Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
In 1984, The Terminator was a chilly, conniving, nihilist-humanist animal of a movie, and in 1991, T2 confronted the world as an operatic exercise in baroque fire-and-brimstone pyrotechnics. Both, in their day, were game-changers, and if the sequel’s charm has faded slightly, it still gets points for what it accomplished at the time. Even if the nebulous concept of “bigness” was the purpose for T2 – and a purpose director James Cameron has returned to time and time again to limited results – it was, when all was said and done, a purpose. Both films worked, ultimately, because they were masterminded by a man with something to prove. In 1984 it was his name as a filmmaker at all, and by 1991 merely the fact that he could humbly direct the de facto most technologically-savvy film of all time. Different hopes for different folks, as they say, but both set the man ablaze with passion to make a film.
In 2003, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was just an action movie. Nothing more, nothing less. An action movie with a soon-to-be-governor-of-the-most-populous-state-in-the-union lead star, but an action movie nonetheless. Which is the movie’s benefactor and its curse. On one hand, it makes T3 out to be something of a pointless, arbitrary affair without much of a fire in its eyes or a spring in its step at a conceptual level. On the other, there’s something refreshing about the back-to-basics chase-film temper of Terminator 3. It’s a little soulless, a lot meaningless, mostly competent, thoroughly difficult to get excited about, and – although its many detractors would likely disagree – not that easy to justifiably hate without overly-focusing on its Terminator lineage.
Part of the reason for the hate, admittedly, stems from the film’s bizarre implicit rejection of the central Terminator mythos in its final moments, but then, T3 doesn’t always seem all that interested in being a Terminator movie to begin with, so we shall follow in its footsteps and allow it to be “just another action movie” in our judgment. Which is, ultimately, exactly what it is: a fairly competent, depressingly functional action movie, a work for which “just another” is the aptest descriptor. Young John Connor, who avoided death at the hands of a future Terminator twice – once in the womb, and again when he was a young teen – is now a young twentysomething played by a tired-looking Nick Stahl. Another Terminator from the future shows up, this time played by Kristanna Loken with appropriately machine-like equilibrium and sinister purposes, and our old buddy Arnold Schwarzenegger is back as yet another T-800 to save him. Along the way, Connor hooks up with his wife-to-be, a veterinarian played anonymously by Claire Danes.
From there, it’s a nearly constant barrage of chases and fights that mimic the first feature in a somewhat low-key approach that recalls the B-movie origins of the original, but without the stellar, almost brutally perfect craft that made that film a modern masterpiece. This sequel has passable moments to spare, such as a lengthy car-chase involving a crane or a shootout in a cemetery, but they never seem to be trying very hard.
Again, there’s some minor pleasure to be had in the department of “not trying very hard”, and the film’s resistance to larger thematic ambitions or character moments is wholly admirable – director Jonathan Mostow is content to let the craft do the talking. Considering where James Cameron was circa 2003 – knee-deep in the dozen years of Avatar production and long past his two monstrously indulgent ’90s offerings, True Lies and Titanic – it is probably for the best that T3 keeps things simple and stripped-down, kind of like the original T-800 itself.
If only its craft talked a better talk, Mostow’s film might really be in business. As it is, there’s a certain appealing economy about its mediocrity, but economic mediocrity is still mediocrity, and it shouldn’t be confused with anything else. Even Arnold himself seems tired, and not tired in the fascinatingly robotic way of the first two films, perfectly fitting for the characters he played. Here, he’s just tired, and the film can’t do anything but follow suit.
At least T3 wasn’t so gray. But, although it may not seem like it, the blockbuster world of 2009 was a different beast from the blockbuster world of 2003. The year T3 was released, blockbusters were still figuring out their post-millennial identity, and there was at least some room for playful wildness amidst the carnage, not that T3 actually took advantage of any of this room to play. 2009, still coping with the traumatic shock of Christopher Nolan’s first two Batman films, largely had no better idea of how to handle a blockbuster than to make it serious, and hope that no one realized that where seriousness went, “good” did not necessarily follow.
Exhibit A to the claim that this trend was tired almost as quickly as it was fresh and exciting: Terminator Salvation, a film that at once feels so sure of itself and yet so sad to exist. Shane Hurlbut’s cinematography is monochromatically dingy and sterile, without ever managing to turn said dinginess into an aesthetic choice of artistic merit or value. Obviously, the point is supposed to be that this world, now 2018 when the machines have finally, after three movies, risen and decimated most of humanity, is tired and devoid of meaning. But the film’s insistence of slam-bang action from beginning to near-end – and its insistence on showing this action over and over again in excitable frames that awe at the grandiosity of the action rather than cower in fear from it – competes heavily for any real focus on this depressive malaise. The result is a film that wants to be a dark, dreary meditation on humanity and a heightened, operatically large action fable – it wants to be The Terminator and T2: Judgment Day, in other words – and it has no stable idea how to combine those two contrasting but equally pure tones into one.
Our characters include Christian Bale on loan from Nolan’s Batman films as mankind’s only hope, John Connor. We also get Anton Yelchin as a younger Kyle Reese (the man who would go back in time to fight the original Terminator and end up fathering John in a bit of artful meditation on time-travel), Sam Worthington as a man-machine hybrid desperately questing for humanity, and Moon Bloodgood as one of Connor’s lieutenants. Our plot is at odds with itself, jumping back and forth between an episodic assembly of conflicts and battles to signal the way narrative has been eliminated in the world of the apocalypse. Until the film decides it wants to have a heart and throws us Worthington’s character, who never feels like a fit for this otherwise mechanical film of robots and guns. He wants a heart, but the film around him doesn’t know the meaning of that body part.
It isn’t an incompetent film so much as it is a tepid one, and a film desperately searching for a meaning it doesn’t understand. Some of the individual scenes work, and there is at least one action scene lit with an impenetrable darkness contrasted against fiery oranges notable at least as a respite from the unending brownness of the corpse-like film surrounding it. But it is never more than a handful of scenes searching for a film with all futility, and even if it is better than the largely middling T3 in some areas, it feels more lifeless and faintly depressing still.