#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.