Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines starts off 10 years after the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Because T2 was made in 1991, this puts the action of T3 two years behind the curve. These Terminator sequels, too, are few and far between—seven years from the first film to its sequel, and 12 years from the first sequel to the second. This new film sets us up for the inevitable Terminator 4, but at the rate they’re coming, we’ll have to wait until 2024 to see it. By then, Arnold Schwarzenegger will be 77 years old.
These thoughts occurred to me while watching Terminator 3 because, to be honest, my mind kept wandering. It’s not that I wasn’t having a good time; the movie is a rollicking deadpan comedy with more good laughs than Adam Sandler’s entire career. But it settles into its formula early on, and despite all the mayhem and stunts going on, it still gives you plenty of time to think about other things.
That’s something James Cameron never did when he wrote and directed the first two Terminator movies (with a belated credit to the litigious Harlan Ellison). Cameron’s original hook was the idea of square-jawed, square-shouldered, square-headed Schwarzenegger as a robot stalker who kept coming and couldn’t be stopped: “I’ll be back.” (People forget now what a joke Schwarzenegger was in 1984, when Cameron offered him the hero’s role in The Terminator. Schwarzenegger immediately realized that the robot villain was the right role for him. The switch made the movie, saving Schwarzenegger’s career and launching Cameron’s. No fool, that Arnold.)
Cameron found some new wrinkles for the second film. He had the Terminator re-programmed to protect young John Connor (Edward Furlong) rather than to destroy him—the same stolid robot but suddenly a good guy. And he pitted the freshly minted hero against a new, improved Terminator (Robert Patrick), a metal chameleon with built-in weapons. And with the shoestring budget a thing of the past, Cameron created an apocalyptic nightmare that made your blood run cold.
Cameron has moved on to other things, to be replaced by John Brancato, Michael Ferris and Tedi Sarafian for the script and Jonathan Mostow for direction. Most of the inspiration seems to have gone with him; the only fresh idea this crew came up with was to make the bad Terminator a female (Kristanna Loken) and to replace John’s mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton in the first two films) with a companion his own age (Claire Danes). The only other change is cosmetic rather than creative: Edward Furlong is gone, and Nick Stahl is playing John now.
All Mostow and company can think to do this time around is to recycle the plot of Terminator 2, playing it for mordant laughs. Loken doesn’t have the unsmiling, implacable menace of Patrick; she seems more like a supermodel striding through a singles bar thinking about what she’s gonna do when she gets her hands on that two-timing boyfriend of hers.
Without an adversary to match his heft, Schwarzenegger seems less a protector than a kind of humorless chaperone, with an exasperating way of predicting the future as if he were saying, “I told you so.”
The writers experiment with several catchphrases, hoping to hit the same jackpot Cameron found with “I’ll be back” and “Hasta la vista, baby.” They try a number of them: “Talk to the hand,” “I’ll drive” and even, inevitably, “She’ll be back.” Nothing really clicks, and the upshot of it all is that Schwarzenegger comes off as something of a dry wit, always ready with a wisecrack to break the ice.
There are numerous chases—indeed, the film feels like one long chase, with Schwarzenegger dragging Stahl and Danes all over California, pausing only to change vehicles and reload. It’s ingeniously staged and impressively executed, but the dread of the first two films is replaced with flippancy. By the end (not to spill any beans, but it sets up the final confrontation between humans and machines), the flippancy has drained the horror from the saga; Armageddon has morphed into Dr. Strangelove.