Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is not a film with Big Ideas. That places it in stark contrast to its direct predecessors, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Terminator. It is, however, a film with Good Ideas, and for those of us who love this franchise, that's plenty good enough.
There are obviously wholesale changes in the cast from the prior two outings, and the changes start all the way at the top with the absence of James Cameron. Whether you like the man or consider him an egomaniacal ass, there is simply no debating the fact that he has proven himself to be a master of the action sequence; furthermore, the Terminator series is arguably his finest work. Jonathan Mostow is left with the incredible challenge of replacing him and to my surprise, he proves himself largely up to the task.
Joining him is the only remaining holdover from the cast of the first two films (excluding one short comic relief cameo), Arnold Schwarzenegger. Everyone else is new, as Linda Hamiltonís Sarah Connor has been written out of the sequel. The role of John Connor has been re-cast with Nick Stahl (of In the Bedroom fame) replacing Edward Furlong and the heretofore unknown Kristanna Loken taking over for Robert Patrick. Claire Danes is the other new face, as she portrays a veterinarian who once had a schoolgirl crush on John Connor.
The changing of the guard has been cause for concern since the filmís production was originally announced, and letís be honest about the fact that Arnold needs a hit. With so much riding on Terminator 3, unrealistic expectations of a film as magnificent as T2 were not so much my concern as I entered the theater. Instead, I worried over the simple fact that with everything changed from what I originally loved about the franchise, would this even feel like a Terminator film? Since Iím sure you have similar concerns, Iím happy to report that it certainly did.
T3 is best described as the tone of the original film in the series taken to big budget extremes that werenít available to Cameron. Whereas the first film saw the brutal destruction of a seemingly infinite supply of AMC Gremlins and Pacers (it makes for a fun drinking game if youíve never tried it), the $170 million budget for Rise of the Machines allows for some truly spectacular explosions and chase sequences.
In fact, one of the best decisions Mostow makes is to not tinker with the format much. The film starts with a minimalist amount of back story which reasonably explains the story of the adult life a man like John Connor would be expected to have considering the events of his teen years. From there, we meet the Danes character, Kate Brewster, she is thrown together with Connor, and the two terminators from the future arrive on the scene. Rather than offer up an explanation for the existence of the sequel and the machine assassins, knowing full well that audiences probably wonít accept it anyway, the script simply takes the route of ďhere we are and you need to deal with itĒ. Itís the correct choice.
The third film in the franchise is something neither of the other two could ever be described as being: sleek. Itís a tight 100 minutes of action, action, action and while there is the occasional groan-inducing moment when the characters have to get serious for a moment, the audience is never more than a few moments away from another explosion. In videogame parlance (which is, from a holistic perspective, what the new film really is), the play is the thing here. The expository dialogue is kept to a bare minimum to the point that the new TX terminatrix probably doesnít say 50 words in the movie. She is the huntress on the prowl for her prey, and thatís how it should be in the format of this franchise. Explaining too much only weakens the intimidation factor. †
There are other twists in the movie which I wonít spoil here, but the decisions made are ones I find surprisingly intelligent. With Cameron gone, I had expected most of the cerebral mechanics of the machines to go by the wayside. Instead, a connection is made between the new T-101 and John Connor which is unexpected and effective. Itís Good Ideas like this which secure the sequel from being a disappointment.
I do expect some complaints to come from the filmís final act, as my screening audience grew loudly silent during certain key events toward the end. On a personal level, I found it acceptable and not that shocking. After all, a fourth film was contracted at the same time that the third one was, so some movement had to be made to forward the franchise.
Movie reviews are often the subject of critical bias entering the theater. A film that has lowered expectations has more of a chance to surprise while a film with colossal expectations (see: Matrix Reloaded) has the added onus of realizing the impossible. In the case of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, there will be some who expect a film every bit as intense and edgy as T2; those people will almost certainly come away disappointed. For those of you who are like me and have been concerned by the lack of quality trailers, the lowered expectations will prove to a benefit as I am relatively certain that you will enjoy the body of the movie for the incredible action sequences it provides.
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