Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Directed by Jonathan Mostow. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, Kristanna Loken. Warner Bros.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?B
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? -2
Age
Appropriateness
?Teens & Up*

External Ratings

MPAA ?R USCCB ?O

Content advisory: Violent, occasionally brutal sci-fi action sequences; some profanity, obscenity, and crude language; brief rear nudity; a brief scene involving a (clothed) male stripper.

By Steven D. Greydanus

Early signs for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines were less than promising. To begin with, James Cameron, mastermind of the first two hit films, was uninvolved, replaced by little-known director Jonathan Mostow (U-571) and a pair of writers best known for the 1997 psychological thriller The Game. Gone, too, was Cameron’s ex-wife and two-time star Linda Hamilton, who played Sarah Connor, the woman whose son John would become the leader of the human resistance against renegade machines in a post-apocalyptic future. Even Edward Furlong, who played young John in T2, was replaced by one Nick Stahl (In the Bedroom).

Arnold himself, of course, was Back, in the role that launched him into superstardom nearly 20 years ago. But it’s been years since he’s had a hit — in fact, since his last collaboration with Cameron, True Lies — and his return to the Terminator role after a string of flops like Batman and Robin and Collateral Damage seemed about as confidence-inspiring as the prospect of Harrison Ford making another Indiana Jones movie (and without Steven Spielberg yet).

Nor did the new film’s premise — Terminator against an even more advanced female T-X Terminatrix (model Kristanna Loken) — seem particularly inspired. In all, it seemed unlikely that the new film would have anything to contribute to Cameron’s mythology of an apocalyptic future war between men and machines. What did seem likely was that T3 would either become a cartoon parody of the earlier films, or else pile on the mindless action and violence, perhaps even outdoing the more gruesome and sadistic scenes from the earlier films.

Yet against all odds, T3 is a smart, rousing extension of Cameron’s paranoid fantasy that not only meshes seamlessly with the past and future continuities of the earlier films, but actually advances and develops the series’ apocalyptic mythology. While there are some laugh-out-loud moments, and while the action scenes are as big as or bigger than anything that’s gone before, it never tips over into self-parody, nor does it indulge in the level of gratuitous brutality of the earlier films. To top it off, the slam-bang climax will leave fans actually looking forward to the possible prospect of a T4, yet without leaving them feeling cheated like the end of Matrix Reloaded.

Plotwise, T3 advances the storyline beyond the time-travelling standoffs of the earlier films, in which machines and humans alternately sought to preempt the other side from ever getting off the ground in the first place. By the end of T2, it looked as if the rise of the machines had been preempted; but ten years later John Connor still isn’t taking any chances. Ever wary of the prospect that a machine from a supposedly averted future may one day show up to kill him, he lives as an anonymous, untraceable drifter. Eventually, of course, his fears are realized, and it looks as if Judgment Day may only have been delayed, not prevented — in fact, according to a message from the future, Judgment Day is inevitable. That doesn’t stop John from setting out to stop it again.

T3 reprises elements from its predecessors, especially the theme of a reprogrammed Terminator T-800 (Arnold) versus an even more advanced model. The T-X is liquid metal over a metallic endoskeleton, which sounds like a step backwards, but it turns out that the T-X has capabilities that even Robert Patrick’s mercurial T-1000 couldn’t match, including a built-in weapons arsenal and a virus-like ability to invade and take control of other machines.

Fans of the series know that each Terminator has always been destroyed by the end of the film, so Arnold never plays the same unit from one film to the next. The first T-800 was merely an implacable killing machine whose sole moment of wit was the line "I’ll be back"; but the second, reprogrammed one gradually developed something like personality and even heart, bonding with John, getting lines like "Hasta la vista, baby" and "I swear I will not kill anyone," even bemoaning his need for a vacation.

The latest T-800 to make the timejump is more like the all-business robot from the first film, but on the plus side he’s already programmed not to kill. Of course he comes without a working knowledge of past or present catch-phrases, but he shows himself a quick study. (There is one odd thing: He does seem to "remember" the trick John taught the last T-800 about looking for car keys above the visor. Perhaps that too is part of his reprogramming.) And, interestingly, he has a back story that adds an ironic twist to the proceedings.

Arnold is as solid as ever in the role, playing it with just the right blend of seriousness and a touch of humor. There’s no hint here of the open camp or self-parody of his True Lies / Last Action Hero persona; this isn’t a caricature of a Terminator, but the real thing. Physically, too, he’s suitably pumped up for the role, and somehow looks ten years younger even in his face.

