Thursday 18 June 2009

Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines (2003)

Thursday 18 June 2009
Scrap metal.

The Terminator films provide an accurate barometer of Arnold Schwarzenegger's career: the original was his Hollywood breakthrough; the sequel cemented his superstar status; and this third installment finds the 55-year-old sucking in a belly to earn cash to fuel a political campaign. Rise Of The Governator is perhaps a more apt title, as it's the only obvious victory here...

Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines (hereafter T3) is a post-modern copy of T2, shunted a little further into the future. Would-be saviour John Connor (Nick Stahl) is now orphaned after his mother died of cancer in the interim (i.e, Linda Hamilton wanted nothing to do with this), left alone to grapple with the thorny issue that he's a nobody who'll only become a somebody if a computer called Skynet begins exterminating humanity. A neat bit of mental anguish, but sadly one of a few intriguing ideas T3 accidentally coughs up and does nothing with. A more interesting film may also have had the lonely John attempting to find his future-father Kyle Reese, too...

For the most part, T3 is business as usual. Another malevolent 'bot appears naked in downtown L.A; this one a literal "supermodel" T-X (Kristanna Loken), who commandeers a sports car and, in the first of the picture's misjudged jokes, inflates her boobs to appeal to a traffic cop's libido. Elsewhere, another benevolent T-800 (Schwarzenegger) arrives in a ball of temporal energy out in the desert, demanding leathers and Elton John's glasses from a male stripper dancing in a local bar.

A few tweaks are evident in the formula to keep us mildly engaged: the T-X's mission is to assassinate John's future lieutenant's, not the prodigious leader himself; the T-800 is programmed to protect and take orders from John's future-wife Kate (Claire Danes), a vet who gets caught up in the melee; and it appears that Judgment Day is now imminent and unstoppable, as Skynet is about to be put online by the government to tackle a global computer supervirus.

Jonathan Mostow (U-571) bravely steps into James Cameron's shoes as director, but only really manages to choreograph a handful of entertaining stunts and fights, as the script wobbles along. By 2003, the previous Terminator movies had long since become cinematic royalty, so T3 was always going to suffer by comparison. It can't resist being self-referential and post-modern, which means it's impossible to watch without seeing it as a disposable, big-budget remake with an eye on the kids who'll buy the toys and eat the tie-in hamburgers. What a difference a few decades make.

It's certainly fun seeing Arnie again, wearing his trademark shades and dispensing dour one-liners (including a twist of "I'll be back"), but it's also a little humdrum and sad -- especially as he's clearly wearing a padded jacket to boost his diminishing brawn. Of course, the beauty of time is that, as Schwarzenegger ages and grows even less plausible as an Adonis, his appearance in T3 will gradually appear quite acceptable. It's surprising to remember that Arnie was already in his mid-30s when The Terminator was released and his early-40s for T2. It's a shame he didn't hang up the weights for a movie career in his twenties, really. Maybe then we'd have had a fighting-fit T-800 to close the trilogy, and Jingle All The Way 2 to look forward to that Christmas.

Nick Stahl replaces Edward Furlong as John Connor, and it's frustrating to reflect on the fact such a potent character remains so disappointingly performed on-screen. Furlong was an irksome brat, Stahl's feels too gawky, TV's Thomas Dekker too whiny, and even A-lister Christian Bale was condemned for being a dull grunt in sequel/prequel Terminator Salvation. Maybe it was always better when the saga's Christ figure was in embryo form; an idea the audience could feed its imagination into.

Model-turned-actress Kristanna Loken decides to imitate Robert Patrick's iconic performance in T2 as the hybrid T-X (liquid metal coated to an advanced endoskeleton with inbuilt high-tech weaponry, you at the back.) But, you know what, she pulls it off for the most part. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, blah blah, so while the T-X is never as cool as the T-1000 (despite additional tricks like an ability to control machinery), it's a fun performance that certainly ranks as one of T3's few successes. Oddly though, T3 doesn't learn from the original's mistake and ditches Loken in favour of CGI for the final chase -- a mistake Cameron himself realized and avoided in T2 by keeping the actors involved until the literal dying second.

Really, the big failure of T3 is in allowing the saga to drift into self-referential comedy and approach its story with far less precision, choosing instead to just reenact T2 with the benefit of technical advances selling the robo-scraps. Of course, it also comes with the hindrance of too much audience expectation and a featherweight storyline. Perhaps most infuriatingly, there are some very good ideas lurking around the script, that James Cameron would probably have whipped into shape. A few even manage to slip through, lending this threequel moments of heft -- notably the somber denouement, with John and Kate realizing they've been taken to an old government fallout shelter as Judgment Day arrives. For all its faults, at least it goes out with a literal bang.

directed by: Jonathan Mostow written by: John Brancato & Mike Ferris (story by John Brancato, Mike Ferris & Tedi Sarafian, based on characters created by James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd) starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator), Nick Stahl (John Connor), Claire Danes (Kate Brewster), Kristanna Loken (T-X), David Andrews (Lt. Gen. Robert Brewster), Mark Famiglietti (Scott Mason), Earl Boen (Dr. Silberman), Moira Harris (Betsy), Chopper Bernet (Chief Engineer), Christopher Lawford (Brewster's Aide) & Carolyn Hennesy (Rich Woman) / Intermedia/C2 Pictures/Warner Bros. / 109 mins. / $200 million (budget)