Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

33540-terminator3risemachinesNow that it’s been five years since James Cameron’s Oscar-night “king of the world” embarrassment, it may be time to admit that the obstreperous, egotistical director of Titanic and the first two Terminator films is some sort of master — an ornery techno-bully, to be sure, but also a true action-cinema visionary with a genius for excess building on excess until it rams through excess into large-scale brutal wit. Terminator 2, released in 1991, trumped and transcended all other action movies up to that time; a monumental event, it still found bizarre humor in the anime-like spectacle of two metal men bashing each other over and over.

All of which is prelude to the inevitable disappointment of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, an eminently unnecessary belated sequel with less confident hands on the wheel. Jonathan Mostow, a competent director of mid-level thrills (Breakdown, U-571), has inherited the franchise, and he puts the obligatory smash-ups on the screen — the crumpled cars, the piles of bullet shells, the odd visual of two frozen-faced humanoids pummeling one another. But Mostow, who seems to throw these moments in just because they belong in a Terminator film, lacks James Cameron’s sure and heavy hand: Scene after scene plays like a conscientious TV sequel made for the Sci-Fi channel.

The movie feels disconcertingly lightweight right from the start, when the rickety old Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), naked from his time travels, strides into a bar (just as in T2) that turns out to be a strip club — on Ladies’ Night. (And whoever had the bright idea of introducing the dusty catchphrase “Talk to the hand” to the Terminator universe should be sentenced to movie jail with nothing to watch except The Beautician and the Beast.) Cameron also used Schwarzenegger for deadpan laughs (“I promise,” he intoned in T2, stoically holding up a gloved hand, “I will not kill anyone”), but here he seems too often the butt of undignified jokes about how little personality he has.

The other element sorely missing from T3 is Linda Hamilton, whose Sarah Connor developed from a frightened woman with soft feathered hair in T1 to a wiry, obsessed warrior-crackpot in T2. What happened to Sarah? We’re told she died, leaving her son John (played here by Nick Stahl) — the messiah destined to lead the human race against the machines — alone to drift anonymously from place to place. It turns out that the apocalyptic future of Terminators and nuclear holocaust was not averted in T2, merely “postponed,” and that John is still the “primary target” of the machines of 2029. They send an upgraded Terminator after him — the T-X, who takes the blonde, poised form of Kristanna Loken and goes about her ruthless business in tight maroon leather.

The sight of Arnold Schwarzenegger getting tossed about by an adversary who looks like this season’s petite cover girl is amusing at times, but lacks the wit and topicality of Robert Patrick, looking like an underfed mechanic, posing as a Los Angeles cop in T2. Without Linda Hamilton around, we’re left with Claire Danes as a veterinarian who finds herself on the run with John and the Terminator, who has been programmed to protect them both; Danes tries to adjust to megabudget spectacle but comes off as just one more intelligent actress lost inside a summer thrill machine — both exasperated and exasperating.

At the helm of a bigger movie than anything he’s attempted before, Jonathan Mostow gives us chaos without rhythm; in his hands, accumulating excess seems like waste. A prolonged sequence in which the T-X chases our heroes, driving a crane truck and sending rows of parked cars flipping end over end, is impressively noisy at first but eventually becomes numbing. In general, Mostow directs with both eyes on the two Cameron films. He and his writers even contrive to bring back Earl Boen as the mealy-mouthed shrink who never believed Sarah’s rants about Terminators. He’s brought in so the fans can recognize him and chortle; then he’s gone as quickly as he entered.

T3 is also the most bizarrely pessimistic big-ticket studio movie in years, even by the standards of brooding dystopian sci-fi. Death is inevitable, we keep hearing; apocalypse is our destiny. The sneak-preview audience filed out quietly at the end, perhaps feeling stung and betrayed by an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie whose message — unlike the other two Terminator films, which kept hope alive in the face of the furnace, and whose mantra was “The future is not set” — is that the world is going to end and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. What happened to “The future is not set”? The Terminator, speaking solemnly of John’s destiny, seems awfully certain that the future is set and that the rise of the machines has to happen, and the movie never contradicts him. Indeed, after a movie filled with car crashes and explosions, we get a rather bitter anti-climax, and even the hellacious T-X doesn’t go out with much style.

Where’s the joy? These movies are big and expensive toys, or should be, but Mostow isn’t very playful. T3 has the sour, depressive vibe of an untested director submitting to a predetermined mythology not his own. At least James Cameron and Linda Hamilton would’ve enjoyed the ride.

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