Today is Our Judgment Day!

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Let's be honest: Terminator 2: Judgment Day really didn't need a sequel. The way that film ends, with Sarah and John Connor riding off into the sunset, Skynet prevented once and for all, is a perfect cap to the TerminatorIs it a series about a future nuclear war and the survivors of the aftermath? Is it a series of chase movies set in the present day? Is it a series about time travel? That fact is that the Terminator series is all of those concepts. The mash-up of genres and ideas shouldn't work, but the films have proven adept at mixing into a heady series unlike any other. series. James Cameron even thought so, filming an ending for the second movie that show the whole family, decades later, living in a Skynet-free future, free and happy. That ending wasn't used for the original cut of the movie (because the studio wanted to keep the faintest hope of a sequel alive), but clearly the thought was that T2 would end the series.

Perhaps that's why any continuation of the film franchise has been considered a failure (and not just because, up until the sixth film that's in development now, James Cameron wasn't involved with any of the later sequels). Terminator 2 neatly ties up the story threads from The Terminator, giving us a complete arc. And then Terminator 3 came along and screwed all that up. The neat and tidy arc was messed up, with a story that showed that, nope, Skynet wasn't really dead and nothing the heroes have ever done really matters. It's dark and bleak, sure, but also a tad unnecessary. What's the point of half the events of the second film if nothing the heroes did mattered?

Terminator 3 opens with John Connor (Nick Stahl this time) still on the run, just bouncing from place to place in the southwestern United States, waiting to see if Judgment Day ever happens. He assumes it won't because he and his mother (who died of cancer in the intervening years) stopped it, and the original date for the nuclear attack came and went without incident. Still, he largely keeps off the grid, avoiding anything that could put him in "the system" so the machines could find him. But a motorcycle accident leaves him in need of medical assistance, and he gets caught by one of the veterinarians, Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), at the animal clinic he breaks into. Things take a turn, though, when a new Terminator shows up, the T-X (Kristanna Loken), there to kill Kate. And then, of course, another T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger again) arrives at the scene to battle the new, evil Terminator. Things go to hell from there, very quickly.

It's wrong to say I hate Terminator 3; I don't, but there is a lot that's wrong with the movie. Some elements are pretty cool, in fact, showing that the creators behind the scenes tried to think through the mythology of the series to come up with new scenarios for the heroes to go through. On the whole, though, the movie doesn't really come together in a satisfying way, leaving you a little empty by the time the credits roll. Everything is uneven, and nothing really gets resolved in a satisfying way (largely because Hollywood really wanted more sequels after this to continue raking in the dough).

Things start off pretty unevenly with the introduction of the two terminators. The T-X is the first female-looking machine in the series, and the film spends a lot of time leering at her, trying to play up her sex appeal, showing her off more as eye candy than as a menacing machine. She moves around in skin-tight leather, augments her breasts as needed to seduce men to her will, and in general acts like a sex machine, not a killing machine. Loken gets a lot of crap for her performance in this film, being described as a flat and uninteresting sex bot, but honestly that's how the movie treats her. She's not given much to do beyond that, and clearly the director wasn't interested in fleshing her out as a character, so we're left with the leering eye and normal, flat affect of the machine.

It's tragic, really, because conceptually the T-X is an interesting bot. Because the Resistance in the future has already reprogrammed at least one robot in the series, the writers thought through that story thread and decided that the humans would probably do that pretty regularly, so Skynet designed a terminator specifically made to hunt other terminators. She has a hardened endoskeleton that houses multiple futuristic weapons. It's then covered in the polymimetic alloy introduced in the second film so the terminator can disguise itself and blend in. This is a serious bot with a lot of power and abilities, and I appreciated how much thought went into her design even if the film chooses to leer at her instead.

She also has an interesting story for the first half of the movie (once you get past her pervy introduction). Since John Connor is so far off the grid there's absolutely no record of him, Skynet has changed tactics: instead of killing the leader of the Resistance, it'll just send a machine back to eliminate all his lieutenants, everyone that keeps the army going. That's a neat idea, a way to show that Skynet isn't solely obsessed with John Connor. It would have been a great thread to follow, too, if the film would have let the T-X continue on this line instead of having her mindlessly chase after John Connor once the two meet up. Maybe the film could have played it in reverse, with the T-X trying to hunt people and John and Co. are always on her heels chasing her left and right and constantly thwarting her mission. It would have shown more thought and care about the story instead wasting her on another mindless retread of the same chase mechanics we've already seen.

Speaking of mistreatment, though, The T-800 is abused by the film as well. His introduction is basically a beat-for-beat redo of the T-800's first sequence in T2, but this time played for laughs. Instead of a biker bar is a strip club on Ladies' Night. Instead of a hardened criminal-type, the T-800 steals the clothes off a male stripper. And on, and on, the film tries to juxtapose the T-800 as a force of comedy instead of a cold-blooded killing machine. The entire first half has a ton of these moments, right up until the first big chase sequence between Connor, the T-X, and the T-800. After that everything about the film switches gears, with all the setup from the start of the film ditched for a completely different story.

It's like there were two different scripts for the movie that were grafted together (and not at all seamlessly). While I don't hate either section of the movie (you know, once the machines are finally done being introduced for the male gaze and/or laughs), I wish it all came together better than this. This is especially true once we get up to the ending (and spoilers for a 16 year old movie), when John and Kate, thinking they're going to a bunker to destroy the Skynet core, discover they've instead ended up on a fallout bunker. Skynet nukes the world and there's nothing they can do to stop it. It's a bleak ending but it also basically comes out of nowhere. Everything up to this point has been a survival movie, and then suddenly we switch gears and the world ends. While it's good setup for an eventual movie following Connor as he leads the war in the future, that's not what we were building to and it feels jarring.

In essence, this movie has two separate goals it's trying to reach. One the one hand, it's another by-the-numbers chase movie like the previous two movies we already had in the series. On the other hand it's trying to setup the future war and the Resistance, but it doesn't really a good job laying that groundwork before it moves on to other things. It's uneven, not just in tone but also in plotting, and it never manages to pull it together enough to create a worthy successor to the previous two films in the series.

Put another way, there's nothing in this movie that makes you want to include it with the first two films. For most people, the satisfying arc of those movies doesn't need to be ruined by the story elements Terminator 3 introduces. Better to just pretend it doesn't exist.