Jonathan Mostow directs Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, a sometimes campy and always preposterous entry in the series that began with James Cameron’s 1984 film The Terminator. Mostow’s flick is a long way off from the mark set by Cameron’s original and his classic 1991 sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but it’s not without its own wacky charms.
Featuring a screenplay by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines took a while to come to fruition, spending several years in development hell until its release in 2003. Without Cameron’s savvy, there’s something missing and the story doesn’t quite pan out. Mostow’s universe feels disappointingly small.
The film opens with John Connor (Nick Stahl) living off the grid in Los Angeles after the death of his mother. Judgment Day did not occur, but Connor still believes that a war between the humans and machines is coming. In the future, Skynet sends a new model of Terminator called the T-X (Kristanna Loken) back to the future to bump off Connor and other members of the human resistance group.
The resistance group counters by sending a reprogrammed Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back to protect Connor. Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) is also involved as Connor’s future wife and fellow leader of the resistance. When the T-X arrives and starts tearing things apart, Kate and John have no choice but to follow the Terminator and to prevent the activation of Skynet.
Terminator 3 starts off well, delivering some early tension as the Terminators arrive and take to their human targets. The most remarkable action piece involves a colossal chase through the city with the T-X powering a huge crane and the Terminator holding on for dear life. There are some terrific vehicle stunts and countless cars and buildings are demolished.
Unfortunately, Terminator 3 never tops the first few action pieces and drones through the rest of its paces with just a few sparks to speak of. A hand-to-hand fight between the T-X and Arnold’s Terminator feels underwhelming, in part because cinematographer Don Burgess can only do so much against the cacophony of cartoonish noises and flippant editing.
Every time one of the cybernetic organisms hits something, there’s a loud clanking sound out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. This matches the frequent use of slapstick, which both dents the impact of the violence and underscores T3’s camp appeal. The movie becomes a bit of a joke, with pieces built around sight gags like a convertible hearse or a truck carrying the weight loss supplement Xenadrine.
The comedy, deliberate or not, endures as Kate and John reach a place called Crystal Peak and discover that it looks like the secretive den of a Bond villain. There’s supposed to be some sort of integral plot discovery here, but it’s impossible to overlook both the silliness of the nuclear fallout shelter and the fact that Connor inexplicably sets the big bomb for five minutes.
The final moments in Crystal Peak also illustrate one of Terminator 3’s biggest problems, which is its lack of scale. After the crane-and-crash follies, most of the picture takes place in smallish locations and features oddly restricted fights. For all the bedlam at the hands of Skynet and the reprehensible machines, one would think Mostow would have an interest in showing it.
Regrettably, the audience is left to visualize the rest. That removes tension and significance. It doesn’t help that the characters are dull, with Stahl bringing little to the table and Danes never quite connecting as a budding resistance leader. Schwarzenegger can do this stuff in his sleep, but Loken doesn’t hit that vital Robert Patrick level of improbability.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines has some impressive moments and entertains as a daffy B-movie, but it’s not particularly worthy of the series set in motion by Cameron’s two action/sci-fi classics. Mostow has made an almost tentative movie, with many of the same moving parts but none of the impact. It’s a lurid and dumb motion picture and a far too ordinary piece of this extraordinary saga.