God, I hate this movie. On an objective level, I can acknowledge that it offers decent action movie fare, but there are just so many things about “Terminator 3” that rub me the wrong way. Add to that an overall laziness to the proceedings, as well as the fact that while James Cameron’s “Terminator”-movies both were extraordinary, this is decidedly run-of-the-mill, and you got a movie that – save for that great ending – disappointed me immensely when I saw it for the first time, and still feels incredibly worthless to me today.
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By far my main beef with the movie is how it totally contradicts the great message from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”: The future is not set? There’s no fate but what we make? According to “Terminator 3”, that’s all bullshit. The future is set. We might be able to delay it for a little while, but ultimately, that’s all we can do. What must happen, will happen. Which is just such a 180°-spin from what James Cameron wanted to say with “T2” that I had a hard time accepting it. Plus, just like “Alien: Resurrection”, it destroys the great ending of its predecessor – since ultimately, everything that they did, all the sacrifices by Miles Dyson and the T-800, were completely meaningless. Which really irks me the wrong way, not just because I don’t believe in fate and thus vastly prefer Cameron’s message, but also because it feels incredibly disrespectful of his work on the prior two films. Now, of course, I get it. They wanted to continue the franchise, and for that, they had to double back on that ending of “T2”. But they didn’t even try to come up with a good explanation for it. It’s just predetermined, and that’s that. And it angers me because I’m just a stupid movie fan, not a scriptwriter, director, filmmaker etc., but after I saw “Terminator 3” even I immediately had two better (?) ideas for doing it: A) Have Skynet send the T-X back in order to ensure that Judgment Day will indeed happen, just in case something went wrong (time travel is a tricky business, after all). Kyle (or Kate) also sends another reprogrammed T-800 back to prevent exactly that. Immediately, you have a far more interesting movie, since instead of rehashing the concept of the first two, with the Terminator hunting the Connors, the hunter becomes the hunted, and John, the T-800 and for all I care also Kate have to find a way to stop an unstoppable machine from destroying humanity. Or B) Use the “3” in the title for a twist where we learn in the end that there actually were three Terminators: One to protect John, one set out to kill him, and one to make sure Judgment Day happens. The second Terminator, thus, serves mostly as a distraction, to keep John and the others busy running for their lives, instead of trying to prevent Judgment Day.
Now, feel free to think that both ideas are incredibly dumb, and even worse than what we’ve got. But for me, they would have eliminated my major problem with the movie. See, it’s less the fact that Judgment Day does happen after all. Actually, the message that the battle against evil isn’t won in one day, but that it’s rather a constant struggle, could have been just as meaningful as the hopeful ending of “T2”. That we have to fight, every day, to prevent our own extinction. But that’s not what they do here. They don’t say “We have to keep fighting, otherwise we’re doomed”. They simply say “We’re doomed”. And that, for me, was just that one big step too far, which is why I wish that they would have found a better explanation for why Judgment Day happened after all, instead of just waving a huge signpost with “fate” written on it. Which also feeds right into my next criticism: “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” is an incredibly lazy movie, in so many regards (and not just the “Fate!”-explanation). For example, how about – if for whatever reason, Edward Furlong wasn’t an option – casting someone who looks at least remotely like him? And if they absolutely had to have Nick Frost – again, for whatever reason – couldn’t they at least have dyed his hair? As I said: Lazy. Same can be said about the fact that John Connor and Kate Brewster conveniently meet at the exact same time when the terminators come back to get/protect them (or was that, too, fate?).
There are also quite a few inconsistencies that they didn’t care to iron out. For example: If John Connor is so sure that the future was averted (and if he wasn’t, why would he express that much disbelief when he learns that it’s inevitable after all?), then why go into hiding? How does Skynet know that John Connor has an emotional connection with that particular T-800 model, thus sending it out to kill him? Why would Kate program things like looking for the car keys in the sun visor, which he learned from John in “T2”? Also: I assume that both terminators come from a new timeline, given the fact that the war was supposed to end in 2029 (with John victorious), but here it’s still going in on 2031-ish? And Connor seemingly dies before humanity prevails against the machines, instead of winning the deciding battle of the war? All of that really confused me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’m caring way more about all of that than the filmmakers, who, it seems to me, just didn’t give a fuck. Also, one of the very worst scenes of the movie, that made John Connor look like a complete idiot, was him asking the T-800 if he remembers him – seemingly thinking that this is the same Terminator that saved him in “T2”. What. The. Fuck?!?! Dude, you and your momma lowered him into hot molten steel, and he fucking “died” right in front of your eyes! What are you, brain-dead? I also didn’t care for the new direction they went with Skynet. First of all, I’m (yet again) not sure how that was all supposed to work. But even besides that, I preferred the whole development as established in “T2” – of Skynet, days after getting activated, becoming sentient, and only then deciding that humanity is a threat that has to be terminated – to how it’s portrayed here, where it seems like from the very beginning Skynet was some sort of computer virus/software/A.I. that started scheming to ensure that it would get access to all the military computers. Thus, it seemingly planned to destroy us right from the start, even before it really existed and/or became self-aware. It might seem like a small detail to you – and given everything else that’s wrong with “Terminator 3”, it actually is – but it still bugged me.
