It’s 2003, eleven years after Terminator 2: Judgment Day. August 29th, 1997, the prophesied date of the machines’ nuclear revolt against humanity, came and went without incident, but John Connor (Nick Stahl) hasn’t let go of the fear that Judgment Day might still happen. He’s living as a drifter, leaving no public record of his existence; because of this, he must resort to breaking into the veterinary hospital of Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) in order to get painkillers and perform some self-surgery after a motorcycle accident. When Kate arrives to deal with a customer’s early-morning emergency, she discovers and overcomes Connor, locking him in a dog cage.
Meanwhile, a naked young woman (Kristanna Loken) materialises in Beverly Hills. She commences a murderous mission, gunning down a group of young adults whose only apparent connection is the same high school – and Kate Brewster is on the list. It is only the explosive intervention of the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) that saves the lives of both Connor and Brewster from this new feminine assassin, the T-X. But the third Model 101 cyborg from the future also has an expanded mission: Not only must John Connor, the future leader of the human resistance against the machines, be protected, but the survival of Kate Brewster is also vital to the future of humanity…
There’s an interesting thematic and stylistic point about the third installment in the Terminator franchise. The majority of the action scenes in the first two films occur at night, whereas beyond the first twenty minutes or so, Terminator 3 is shot in daytime.
It’s a rather apt reflection of the film; while it’s brighter and less moody, its flaws are also easier to see.
The first two Terminator movies, written and directed by James Cameron, were both high-tech action thrillers, and T3 is definitely no exception. Still, while it will doubtlessly be a box-office hit, it has something of an uphill battle to gain acceptance with fans of the first two films.
For starters, not only is James Cameron not involved in this latest film – Jonathan Mostow (U571) has taken the director’s reins, with a script by John Brancato, Michael Ferris (who wrote The Game and The Net with Brancato; the two also wrote the T3 screenplay) and Tedi Sarafian (Tank Girl) – but the charismatic Linda Hamilton, who played Sarah Connor in Terminator and T2, is also absent.
Claire Danes plays a similar role to Hamilton’s Terminator performance, as the young woman whose life is demolished by the Terminators because of a future purpose she will fulfil, whilst the scruffy, haunted Nick Stahl is reminiscent of Michael Biehn’s future warrior Reese.
And that’s one of the two main problems with Terminator 3. Its biggest challenge is to bring something new to the Terminator mythos. The Terminator‘s plot and characters made it more than just an action film, and T2 was able to build on it with the T-1000 and the idea of changing the future. While T3 has the advantage of playing fast and loose with time, as did the first two movies (i.e. the paradoxes of Reese as the father of John Connor and the design of the malevolent supercomputer Skynet being based on the first Terminator’s CPU), it doesn’t really introduce anything new.
In terms of characterisation, T3 feels like an amalgam of the first two films; the innocent yet strong woman, the man alienated from modern society and haunted by visions of the future, the stoic machine who is the butt of most of the film’s humour.
Carry this sort of duplication relies on performance, and while Mostow gets good performances from his cast, he doesn’t have Cameron’s eye for character. Stahl and Danes do solid work, but their characters, especially Kate Brewster, whose world comes crumbling down around her, treat their circumstances too lightly; there’s never that sense of confusion, shock or alienation that Hamilton and Biehn portrayed so well. Perhaps this may even be a flaw of the script itself; the characters never seem to get a chance to let it all sink in (unlike Sarah Connor at the police station and John Connor’s conversation with the second Terminator at night), and in order to keep moving, the plot forces them to become more larger-than-life than their predecessors.
The Terminators themselves are good, with Arnold back in the groove once more; I’ve read that he worked out every day on set to get back into the Terminator trim, and it worked. Kristanna Loken also turns in an effective performance, although she will always be compared with Robert Patrick’s powerhouse Terminator 2 performance as the T-1000; try as she might, Kristanna just can’t quite equal her predecessor. It’s unfortunate that the script never seemed interested in looking at the possibilities inherent in a female Terminator aside from a brief and rather cheap “for-laughs” attempt at the beginning (then again, perhaps the writers were trying to avoid any comparisons with the Species films).
The action is fast-paced and exciting, with the first car chase being very jaw-dropping; the effects are spectacular, especially those involving the T-X; and Arnold’s self-deprecating humour is always fun. Still, you keep feeling like it’s just an escalation of what you’ve seen before. It’s more, rather than different.
This extends to the biggest special effect in the film: the T-X, a combination of Arnold’s original assassin and the liquid-metal T-1000. The T-X as a special effect looks great, adding onboard weaponry and the ability to take over any machine to the combination of endoskeleton and liquid metal (we still don’t get an answer to how the liquid-metal Terminators can fool the time-displacement gear of the future, while Arnold’s model still needs a flesh covering). While the former seems almost overdue, the believability of the latter gets stretched at first, turning modern-day cars into independent, self-driving pack-hunters. It’s a little much to swallow; it feels as though the story is trying too hard to make her a bigger bad-ass than even the T-1000.
The other problem with Terminator 3 is its plot holes, and these can’t be discussed without spoiling some of the film. Terminator and T2 were at least able to present their premises plausibly, but although the changing future gives the writers some leeway, they’re not quite able to establish the new premise as well as Terminator 2 was. No mention is made on how development on Skynet was completed after the destruction of the Cyberdyne offices in Terminator 2, nor for how Skynet conceived of and commenced its agenda for the destruction of humanity when it was neither self-aware yet, nor under direct threat from its creators. Also, how was Skynet’s super-virus at large in the Internet at the beginning of the film when Skynet is first connected up to an external system near the climax? It feels like all of these plot points could have been tied up with some quick exposition, but they’re all left hanging, and the movie is definitely weaker because of them.
Still, it’s easy to be negative of a film such as this, especially when you’re an SF nut like me. T3 delivers action, chases, explosions and thrills in spades, and even if you’re waiting for it to go deeper than the action film formula (which it never does), you’ll be having a good time while you do. It’s unfortunate that you have to turn your brain off to do so, when the first two films allowed you to keep it switched on, but that doesn’t keep Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines from being worthy of the price of a cinema ticket.