REVIEW: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines [2003]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 109 minutes | Release Date: July 2nd, 2003 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Jonathan Mostow
Writer(s): John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris / John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris and Tedi Sarafian /
James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd (characters)

“Anger is more useful than despair”

There’s one great moment in Jonathan Mostow‘s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines: its end. I’m not being snarky in some jokey “because it was finally over” kind of way either. It is legitimately good. Half twist, half bittersweet salvation in the face of apocalyptic nightmare where a hero is finally born. The series has been working towards this revelation for two decades by this point; reaching the moment when the future we’ve seen of a world covered in skulls and metal is about to come to fruition. James Cameron‘s original vision was always very dark, full of death, and inhabited by the smallest of hopes. But while John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris ultimately make good on his promise before cutting to black, the journey there proves a tonally different beast full of ill-advised cheese.

I’m not sure if we should blame the humor on those screenwriters (Mostow’s old college buddies) who took over for Tedi Sarafian after an original script had an invisible Terminator sent from the future or new producers Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna from Carolco who bought the rights at auction and wanted to make it their own. Star Arnold Schwarzenegger had already put his run at governor in motion so he surely didn’t mind a lighter side to his titular cybernetic assassin; it’s just a shame no one else did. The mythology is one that’s steeped in too much severe hardcore science fiction to let such broad humor go without meeting it with eye rolls and memories of the original’s grit. The new T-X’s (Kristanna Loken) cartoonish hybrid of the T-800 and T-1000 models definitely doesn’t help.

This is a product of the times and the filmmakers’ desire to use technological advancements in computer graphics rather than practical effects. The idea of the T-X is cool—she has a solid skeletal base underneath liquid metal able to morph her exterior into whomever she touches. More advanced than the T-1000’s knives, she also has the Swiss army capabilities of turning her arm into myriad different weapons spanning plasma blaster to blowtorch to circular saw. Loken is great at the deadeye automaton, but sometimes it’s too much—how do cops arriving after she’s taken someone’s identity not question her stilted reaction and complete disinterest? Where her performance truly becomes off is in the way Mostow inexplicably adds emotions later on. When Arnie has her on the ropes during the climax, her T-X starts screaming in agony. Why?

It’s not like we see Schwarzenegger showing sorrow or regret in his actions. If anything he’s more ruthless than in Judgment Day. While that’s a good thing, his model being upgraded with a rudimentary understanding of psychology for easy laughs is not. Neither is the writers’ knee-jerk want to rework iconic lines rather than create their own. “Come with me if you want to live” is slightly remixed at one point and “I’ll be back” is thrown in twice alongside some terrible, stoic mugging for the camera. Arnie also delivers the most unintentionally comical moment of film when he’s seen bashing in the hood of a truck before slowly winding down with wide eyes and arms still flailing. It’s impossible not to laugh. At least he got thirty million and a backend percentage in return.

What makes matters worse is that the plot isn’t that bad of a story extension. The whole device of multiple timelines born out of two previous installments preventing already executed futures is actually handled with some smarts. After all, if the machines are sentient enough to realize that failing to kill Sarah Connor means targeting John is the next step, a new objective must be sought once he escapes too. Going for his future lieutenants is the logical move going forward. The fact John (Nick Stahl) happens to be in the same location as the T-X’s newest target (Claire Danes‘ Kate Brewster) is insanely contrived—especially because his narration just finishes telling us how he’s been traveling off the grid since 1997—but the third chapter in a blockbuster franchise isn’t supposed to be perfect.

And that’s why I can’t be too hard on the finished product. It does expand the mythology nicely and provides a conclusion we’ve anticipated for decades. Stahl was a good choice for a John Connor still bucking against fate and Danes is a worthy companion possessing the emotional fragility to empathize with as her world’s turned upside down and the strength to pick up the gun when necessary. I also like how SkyNet’s awakening is subtly occurring in the background. Showing a bit more of Robert Brewster (href=””>David Andrews) and his government defense project would have been nice, but there are enough conversations to get the gist of his goals as well as his trepidation in turning it on. You can’t deny the appeal of the film’s action either. There are multiple prolonged sequences of unadulterated destruction.

Did we need Schwarzenegger’s quips considering he should be the least capable of delivering them? No. Did we need a mildly humorous return from Dr. Peter Silberman (Earl Boen)? No again. The latter’s inclusion is a blatant example of how Brancato and Ferris chose to go “cutely funny” rather than dramatic with sprinkled in releases of tension. T3 is missing the Cameron factor of mixing genres together in a way that services the plot rather than the audience. Mostow and team seem only interested in getting us to react regardless of their doing so serving the story. That’s an acceptable decision if you’re working on a property that has been about only fan service from the beginning. Terminator isn’t that property. It’s always had deeper meaning with a razor-sharp edge and unfortunately both are absent here.

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