But even when blocking out all of this, “Rise of the Machines” still doesn’t hold a candle to both its predecessors. Where those managed to makes us feel a connection with the characters, here I couldn’t have cared less about what happened to any of them. Also, Jonathan Mostow is no James Cameron. His direction is serviceable at best, but is totally missing all the cleverness and flourishes that made the previous movies stand out for me. And the action is kind of a mess. They try to trump the predecessors with more and bigger spectacle, but it’s all shot without any style or flair. Also, “Rise of the Machines” suffers from the action style that got increasingly popular in the noughties: Fast cuts, constant close-ups etc. Thus, at times it was quite hard to grasp what the hell was going on. There was also not one major moment in all the action scenes that really stood out for me. Arguably, they confused “bigger” and “more” with “better”, which simply isn’t always the case. Same is true, by the way, when it comes to the humor. While I have nothing against a couple of good jokes to break up the tension, there were far too many (and too on-the-nose) gags in this one, with Arnold offering one funny line after another. Thus, he seemed more like a clown than a killing machine. Seriously, at times “Terminator 3”, more than anything, felt like a comedy or self-parody. Also: Why did they choose Marco Beltrami, of all people, to make the score? Don’t get me wrong, he offers up solid work here (as he usually does), but couldn’t they have afforded a more renowned composer to take the rains from Brad Fiedel? I also was vastly disappointed that we hear Fiedel’s iconic main theme only during the end credits – something that is worsened by the fact that none of his music, with the sole exception of his track “Radio”, left an impression with me. It’s in one ear, and out the other. “Terminator” deserves better. And, finally before we get to the stuff that’s actually good, one last observation: Was I the only one who thought, when the T-800 at the end says to John “We’ll meet again”, that the second – unspoken – part of that sentence is a rather ominous “…when I kill you.”?
Despite all of that, though, “Terminator 3” is not entirely without merit. As much as it pained me to hear about her (off-screen) death, there’s something very affecting about Sarah Connor saving humanity, only to then die herself just a couple of years later. I also loved the story about her fighting her sickness to live just long enough to make sure that Judgment Day really was averted (or at least, so she thought). I also quite liked the T-X – its design as well as it’s conception as a Terminator-killer. Yes, they arguably went a little too far with its swiss-army-knife-like appendixes, and I really wish they would have skipped her ability to transform into other human beings, since that was one aspect where she was too similar to the T-1000, but other than that, she was a great foe. I especially liked her ability to control other machines (and actually wish they would have done more with this idea). Plus, in my opinion, Kristanna Loken played her really well, and with a certain glee that set her apart from previous (unemotional) Terminators. The rest of the cast was quite good, too. While this may very well be Arnold’s least dedicated performance (even though calling it “lazy” would go way too far. Whatever you may think of him as an actor, he usually gives 100%; this time, it seemed more like 70%, like he was a little tired with acting, and already preoccupied with his upcoming political career.), he’s still quite good, and he especially shines in the scene where he’s of two minds. Also, the effects were absolutely great in this, no matter if we’re talking about the animatronics, the make-up, or the CGI (I was especially impressed with the shots where the head of the T-800 is dangling from its neck, and Arnold’s half-burned face).
However, back to the performances: I personally may think that Nick Stahl was incredibly miscast in this, but that doesn’t mean that his acting is bad – which it isn’t. As for Claire Danes… I’ve definitely seen better performances from her (however, she’s also a little handicapped by her role), but at the end, when they finally give her something meaningful to do, she shines. Which finally brings us to the biggest asset of the movie: The ending. Now, to get my only quibble with it right out of the way: Compared to James Cameron’s horrific, nightmarish depiction of Judgment Day, this was almost too clean and sterile in its execution. However, I can’t deny that the images, as presented here, had an eerie and haunting beauty to it, which stood in stark contrast to the harrowing meaning behind it; which definitely was an interesting dichotomy. I also really loved this twist in general, as well as how the movie built to it, and how it was executed once they finally arrive at the bunker. Seriously, when I saw the movie for the first time, I was totally stumped by that revelation, asking myself – just like the characters – what the fuck is going on here. Never would I have expected, in such a mainstream blockbuster-movie like this, where they fight all movie long to keep the end of the world from happening, that they actually might fail in their mission. The rest of the movie might have been painfully lazy and not very well thought out, but his idea was absolutely brilliant, and also very well realized by Jonathan Mostow, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes and Marco Beltrami, which – together with all the other people behind the camera who worked on this sequence – really gave it their all to make it shocking and touching and devastating. If only the movie that preceded it would have been even remotely as good as the finale itself…