Jen Gets Terminated, Day 3 Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
We revisit the Terminator franchise, one movie per day, leading up to Terminator Salvation.
Day Three: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (70%)
Where James Cameron's Terminator (1984) is a small and efficient science fiction horror film and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) a self-reflexive, large-scaled action sequel, the long-in-the-making Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) is best described as big budget Hollywood fan fiction. In providing rote thrills, by-the-book action, and a handful of requisite "see, we've seen Terminator 2!" moments, this tacked-on sequel plays like a Terminator fan's extended alternate fever dream in which John Connor is recast, Judgment Day has been delayed, and Arnold Schwarzenegger returns for the "final" time as a middle-aged, existential Terminator -- in short, it was neither the sequel fans deserved, nor the one they needed.
Granted, director Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown, U-571) faced an uphill battle when he took on the task of following up James Cameron's massively popular (and influential) first two Terminator films. Cameron famously drifted away from the franchise after completing T2: Judgment Day and indeed, his absence is felt in T3 if only in how far the filmmakers play fast and loose with canon established in the first two films.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines catches up with young John Connor in the year 2004. It turns out that the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in which John, his mother Sarah, and the benevolent T800 stopped the T1000, have altered the future/past and the original Judgment Day (August 29, 1997) never occurred. (Yay!) Instead, it's just been postponed to July 4, 2004. (Oh.) Which, don't you know it, happens to be today!
A new T850 model is dispatched from the future to protect John Connor (thanks to Eddie Furlong's personal troubles, now played by Nick Stahl), who, much like his father before him, is now an unwashed homeless man who scares women and then dates them. He meets cute with bewildered veterinarian Kate Brewster (a bewildered Claire Danes) who we find out is not only his future wife, but the military-trained daughter of a military officer who just so happens to be deciding whether or not to unleash a little project called SkyNet into America's infrastructure. John and Kate also once kissed in 8th grade and would have happily dated through high school had the time traveling/timeline disrupting events of T2 never happened.
But what is the new T850 (an older and huskier Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his last screen role before conquering California state office) protecting John and Kate from? I'm glad you asked, because I have a lot of beef with the upgraded, indestructible Model T-X "Terminatrix" (Kristanna Loken).
We first meet the T-X -- the first "female" Terminator -- as she beams down from the future into the store window of a Beverly Hills boutique. (Because she's a girl, and girls love to shop -- even those of us who are cybernetic organisms with no actual discernable personality or gender-specific qualities!) Like all visitors from the future, she arrives naked and without accessories (a major fashion faux-pas) and must stop to steal a car and inflate her boobs to Victoria's Secret-level cleavage. The T-X, which is made of liquid metal and can shift into any form she wants, settles on a red leather-clad number, a severe blonde bun, and perfectly glossed lips before she embarks on her mission to kill John, Kate, and all of their future Resistance officers. Many of her targets are incidentally adolescent, so we're treated to the T-X shooting children at point blank, a vision of steely, sadistic, female power. She is every man's nightmare woman -- a blood-licking, lethal, limber, sexualized predator whose singular goal is to kill one man and prevent the propagation of the human race. And she has to check her make-up in the mirror in the middle of a fight.
In contrast to the T-X's Fembot persona, Kate Brewster is an attempt at a Sarah Connor redux. Introduced as a normal, everyday nice girl (she shops for wedding gifts with her fiancée, wears soft floral prints, opens her veterinary clinic in the middle of a night just to see a patient, and spends half of the film captive in the back of her own truck), Kate eventually shifts into warrior woman mode, demonstrating that she can handle a gun, going Rambo on a CyberDyne H-K drone, even piloting a plane thanks to her convenient aerial training. Kate is meant to recall both Sarah Connor from Terminator and Terminator 2, but the ploy feels like a cheap attempt to cram too much into her supporting character.
Likewise, John Connor has been updated in an extremely unsatisfying way. An angsty 20-something (writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris now say he was 13-years-old during the events of T2, not 10), John lost his mother -- conveniently, off screen -- three years prior to cancer and has been a lost soul ever since. He spends much of the film sluggish thanks to a bottle of animal tranquilizers, and then just becomes pitiful -- a self-doubting, ineffectual, suicidal whiner. Of course, this is all contrived to make John's arc all the more pronounced, but by the time he picks up a radio to address forces under attack as Judgment Day commences, he's become a leader! Sorta.
And that brings me to the final piece of the puzzle: the Terminator himself. In 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger was pushing 60 and in great shape... for a man pushing 60. (Okay, he was only 56. But still.) In the film, however, he reprises his role as a model T850 Terminator (all 800s look like Arnold) but something looks a little bit off, a little bit older. Are Terminators supposed to have wrinkles?
Physicality aside, Schwarzenegger is given so little to do that he lapses into comic relief, like an old foreign man chaperoning John and Kate in the desert. Cringe-worthy lines attempt to reference the first Terminator films with a wink, but end up being so tonally strange that they seem out of place; "Talk to the hand," says the Terminator to a gas station attendant, a line that is at once totally '90s (a reference!) and completely stupid. Other lines are just plain sad. "I'm an obsolete design," the T850 tells John, performing seppuku on himself.
But in the end, it's the Terminator's arc that provides the soul of T3's story, however empty. The robot must do what he is programmed to do, whether it's saving John and Kate or, as happens when the T-X cunningly re-programs him, terminating them. Thankfully, the burly machine has once again grown close to John Connor and so, like a man possessed, battles himself to "do the right thing" -- though ultimately that comes down to a logical desire not to fail. He also comes back once more to save the pair from the T-X, sacrificing himself by detonating his power source, and so the machine has learned self-awareness... if only for its own pride of purpose.
In its defense, Terminator 3 is no worse, and no better, than the average big budget action flick; its only problem is that people might (or should) care more about it, since it has its way with a beloved, seminal, and more importantly specific fictional property. T3 is slickly made-all crane shots, explosions, set pieces, and bombastic score -- but strays so far from the tone and history of the Terminator universe that it's become, understandably, the bastard stepchild of the Terminator franchise. Can this week's Terminator Salvation avoid a similar fate?
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