“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” unfolds as a thrilling piece of entertainment, but it has a third act and ending that don’t work and shouldn’t ever work. The first half of the film is so relentlessly action-packed and full of adrenalin that we’re willing to forestall questions of implausibility until the ending when all of the flaws fold back over themselves. Maybe the problem is that “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” has a responsibility, a mandate, given that it follows two groundbreaking epics, to be more than a dumb popcorn film. Does “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” work as such? Will Joe Sixpack be whacking off in the aisles at the sight of Kristanna Loken kicking a*s? Yes, unquestionably, but if that’s all the film is then why is this sequel necessary? This isn’t just a film, is it?
The film opens with John Connor (Nick Stahl), ten years older and still feeling the burden of the world’s impending annihilation and his inevitable role as the leader of the would-be resistance. John lives “off the grid,” working odd jobs, living underground, leaving no trail of his existence. He’s paranoid and why not? Even though Cyberdine, the company that harvested the Terminator prototype in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” has been wiped out, John senses that the destruction of mankind, the rise of SkyNet, the all-powerful, cyborg-controlled defense system, is inevitable. It has been written. John knows that, any day, the Terminators might come for him again, from the future, and so, in one of the film’s best ideas, John’s careful not to leave any kind of “fingerprint” trail.
Suddenly, the Terminators do arrive. One of them, T-X (Kristanna Loken, deliciously cold and icy), is an advanced model who’s been sent to kill John Connor or, as a consolation, and the film’s second good idea, kill off John’s lieutenants, future members of his resistance who just happen to be scattered around Los Angeles (everything in this film seems to revolve around California). How many of your friends from high school still live in your city? Anyway, “The Terminatrix” is soon followed by another Terminator, the outdated T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who’s been sent to protect John Connor although his actual motives are revealed to be much more shaded towards the end of the film. The battle is on.
It’s here that the film stumbles upon an incredible series of coincidences as a wounded John takes refuge in a veterinary clinic run by Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) who just happens to be another one of John’s future lieutenants. T-X arrives, along with T-101 and they have the film’s first major battle while T-101 and John try to convince Kate of the world’s, and her, destiny although the actual link between John and Kate runs a lot more deep. Why did John meet Kate since, after “Judgment Day,” his fate, his destiny, had been altered? Has it been altered or is it inevitable that John meet Kate? What are the odds that John and Kate, T-X’s two prime targets, would be there at the same time and why are the Terminators arriving mere days before the apocalypse? Furthermore, why is John still in Los Angeles? Wouldn’t he know where the big nuclear blast was going to hit and where there would be shelter?
These details didn’t bother me since the “Terminator” series is full of such paradoxes and only a goof would ask deep questions about the plot. But the coincidences do start to pile up at this point, not to mention the fact that everything seems to take place in the same few locations. It’s as if the film’s plot requires the characters to be at close quarters all the time because if they were smarter the film couldn’t end. Still, these early scenes are exciting and the actors register effectively, even given their sparse dialogue. I was adamantly opposed to the idea of a female Terminator but Kristanna Loken makes for a splendid villain with her cool facial ticks and icy demeanor. Watch her when she kills somebody and notice the dry look of satisfaction on her face. She’s good. Danes (boy, she must’ve really lowered her standards to do this film after being a “serious actress” on “My So Called Life”) is a plucky and attractive female lead, a new Sarah Connor if you will, and Nick Stahl, with his gaunt face and dead eyes, is an effective John Connor. For his part, Schwarzenegger has a rather thankless part as the heroic Terminator although the script does give him some surprises near the end of the film. He basically explains the plot to Danes and Stahl and runs interference with Loken’s Terminator (the biggest laugh in the film occurs when Schwarzenegger, staring down a terrified gas station attendant, holds up a black glove and says, “Talk to the hand.”).
But the film soon enters really dumb waters beginning with a painfully awkward scene at a cemetery where T-101 (could they have picked a more stupid name?) has taken John and Kate to visit Sarah Connor’s grave. This scene is so campy and cheesy that I wonder what director Jonathan Mostow was thinking. If you see the film, ask yourself what the point of this scene is other than to tell us what happened to Sarah? They find a stash of weapons in Sarah’s supposed resting place while stupidly drawing the T-X to their location. Isn’t T-101’s mission to protect John? Well, not exactly, as the film eventually reveals, but this is one freewheeling Terminator. The scene ends with a really goofy shot of T-101 running along the cemetery grounds with a casket over his shoulder, the payoff for a scene whose only purpose is to disrespect the memory of Sarah Connor. Before this, John is somewhat perplexed and saddened that T-101 doesn’t remember him from their emotional adventures in “Judgment Day.” Why would he, since he’s not the same machine? In the film’s most interesting scene, T-101 explains John’s fate to him and the depths of the machines’ deception, but there’s no payoff. How would you feel if someone told you when you were going to be killed?
