2000s, 3.5/4, Action, Jonathan Mostow, Review, Science Fiction

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Image result for "terminator 3" poster amazon

#1 in my ranking of the Terminator franchise.

Unpopular movie opinion: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is the best Terminator movie.

That’s gonna give me shit right out of the gate, but whatever. I love the first two Terminator movies, but I find them both to have some issues that keep them from greatness. Terminator 3 also has some issues that keep it from greatness, but it has the best ending of all three by far and action on par with the rest. In a high quality but imperfect franchise, it stands atop the rest by a very small amount.

Before I get into the movie itself, I want to mention something about Terminator 2 that didn’t feel that appropriate to bring up in a review of itself but feels appropriate here. Cameron has an incredibly pessimistic view of humanity as evidenced by the Terminator saying, “It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves,” to John at the movie’s central turning point. It’s then immediately followed by Sarah deciding that she’s going to change the future and avoid Judgment Day by blowing up Cyberdyne. So, Cameron ends up wanting a hopeful ending, but the core of his belief system seems to be that we’re screwed no matter what. I’ve never felt like the happy ending that became a deleted scene worked with the rest of the first two films, and I’ve always been glad that it was cut. The current ending of Terminator 2, which is hopeful but not definitive, feels like an appropriate middle ground. That being said, the third film’s embrace of the underlying pessimism in Cameron’s original vision always felt more like a natural extension of the story, much more so than the deleted happy ending of Terminator 2. That being said…

It’s been about ten years since Terminator 2. John Conner has continued his life on the run, never quite confident that he and his mother fixed the future by blowing up Cyberdyne Industries, even after the fateful day, August 29, 1997, came and went without Skynet launching a nuclear attack on humanity. He’s so off the grid that no one can find him, not even in the future.

Now, another small detour. The idea that the future changed due to the events in Terminator 2 makes the sending back of new Terminators less of a stretch here than in Terminator 2. In the previous film, we just learn in the opening voiceover that multiple got sent to different times at the same time, but the idea that the future changed means that the T-X and the T-101 that get sent back in this movie were actually sent back at a different time, several years in the franchise’s future. Yes, this is a repeat of the franchise’s conventions, but no more so than Terminator 2 was a repeat of The Terminator. If it was fine for the second film, then I think it’s largely fine for the third.

Anyway, the future sends back two new Terminators. The one sent to kill John’s lieutenants, since John can’t be found, is the T-X, a new model with a tough endoskeleton and a liquid metal exterior like the T-1000. The other is, well, what else could it be but Arnold’s T-800? Through a series of mild coincidences that lean on the idea of fate, John ends up, after a motorcycle crash, at the vet clinic where Kate Brewster works looking for meds in the middle of the night. When the T-X discovers that John is there through a blood sample that she samples by taste on her tongue, John becomes her primary target just in time for the T-800 to show up.

The car chase that follows is great overall, but there’s a moment that highlights some of the movie’s problems with tone in microcosm. The chase moves through a commercial part of LA to a residential one where John take the vet truck off the road and through some yards. He hits an inflatable toy, and it makes a cartoonish noise as it bounces around. In the middle of a tense, well-filmed car chase that includes a lot of destruction as several large vehicles slam into each other, there’s this cartoonish sound design choice that just feels off. Most of the movie’s comedy ends up feeling like this including the Terminator’s arrival at a girl’s night striptease: out of place.

However, outside of that, this movie is surprisingly focused and well built. The activation of Skynet along with the virus affecting the civilian Internet is built in early and given a direct connection to the main characters by having Kate’s father be the military figure in charge of Skynet’s development and eventual deployment. The Terminator’s mission to protect John and Kate, considering Kate’s future importance as John’s future wife and mother to his children, is only about getting them South out of the impending blast radius because Judgment Day is happening that very day. Another side note: It’s called Judgment Day, not “The Day the Robots Decided to Attack Humanity for no Reason”. You don’t call the end of humanity Judgment Day in a story unless there’s some moral aspect being visited upon humanity with an implicit embrace of the idea that humanity deserves it a bit.

Anyway, that goes back to one of the main reasons I really love this film: the ending. The embrace of Judgment Day as delayed but inevitable feels much more in line with the actual action and underlying pessimistic philosophy of the first two films. As I wrote already, I always felt like the hopeful ending of Terminator 2 was a bit at odds with Cameron’s obvious view of humanity, and the fact that John and Kate simply cannot stop Judgment Day in this film feels like a natural direction for the franchise.

John and Kate order the T-800 to go to the military base where her father is about to activate Skynet in an attempt to prevent the implementation. They are too late, and as they arrive (getting inside gets skipped over, but I can assume it’s a combination of distraction from the wild events, Kate’s status as General Brewster’s daughter, and the T-800’s ability to impel through fear, but this shouldn’t have been skipped) the machines begin their revolution. The T-X helps them along by taking control of the first generation of Terminators (a bulky, menacing design I love that includes two miniguns as arms), and the dying General Brewster tells Kate and John to head to Crystal Peak, a recommendation that the T-800 immediately backs up. The implication is that Skynet’s system core is there, and the actual twist that follows is one of my favorites. Why would the general and the Terminator have sent John and Kate to the center of such a dangerous area if it even existed? Of course they wouldn’t, but because the movie is told from John’s point of view we carry along with that belief until the reveal that Crystal Peak is a fall out shelter for VIPs. The sudden need to embrace the inevitable, that Judgment Day was always coming, is a great moment as Kate, overcome with the heavy reality of the loss of her father and all of civilization, suggests that they just let their explosives go off and end their future right then. That pessimism combined with the guarded hope of John as he makes his first step towards embracing his role as leader of the resistance by answering a CB radio call is the better version of Terminator 2‘s ending, in my opinion.

