Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

(Jonathan Mostow, USA, 2003)


How many gags can a sequel milk out of Arnold Schwarzenegger's immortal line "I'll be back"? Terminator 3 tries for two, and both are pretty good.

Such jokes (which I won't spoil here) are the best part of this film. James Cameron has stepped aside to let Jonathan Mostow take the director's chair, and in every respect the younger man's work is proficient but not especially ambitious.

This Terminator tale plays it safe, aiming for neither the lean savagery of the original film nor the cutting-edge, technological wizardry of its sequel.

However, expect no "hasta la vista" cracks here: as T1 explains patiently to John Connor (Nick Stahl), he is not the same cyborg as we are familiar with, for he does not possess the same memories.

What this twist essentially allows is the complete heroisation of his narrative function: he is, for all intents and purposes, the good guy, who has come back in time to protect John and Kate (Claire Danes) from the truly bad, new and improved terminator model, TX (Kristanna Loken).

All the cold-blooded action this time belongs to TX, who is a splendidly sexy creation – part supermodel, part killing machine. As she tears her way across town, T1 is gradually embroiled in the kind of dilemma well known to Star Trek viewers: can an artificially created being have a conscience, or feel emotions? Certainly, T1's dialogue – his standard hyper-rational responses, such as "I cannot comply" when told to drop dead – betray no advanced evolution on this front.

But ultimately, actions speak louder than words in Terminator 3. Mostow delivers several complicated action scenes in the manner of much contemporary American cinema: it is hard to know exactly who is crashing into what, or where anyone is precisely located. Nonetheless, the story drives forward efficiently.

What fills the spaces between the action highpoints is a series of humorous allusions to and amplifications of moments from the previous entries in the series – such as an extravagant bit of self-surgery for T1, and the magical entry into the present day of the terminators, naked and unafraid.

The film suffers by comparison with The Matrix Reloaded (2003). Not only is the movie by the Wachowski brothers more innovative aesthetically and technically, it also manages to stir a surplus human-interest factor. Terminator 3 raises an intriguing love triangle (reminiscent of much screwball romantic comedy) involving Kate's fiancé, but scuttles the possibilities almost immediately. And it does little to make the improbable love match between John and Kate a matter of cosmic destiny. The lack of chemistry here is palpable.

Where the Matrix series takes its intellectual and mythic pretensions seriously (a little too seriously for some viewers), the Terminator franchise, minus Cameron, only wants to keep the action rolling. To this end, the question that is at the centre of the first two films in the series – can a future apocalypse be averted? – is here displaced in a clumsy, casual way, no doubt to enable future sequels.

As for the "rise of the machines" spectacle promised by the subtitle, this amounts to little more than a little panic-mongering about global computerisation (a plot device worn out long ago in science-fiction literature) and some hilariously ingenious tinkering by TX with any vehicle or appliance that can aid her dastardly plans.

Perhaps the happiest bit of showbiz news generated by Terminator 3 is that, after so many weak performances in mediocre star-vehicles, Arnie is enormous fun here. His role allows him to do his hard-boiled, tough-guy stuff without overdoing the self-parodying, nudge-wink irony that has plagued the actor's career since the lamentable Last Action Hero (1993).

Where The Matrix Reloaded gleefully aspires to be on the curriculum of every tertiary education course about postmodernism, Terminator 3 courts only as much reflexive savvy as is needed to generate laughs – and Arnie makes the most of this agreeable formula.

MORE Mostow: Breakdown, U-571

© Adrian Martin June 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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