Notwithstanding the obvious aesthetic consideration of whether you’d prefer a cyborg sent from the future with the express purpose of killing you to appear naked in the form of a pectoral-ridden middle-aged Austrian gentleman or a lissom and well-toned Scandinavian lady, ‘Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines’ doesn’t seem (on paper at least) to offer all that much.
A journeyman director (Jonathan Mostow), an uncharismatic leading man (Nick Stahl), the non-involvement of James Cameron, and the complete absence of Linda Hamilton in her signature role. Throw in seven years of everyone slating it since its theatrical release and I settled down to watch ‘Rise of the Machines’ with no expectations. Whatsoever.
I was quite surprised.
It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great, either. Not a patch on the original, and without the broad scope of the sequel. But it wasn’t bad. And it has a couple of advantages on the sequel: it’s shorter and unpretentious, and Arnie’s T-101 (while still ostensibly the protector) is a lot more brutally pragmatic than his ‘Judgement Day’ incarnation (he doesn’t give a crap about bonding with the now adult John Connor in this one). Plus, it has a fuck-off great chase sequence involving sexy new Terminator the T-X (Kristanna Loken) commandeering a truck crane, its jib taking out entire swathes of buildings, as the T-101 engages her in combat.
It also has an intriguing set-up: Judgement Day has been averted and the listless John Connor (Stahl) holds down a succession of menial jobs as he drifts from town to town, living anonymously and off the grid. The T-X shows up and starts targeting random individuals. It turns out these are Connor’s future “lieutenants”, those who will form his first wave of recruits when he leads the rebellion against the machines. But even Connor himself believes that there is no longer a threat.
Mostow’s film, from a script by John D. Bracanto, Michael Ferris and Tedi Sarafian (writers new to the franchise), posits a reasonably convincing alternative to the development of Skynet and its disastrous achievement of self-awareness. The key is Connor’s high school sweetheart Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), with whom he is thrown together when the T-X tries to assassinate her.
Unfortunately, the film also does a lot of things wrong. The T-101’s arrival replays the biker bar brawl of part two but substitutes a bunch of rowdy women on a hen night and a gay stripper. The result is almost parody, but the humour borders on homophobic. Likewise, Loken is iconic as the T-X but the big finale between her and the T-101 plays out as ridiculously OTT, the two cyborgs demolishing a restroom as they twat each other with sinks and toilet bowls. The production design of the military facility Kate’s top brass father commands is bland in comparison to the Cyberdyne offices in part two, and the design of the machines themselves (which go renegade in the finale) is uninspired and realised with fairly shoddy effects work. That aforementioned fuck-off great chase scene? It happens at around the 30-minute mark; the movie shoots its wad less than a third of the way in.
Stahl’s performance is just bland. There’s nothing to suggest that this guy has it in him to lead the fight against the machines. Claire Danes, often a luminous and highly likeable actress (‘Stage Beauty’, ‘Stardust’), is saddled with a nothing role which requires her to do little more than look bemused for long periods and intermittently screech like a harpy. A pointless scene with franchise stalwart Dr Silberman (Earl Boen) serves to remind the viewer how sorely missed Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton are.
I’m still not sure what to make of the graveyard scene, except to wonder if the first draft of the screenplay had the working title ‘Terminator 3: Django Strikes Again’.