Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (review)

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He’s Back

You know it’s true: A film like T3 you anticipate with a kind of dread tempered with only a little bit of hope. I mean, come on: It’s Arnie doing the same tired thing yet again and Cameron’s not involved and fer Kyle Reese’s sake, the title needs the tagline built right into it so we know where to orient ourselves in the story. We’re so jaded after being pushed around and disrespected by Hollywood — who knows that we, as dedicated SF geeks or merely people who like to see stuff blow up real good — are gonna plunk down our pennies to see this no matter what so what’s the point in expending the effort to make a decent flick? And yet we know that we ourselves are partly responsible for how much movies like this so often suck hard, because, you know, we’re gonna plunk down our pennies no matter what.

But, oh, wonder of wonders, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is like a little slice of geek heaven… or, rather, a big slice of apocalyptic, time-traveling, stuff blowin’ up real good, self-referential, twisting back on itself, sorta mind-blowing slice of geek heaven. It offers the kind of pure geeky sequel-y joy that comes only when you’ve seen its progenitors too many times and thought too much about their stories and the new twists they might take and hadn’t dared hope to believe someone could come up with more worth seeing.

It’s not obvious at first — it’s only as T3 unspools that you go through the process: Oh, darn, it’s just a retread, consciously aping Cameron’s brilliant 1984 film; ho hum, we’ve seen this all before, just another action movie, nothing to see here, folks, move along. Oh, no, it’s a parody, funning with the famous lines and the now-clichéd moments: the Schwarzenegger Terminator’s acquisition of clothing, say, which starts out all “Nice night for a walk” and ends up, well, you’ll see; or the hilariously overblown sequence of car chases and mayhem with, of all things, a construction crane used as a weapon of mass destruction. Oh, no, it’s an homage, overjoyed to be playing with Cameron’s toys, and playing nicely. Oh, no, it’s fan fiction, reveling in Cameron’s universe and finding all the unexpected nooks and crannies still left to explore; the whole “the future is not set” thing really gets a workout.

If director Jonathan Mostow (U-571, Breakdown) and screenwriters John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris (who both wrote The Game), and Tedi Sarafian aren’t big fat honking geeks, they sure fake it well, because this is precisely the kind of relationship geeks have with the objects of our geeky lust: We love it, but we can’t help but make fun of it. We love it, but this is serious stuff, man, the future of humanity, the machines could take over, dude. We love it, but we know how ridiculous it is.

It’s actually probably a good thing that Cameron bowed out of this one, because I’m not entirely sure that he could have brought along the robust, winking cheekiness that Mostow does, a devotion to the first two films without a slavishness to the past. There’s a balance between taking the material seriously while still having fun with it that’s sadly lacking in popcorn movies lately: they’re either all offensive nonsense, too concerned with stunts and utterly unconcerned with story (see Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle), or too concerned with the import of the story it thinks it’s telling to remember that this is supposed to be fun (see Attack of the Clones). Arnold Schwarzenegger (End of Days) manages that balance nicely — he’s got a nice sense of comedy, though it hasn’t always been deployed appropriately (see Batman and Robin *shudder*), and here he seems to recognize how iconic the Terminator has become, and tease himself and the character a bit. Kristanna Loken as the superadvanced new T-X Terminator, who’d crush the Robert Patrick T2 cyborg in an instant, is so deadpan, as Patrick was, that it becomes a running joke.

T3 is, in a sense, both sequel and prequel, filling in the pieces of a future story we already know in the grand sweep but haven’t yet seen in detail, and that, combined with the vagaries of fate and the future not being set and all, gives us as viewers some wiggle room to be surprised still. We know that John Connor, now a young man and played by Nick Stahl (In the Bedroom, The Thin Red Line) — who looks like he really could be the son of Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn — will eventually become the leader of the human resistance against the machines in the future; and that Kate Brewster — played by Claire Danes (The Hours, Igby Goes Down) with a female feistiness typical of Cameron heroines, though she’s not exactly that — must have some connection to John’s future, too, the unlikely coincidence of her meeting with John getting smoothed out in the machine of predestination. But the inevitability of Kate’s eventual literal taking up of arms manages to be startling, and, on the other hand, what we think must be the inevitable ending of the film isn’t what it turns out to be at all.

The “future is not set” thing is more than just a storytelling device here: it’s part and parcel of how the films have unfolded over nearly 20 years. We’re already living in the future of the world depicted in the first film, we’re beyond the Judgment Day of the second film — the technology we live with today negates some of what we’ve seen in the earlier films. But T3 cleverly incorporates that into the ever-changing flow of history into the present into the future, and that’s something for major SF geeks — like me — to really sink our teeth into. It means that one aspect of the future is probably set: How can there not be a T4 after the ending we get here? And in another minor re-energizing of my faith in Hollywood and the movies, I don’t see the marketing ploy in that: I see the possibilities for the futures of John Connor, and I can’t wait to find out how the universe sorts them all out.

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