Stahl brings convincing depth to the role of the haunted young man who has grown up afraid of his destiny. Equally effective is costar Claire Danes (The Hours) as Kate Brewster, a young woman who, much like the Sarah Connors of the first film, finds herself suddenly swept out of normal life into a nightmarish reality in which it seems she has a crucial destiny to play. As the Terminatrix, Loken is coolly glamorous and athletic; she’s not as frighteningly focused as Patrick’s T-1000, but she holds the screen with poise.

The film’s not without problems. An crucial early sequence depends on a jaw-dropping coincidence, and I’m not sure the film follows its own rules regarding a plot point similar to the device in T2 that required the T-800 to obey all orders from John. I was also puzzled by a scene involving some kind of gas grenade that didn’t seem to do what they ought to have done. But most of the film holds together quite nicely.

More than either of the earlier films, T3 is a straight-ahead action picture. The first Terminator film was a paranoid sci‑fi fantasy; the second was really largely a showcase of bleeding-edge computer morphing effects with some big action set pieces. T3 doesn’t break much new effects ground, but its biggest set piece — an outsize vehicular chase scene involving an enormous truck-mounted crane, a fire engine, and a van — not only outdoes not only the big tanker-trailer set piece from T2, but also shows up the ballyhooed freeway scene from Matrix Reloaded.

Though still a violent film about killer cyborgs, T3 is less cruel than Cameron’s films. Even a shot of a policeman being impaled from behind isn’t as terrible as the sadistic beating death of a boyfriend in the original, or the horrific skewering of John Connor’s foster father in the sequel. In fact, by today’s standards, with minor adjustments T3 could probably have gotten away with a PG-13 rating (not that the filmmakers would have wanted the perception that T3 was tamer than its predecessors). There’s also nothing here like the first film’s excessive bedroom scene; there’s some nudity (since as usual both terminators arrive in the buff and have to acquire clothing), but no sex.

I also appreciate the fact that, while the world of the Terminator films isn’t an especially optimistic one for mankind, this third film avoids the male-bashing theme of the earlier sequel — a potential point of concern when you have a more advanced female Terminator kicking around the obsolete male unit. Sparing us anything like Sarah Connor’s T2 speech about evil men with their killing machines versus virtuous women with their life-giving wombs, or her nomination of the Terminator as father of the year, T3 allows its female heavy to be the big killer while its messianic young male hero finally comes into his own.

As I watched John Connor’s final onscreen moments at the end of T3, I actually wanted to see what happened next. That represents a level of ongoing interest in the character, and the world he inhabits, that I didn’t have coming into the theater.

Tags: Dystopian, Timey-Wimey, Action, Science Fiction

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Mail: Re: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

I was reading your review of Terminator 3 recently, and I basically agreed with it wholeheartedly. I was once a big fan of the series, at a time when I took my faith less seriously, and I haven’t watched any of them for some time. I was wondering if we could get a quick take from you on the other Terminator films (both moral and artistic merits) and whether they are worth re-watching, since I doubt you’ll ever have the time or inclination to do full reviews for them.

While I’m hoping this year to write more about more films that I wouldn’t have revisited in the past, you’re right in thinking that reviews of The Terminator and T2 are not on the horizon, nor do I expect that to change for the indefinite future.

The Terminator is a taut, effective (but very violent) sci-fi/action film that works well on a number of levels. As I thought about it in response to your query, it occurred to me that The Terminator is a sort of secular nativity story, with an annunciation, a promised child that will bring salvation, an act of faith (“Come with me if you want to live”), a massacre of innocents and a flight into the wilderness. Not a virgin birth, of course, and the sex scene is unfortunately graphic. Still, a film that values human life, that sides with humanity against the forces that it has unwittingly unleashed against itself.

As soon as those thoughts occurred to me, I immediately realized that my friend and fellow Christian film writer Peter Chattaway, a known Terminator geek, would certainly have had the same thoughts. I did a Google search, and sure enough, here’s his thoughtful essay, which also touches on a number of other moral and aesthetic themes in the series.

T2 I think is not nearly as interesting a film as The Terminator; the main draw is the technology spectacle, the well-choreographed action and Arnold’s screen presence and chemistry with young John Connor. That’s despite the kinder, gentler Terminator and Peter’s points about the T-800 learning the value of human life. Also, Cameron’s sometimes appreciated feminist leanings verge here into misandry, especially in Sarah Connor’s risible speech about men creating weapons in contrast to women creating life.

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