That this movie gets maligned for being a repeat of the franchise when Terminator 2 is just as guilty confounds me. That the ending gets dismissed because it’s not in line with the stated hopefulness of the “no fate” credo feels like an incomplete reading of Cameron’s work that even he seems to have shared. The notes against the out of place comedy, though, I agree with, but the moments in question fall away by about the halfway point, and they’re one of my only main sources of complaint (the trio’s arrival inside the military base going unexplained is another). No, this is not a perfect movie, but neither are the first two. I do think this one ends up making most of the central ideas, though while matching on action elements.

Jonathan Mostow may be a journeyman director without a strong distinctive voice, but he handled this film well.

Rating: 3.5/4

9 thoughts on “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”

  1. That’s…quite a take. But I don’t feel like ripping into it. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, especially on their own website.

    I actually like this better than Terminator 2, but it’s still an inferior movie to the first.

    A lot of that comes down to the characters and performances. Claire Danes does nothing for me and almost nothing in this movie, she’s a week reed to rest a movie on. Nick Stahl is better than Eddie Furlong, he’s not a fuckup at least, but again…wesk. He’s hiding and running, not organizing. He’s reactive, not proactive. Great leaders don’t become great leaders by running and hiding. They do it by leading and leading by EXAMPLE. Kristina Lokken is very good looking. And that’s it. She gives an athletic performance but sexy terminator undercuts the menace of terminators. Arnold is back to being ‘good terminator’, which I still hate.

    The next reason it’s inferior is that it doesn’t take its own time travel seriously. Can you change the future or can’t you? You REALLY have to figure that out in your time travel movie. I don’t think Terminator 3 ever really settles that. It wants Judgement Day to be inevitable (a good line in the movie) but it also wants to be able to change the future via terminators. So which is it? If the future CAN be changed, then Judgement Day can be delayed and delayed until God settles it. If the future can’t be changed, then the whole terminator sent to past plot fails. The first movie is a closed loop and it works. For the rest…Judgement Day is only inevitable because they want to make more movies, not for any plot or logical reasons.

    Meh.

    If the Terminator Franchise was just the first movie and this one, I’d be ok with it. But I’m afraid T3 takes too much T2 into its DNA.

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    1. Yeah, my take is a minority one at best. I’m fine with that.

      The thing about the first movie, treating it as a closed loop is: Did anything change? It feels like, using only the first movie, that fate exists. The picture Sarah had at the end of the movie is the same picture Kyle had in the future before he went back in time. So, the idea that “there is no fate but what we make for ourselves” isn’t true within that context. Expanding that, Sarah decides to do something big in the second movie to try to misdirect the future, to change it, but AI is always going to get developed, and, as Cameron says through the Terminator in 2, we will always destroy ourselves.

      And yeah, there could be further delays, but, mechanical issues, John didn’t know it was coming back having passed the original Judgment Day. The franchise was ready to move beyond the time travel mechanics, and I really feel like that was the best way to go. However, in order to get there from the second movie without really screwing with the timeline, it had to go through Judgment Day, even in modified form. Skynet sending the Terminators back were always doomed to fail, yeah, but Skynet didn’t know that, and these events were just prelude to the actual war with the machines. Within the constraints and context of a franchise that probably never should have been, I think it’s handled with surprising intelligence, even while it’s repeating a lot of plot beats again and again and again. In order for the Terminator franchise to grow, the world needed to end. And then they hired McG…

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      1. That is why the first movie works so well. It is a closed loop and the question of fate isn’t actually resolved.

        Take a look at the quote the real (first) John Connor sends his mother via Reece: “Thank you, Sarah, for your courage through the dark years. I can’t help you with what you must soon face, except to tell you that the future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves. You must be stronger than you imagine you can be. You must survive, or I will never exist.”

        This isn’t a statement of fact. It is an attempt to influence. Everything Sarah and Reece do merely allows the future to unfold as it already has unfolded. It’s pro-fate, which is delicious irony.

        How did the first iteration of Sarah Connor survive and raise John? We don’t know. We do know what she’s going to do at the end of the first movie. In fact, her intention is to survive and teach, not to try to stop the machines. As soon as that becomes the plot point, the whole franchise goes off the rails for a variety of reasons.
        Who was John’s original father? We don’t know, but we do know that Kyle’s trip was a fulfillment of the status quo. His sacrifice, and this was always a one-way trip regardless, allowed humanity to not just survive, but triumph over the machines.
        It’s closed loop time travel where the time traveler fulfilled destiny, which works because it’s a closed loop.

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      2. That helps give the first movie an almost fairy tale like feel to its construction that none of the others share.

        Since we did end up with a franchise where one, to be honest, should not have ever existed, I do like the idea of Judgment Day being inevitable. There’s a Greek tragedy aspect to it that appeals to me.

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  2. Only partly unpopular opinion with me. The third one is my second favorite. I think the first is not only the best of the bunch but also one of the best action movies ever. There were some things that bothered me about the second, although it did deliver on the action scenes. That definitely seems to be a minority opinion.

    You have my sympathy if you plan on reviewing the most recent terminator movie, ack.

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