Saturday 27 June 2009

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Director: Jonathan Mostow
Star: Arnold Schwarzenegger

With Terminator Salvation in theatres and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles cancelled after two seasons, now would seem to be a good time to revisit Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. After all, I didn't watch T:TSCC (aren't we supposed to abbreviate such things nowadays?) for Sarah Connor, or even for John Connor for that matter. I watched it because Summer Glau was frickin' awesome as a terminator, and here's a whole film dedicated to a terminatrix. Instead of Summer Glau we have Kristanna Loken, best known for scifi TV series (Painkiller Jane and Mortal Kombat: Conquest) and Uwe Boll movies (BloodRayne and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale). What's not to love?

This one starts as it means to go on. 'There is no future but what we make for ourselves,' says John Connor, as a city blows up. But he doubts this because the Judgment Day the first two movies told us about never came and maybe, just maybe, they've stopped it already. Just in case it's all real and it's still coming though, he lives off the grid with the weight of the future bearing down on him. Just in case. And of course, because we're watching a film called Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, that turns out to be a good call.

Sure enough, the next scene sees Kristanna Loken appearing naked in a cool effects ball in a shopfront fortunately located right across an empty street from one woman with a fast car and clothes in her size. And sure enough, right after the bad terminator (sorry, terminatrix) comes a good terminator in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He gets his clothes from a bar, of course, but this one turns out to be a male strip joint waiting for a stripper. The Elton John glasses are a perfect spoof of the Bad to the Bone scene in Terminator 2.

Anyway, there's another character we should care about: she's called Kate Brewster, she's played by Claire Danes, she works at an animal hospital and she's tough enough to dump John Connor right into an animal cage thirty seconds after meeting him. Admittedly he's doped up on pain meds because he came off his bike at high speed, which is why he broke into the place to begin with, but the coincidences are scary. Beyond just taking advantage of him, she knows who he is because they went to school together and her dad is a big time military dude who runs a cool secret supercomputer project for the military called, erm, Skynet. Remember that?

And this sort of particularly sloppy plotting is precisely why this is the worst film in the series, though to be honest I haven't seen the new one yet. It doesn't help that John Connor is a complete wuss in this film and the Governator is getting old so his voice doesn't carry the impact it used to. What we have are explosions, fires and visual effects a go go, which is entirely the point. We're not here to watch Claire Danes act or Nick Stahl mangle the part of John Connor, we're here to watch two terminators try to mangle each other and to do so with some really big vehicles. There are scenes here so many cars die that it seems like the entire American auto industry could have survived by merely making another sequel.

I like the little touches. Loken grows a large number of breast sizes after she sees a Victoria's Secret billboard after a cop pulls her over. The way she turns round in a clinch during a fight sequence is somehow pornographic, at least to us nerds. Dr Silberman returns from the second film in a cool followup to his original story. Best of all to my thinking was the idea of the earliest terminator models of them all, because they don't come from the future, they're built right here and now in the present. They're kludgy things at best, some of them, not even up to the ED-109s in RoboCop, but that's all very cool from a tech perspective.

And at the end of the day, I'm a little torn. I like this film but I know it's bad. I like the ending, which is a lot better than what went before. I want to own the nuclear shelter. I like Kristanna Loken kicking Schwarzenegger's ass and only a moron could look at the terminator fights as condoning violence against women. Yes, I've heard that. But there's a lot to dislike here. Arnie is definitely too old, Nick Stahl isn't great and Claire Danes gets too little to do. Nobody really gets much to do except the visual effects techs.

I think what this boils down to is that ending is the worst thing that could have happened to the film, not because it's bad because it's a good ending but precisely because the intelligence put into it serves only to highlight how dumb and convenient everything was that went before it. Had the ending been as consistently dumb and convenient, then this would be a dumb but fun action flick. Because the ending is intelligent and poignant, the film becomes a hollow victory and the ending a reinforcement of what it could have been.

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