Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

The Terminator movies had been about one thing: a robot assassin securing the future. It’s a novel idea that’s like many of the best in science-fiction – simple. So brilliantly simple in fact, that our messiah JC would come under fire for plagiarism. Yes, that is just as idiotic as the accusations of the very same thing he dealt with during the marketing for Avatar.

Unfortunately, the simplicity of the plot works well for just one movie, and would take a creative genius to repeat for a sequel. James Cameron has always had passion fuel his every project, whether that be the feature-length adaptation of a short story he wrote when he was sixteen or the various trips he took to the bottom of the ocean. When executives offered him Terminator 2, he wasn’t going to waste the next two years of his life during its production – he was going to own it. Very clearly, he did: not only is it a great film in its own right, it pushed the boundaries of special-effects technology, an act that would inspire him and Stan Winston to push ahead and open their very own effects house in 1993.

Pushing the envelope has always been Cameron’s thing, as seen most obviously with the most ambitious movie ever just two years ago. Jonathan Mostow’s movie on the other hand was a product of pure ‘corporate soulless filmmaking,’ as I feel I’ve heard it described before. They wanted to make a sequel to a franchise, not realizing how very little the franchise could accomplish as a franchise. It was so small, so contained. The first two Terminator movies really would feel like one movie split down the middle (and at one point they pretty much were) if they didn’t look so different, and weren’t so self-contained in themselves.

It’s not even that problematic that Mostow’s picture was born out of a money-hunger, because that’s forgivable and the Terminator series wasn’t going anywhere anyway. Couldn’t hurt it, on some level. The problem extends to the first two movies as not sequel-friendly. Yes, Terminator 2 remains one of the best sequels, and at the time was one of the most profitable sequels, despite its for-the-time massive budget (doubled for Salvation), but that doesn’t mean Terminator 3 has to be a thing.

Regardless, it clearly was, and in 2003 we were treated to a fun, light-weight, action-heavy, comical, and really stupid science-fiction spectacle called Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which was created by several Terminator regulars – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stan Winston, to name a few – but sans the key mind, James Cameron.

Cameron’s ideal Terminator 3 was a movie that doesn’t exist, which makes more sense on a narrative level for the series. Alternatively, it’s T2 3D: Battle Across Time, which is a theme-park ride and early 3D experiment for the director. Not much of a movie, but more of a sequel to T2 than T3 could ever be.

Mostow is, as movie-critic John Scalzi put it, competent but not all that interesting. He’s by this time made two cyberpunk movies that fall under that label – Rise of the Machines and Surrogates, the latter of which was partly filmed near my hometown. With Terminator 3, he tried to do what James Cameron did with Aliens – follow an incredible act. Like James Cameron, he also took quite the departure from the original works, and played up his greatest asset – Arnold Schwarzenegger – for the laughs this time around.

The Terminator is one of the only dramatic roles Schwarzenegger has ever had, and it’s his best without question. The other roles he’s had – John Matrix, Quaid/Hauser, Dutch – have been sometimes self-aware action heroes, echoing the iconic line about being back. The T-800 was the opportunity for the star to be serious, not that jokes weren’t to be had in the first two movies.

I wouldn’t be harping on it too much if the character in Terminator 3 wasn’t so damn stupid. The appropriately intense scene early in Terminator 2 at the biker bar is attempted again in the third outing, but with a much different tone. It’s the same purpose as we’ve come to expect – he needs clothes, NOW – so we expect Bill Paxton to get his stomach punched in or a guy thrown on a super hot stovetop. Instead, a male stripper gets his hand crunched after some ‘hilarious’ sassiness.

That example is telling of the rest of the movie relative to the original movies. It’s a comedy, and it came out of left field. There are good moments, like when the T-800 takes a bullet to the tooth, or when the machines rise, but these are surrounded by some of the most maddening sequences ever committed to film.

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