entirely at Jonathan Mostow’s feet (he brought in pals Ferris and Brancato to revise Sarafian’s script; he later directed their so-so Surrogates). Six years earlier Mostow delivered a first rate little B-thriller called Breakdown. Then he moved up a notch budget-wise to U-571. It was still in the thriller genre (a fairly middling one that attracted attention mainly for playing fast and loose with history), so the action was germane to what he knew. There was nothing that really announced him as the perfect guy to fill Cameron’s shoes. Perhaps he came cheap, even if the movie itself didn’t (Carolco’s Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna bought the rights for C2, which has since dissolved and been reborn as… Carolco?!) We’ve seen this sort of thing elsewhere, with unsuitable directors thrown at something just to get it moving (Die Hard 5).
Cinematographer Don Burgess has worked on a number of movies that look great (notably his pairings with Robert Zemeckis and the first Spider-Man), but the look of T3 reminds me more of the horribly lit later John Carpenter movies courtesy of Gary Kibbe. There’s no atmosphere in the visuals. Nor is there tension in the editing. It’s not as if Mostow is incompetent with his staging – the geography is all pretty clear – but everything is so slow and flat. There’s no energy, and Marco Beltrami’s score is barely even present.
The road chase early on is logistically crazier than anything in T2, with its crane truck, fire truck and assorted vehicular carnage, but it never becomes thrilling. Combined with design work that is on the cheesy side (the drone planes, the coffin Arnie carries on one shoulder, the “Terminatrix”’s hand/gun; basically the ray gun that was mocked in the first movie) and a raft of tone-deaf elements (the humour, the gore, the special effects), the only mesmerising aspect on show is how aesthetically challenged the picture is.
Cameron flirted with self-parodic moments in T2, but they’re nothing to what we get here. Arnie really isn’t much cop in this, although for a 55-year old he’s in fairly extraordinary shape. His line deliveries are frequently too emotive, and he seems willing to go for full send-up without understanding the line he’s crossing.
The first 20 minutes seem more focussed on getting our Terminators outfits than advancing the plot. So Arnie visits a strip club and gets some silly shades. Kristanna Loken’s T-X meanwhile augments her breasts (but not her career). Arnie gets an occasional gem (“Your levity is good. It relieves tension and the fear of death”, “Relax!”) but mostly has to settle for desperate crap like “Talk to the hand”, “She’ll be back” and “I’m back”.
What might have been a great scene – Arnie taken over by the T-X – is borderline risible as performed by Arnie trying to resist while throwing his targets about rather than snapping their spines.
I quite liked Earl Boen’s return as Dr Silverman, as by that point in the show it’s clear it’s never going to become a wild thrill ride. He drifts off into a reverie of how trauma can damage one’s memory before legging it when Arnie appears in his line of sight. It’s more down to Boen that it’s funny that the staging, however.
There’s nothing wrong with Loken per se, but she’s a female Terminator purely because they haven’t done that yet, and she’s part T-800 part T-1000 purely because they have no ideas at all about how to give the villain special new skills. Apart from taking control of other machines, which is much better on paper than in practice. Also, it’s clear that the carefully conceived physicality of Patrick’s T-1000 has not been applied to this new model.
As noted, her initially going round killing teenagers is a decent enough idea, but it lacks any real tension or horror. Added to that, the CGI used to render the T-X is pretty lousy. There’s also some weird gore – I have no idea how her putting her arm through a cop’s chest from a back of the car gets a 12 certificate. The Terminator on Terminator fighting is far from enthralling, and occasionally funny for all the wrong reasons; Loken picking up Arnie by the crotch and hurling him about just looks silly, not dramatic.
What of Nick Stahl as John Connor? Stahl’s a good actor, as he showed in the too short-lived Carnivale at about the same time. But he’s all wrong as a future resistance leader; that future dream sequence (why have one Terminator when you can have 30?) isn’t fooling anyone. One thing Salvation did right was cast Christian Bale (until he started talking, at any rate). It needed someone who could be believably desperate and ruthless. And no, he can’t sell the “Terminatrix” line, but who could?
Danes fares little better, but I did find myself perversely entertained by her clichéd cluelessness in response to the sci-fi world revealed to her. The introduction of Kate Brewster to the mythology can get a free pass because the timeline has changed, but drawing attention to the coincidences doesn’t always make them any easier to swallow (John kissed her the day before he first met Arnie? He just happened to be in her vet’s on the night the T-X comes to kill her). Her dialogue is frequently unintentionally funny too (“Die you bitch!”)
I hadn’t seen Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines since taking its cinema release, so to a certain extent it felt fairly fresh. Just not in a good way. This and Salvation took on something of the rod for their own backs of the original Planet of the Apes series, filling in the narrative gaps. Occasionally such an approach can work, but it tends to be struggling against rote joining the dots if there aren’t genuinely surprising or original individual story beats in the mix. The decimation of the final scene of T3 achieves that, but the rest of the picture is stillborn.