Film * Jonathan Mostow * Robot Apocalypse * 2003
It is now my sad duty to report on the downward spiral of one of my favorite stories in cinema. I watched this again with an eye towards why this particular sequel garnishes so much hate from fans of the first two movies, and why I personally was so let down by it when I originally watched it. Terminator 3 marks the beginning of a long slide into irrelevance, and an expansion of a franchise that has no business even becoming a franchise to begin with. Two movies were sufficient to tell the story of these characters, everything past the uncertain ending of Terminator 2 is superfluous and lacks any kind of real impact. Also, and this seems like an odd thing to say about a big budget, effects-driven, summer blockbuster kind of flick, but the third film lacks the subtly and artistry of the first two movies. The original Terminator and the first sequel had things to say about the world other than cool future robots and whatnot. There’s an entire subtext to those films that comment on modern Los Angeles and the postmodern world in general that have been done away with entirely in this third film. What is left is the shell of a Terminator movie without the soul. That’s why it’s a bummer. And from what I can tell, it only gets worse with every unnecessary film the studio churns out.
So! Terminator 3 is not a particularly effective Terminator movie. What it is, if you can look past that aspect, is a well-made action flick with some moments of humor that work (and a few that totally don’t), and an ending that I’m actually pretty fond of. The story catches up with a post-Judgement Day John Connor who is living off the grid because he and his mom prevented the Apocalypse and now he doesn’t know what to do with himself. Nick Stahl, it should be pointed out here, is the best John Connor. Anyway, his life is a bummer, but one day terminators suddenly appear again, except this time the new terminator is a lady. Her mission is, of course, to kill John Connor. However, since he’s an unperson now, the T-X (that’s her cool model number, by the way) is programmed to go on a killing spree in order to eliminate John’s future inner circle before he is able to form the Resistance. This includes Claire Danes, as Kate Brewster, who is caught up in this whole mess because her old man just happens to run Skynet. Oh, and because she made out with John when they were in eighth grade, right before the events of T2.
Meanwhile, Arnold is back for one last go-round before his eventual foray into politics. He has come back to protect John once again, except this model is not the same from Terminator 2. Well, I mean, he’s the same model (the come off an assembly line, which is pretty funny), but not the same unit. Unlike that second film, the two don’t have any time to bond here. Almost immediately the chase is on, and doesn’t stop until the finale. While this pretty much nips any real character development in the bud, it does play to the strength of the film, which are the action set-pieces. The crane chase is still the highlight of the movie for me, and I’m struggling to come up with competition for it, insofar as ridiculous, what-am-I-even-watching chase scenes are concerned. It’s dope as hell, and while the other action sequences of the film never quite hit that level, if you’re only here to watch shit blow the fuck up, you won’t be disappointed.
As for the rest of the film… well, if you came to Terminator 3 because you love the first two Terminators, disappointment might was well be the subtitle of the movie. I’ve already declared this, so let’s get into why. The idea of this film is to eliminate the uncertainty of the finale of Judgement Day. That’s an unnecessary thing to do, but the studio was looking to cash in. While it is tempting to dismiss everything Terminator on these grounds, I can’t do that because the movie exists. The story continues, even if it doesn’t need to. What, then, can we salvage from the story that’s told here? For one, I appreciate that John Connor lived his life between 1992 and 2003 in a logical fashion from where the second movie left off. It makes sense that he’s an unhappy, wandering vagrant. His entire life is a paradox, which he points out to Kate later in the movie. He is destined for greatness, but he cannot achieve greatness unless an apocalyptic cataclysm occurs. The price for a meaningful, important life is too high. But this paradox has taken its toll, and throughout the film John is portrayed as a weaker version of himself, hobbled both physically (he spends most of the movie limping around from various injuries) and mentally (in his inability to recognize the situation clearly). Lucky for him, he runs into Kate Brewster.
Full disclosure: I had a high school crush on Claire Danes during her My So Called Life years. She was just like me! Angsty, and sassy, and all of the flannel. So hot. Anyway, she shows up in Terminator 3 as Kate, who is cool. When she doesn’t understand the ludicrous situation she’s in, she fights like a hellion to get out of it. When she does understand, she essentially takes over. Of course, this new character kind of outs John Connor as a bit of a fraud. I mean, when he’s younger he’s a whiny (if resourceful) dipshit who is propped up by his badass mother. In this film he’s less whiny, still resourceful, but is now worn down and all but defeated by an uncertain, rough life. Here comes Kate, who we are told is John’s future wife, and what is she but another badass whose primary function is to prop up John Connor? I get it, behind every great man blah blah blah. I guess it just would have been neat if Kate were a driving force of her own and just took the destiny that John doesn’t even want. Instead, despite being clearly the better leader, she’s put in the supporting role. Whatever, feminist rant over.
Thematically, Rise of the Machines manages to get with the times insofar as the premise of the robot apocalypse is concerned. The automation and mechanization of modern first-world cities has pretty much been completed, with the new advancements in technology focusing inward on computer tech rather than external machinery. While James Cameron had a heavy machinery fetish he was working out in the first couple of movies, Terminator 3 recognizes the direction from which a true technological apocalypse is likely to come from. As it is pointed out at the end of the movie, as the nukes fly, Skynet isn’t hardware anymore. It’s software and connectivity. The Internet, as we all know, ruins everything, and in this case it becomes the source of a newly emergent, hostile artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all T3 brings to the table. Like I mentioned up top, this film lacks the underlying commentary about the modern world that its precursors were so goddamn good at. Here, things blow up in an entertaining fashion, we have a few laughs (and a few cringes), the movie says “look out for the Internet, y’all,” and then it peaces out. It’s a shame, but at the same time T3 is in no way was bad as some detractors make out. The next film in the series, on the other hand….