The cemetery scene also reveals just how incredibly mediocre “Terminator 3″’s special effects are and maybe the drab look of the film is a testament to just how dominant James Cameron’s influence is upon the series. I know Stan Winston and his A-team handled the film’s effects, but the effects, for the most part, look colorless and uninspired, full of half-baked concepts and ideas (Is the government secretly designing robot-powered spaceships? Are they self-piloted?) that must’ve been buried in the script but would’ve been more useful being buried in the scraps of Winston’s makeup shop. Example: on the way to the cemetery, T-X, disguised in another body, rips her fist through a cop’s stomach while he’s driving and T-X is in the backseat. It’s a great visual, but then there’s a quick cut and we don’t get the payoff which, I assume, was supposed to be the blood-soaked robotic hand moving the steering wheel. There’s nothing in this film that’s half as visually interesting as T-1000’s liquid-metal form in “Judgment Day” or even the low-tech, eyeball-removal scene in 1984’s “The Terminator.” You remember “The Terminator,” don’t you? The one that cost $5 Million to make. Winston hasn’t outdone himself here, but I’m more willing to blame Mostow for not enforcing more discipline here or throughout the film for that matter. Do you think James Cameron, given his fiery reputation, would’ve let this pass? I also noticed that some of the scenes looked bleached and washed-out as if the film stock was bad (maybe the manager of my theater was saving money on bulbs).
When I first heard about “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” I started out with a basic question: Is this film necessary? After seeing this film, I think it could’ve been and, indeed, parts of the film are. I’m not a science-fiction purist at all, but it’s amazing how the first two “Terminator” films, much like the magic and universal power of the “Star Wars” universe, have made us care so deeply about the characters and story. Approaching “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” I had many questions that I was looking forward to having the film answer: What is the fate of SkyNet following the seeming destruction of Cyberdine in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day?” How is SkyNet able to be self-aware without the Cyberdine robot prototypes? Why would the military allow SkyNet to ever control its primary military commands? The film really dodges and fudges around these important issues especially with its tortured explanation of SkyNet’s rise to power. In logic so tortured I’m still trying to sort out the details, it seems that SkyNet has implanted a kind of decoy killer computer virus throughout North America, causing chaos over all computer systems, even inside America’s fabled defense department. Why? Well, it seems that by infecting all of the computer systems, SkyNet’s hoping to bluff the defense department into fully implementing SkyNet’s defense systems which, it’s expected, will serve as a “virus killing” blanket but will actually transfer control to the machines. Boy, these machines run quite a network and if our own defense capabilities ever became this advanced; the only enemy we’d ever have to worry about is ourselves. By the way, whatever happened to the universal theme of the “Terminator” films which is, in essence, that man is the architect of his own demise?
All of this ties into the film’s disastrous ending which involves a frantic attempt by the heroes to destroy SkyNet whose core, it seems, is located at a NORAD-type, secret military silo deep in the mountains. I wouldn’t dream of giving away the film’s ending, but I think it’s an outrage to anyone who’s invested time watching this film. Having been through 100 minutes of, at the very least, a moderately exhilarating but dumb-as-a-box-of-cookies plot, I was expecting “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” to answer the hard questions. What we’re left with is an ambiguous triple ending that takes place in a cave (the set looks like a reject from “Quest for Fire”) where nothing is resolved beyond what we knew at the start of the film. It’s one of those endings that makes you feel that the film started at Point A and then took a long, wide turn just to end up back at Point A. What really happened to SkyNet? How do the robots function without Cyberdine? What of Russia and the rest of the world? This is the most cynical kind film-making because, in essence, we’re left with the feeling that “Terminator 4″ could take place right after “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and we wouldn’t miss a thing, certainly not anything that happened in this film. None of it matters. As the film ended, I just stared at the screen and shook my head as if to wonder if that’s all there was. It’s as if “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” is a prelude to nothing.