The arrival of Jonathan Mostow’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines heralds a welcome, if inevitably momentary, respite from this unhappy summer of unequal and/or unworthy sequels — one so satisfying that it nearly (but not quite) makes up for all the dreck we’ve slogged through along the way. Here is the first movie of its kind in many moons that doesn’t have to labor, Hulk– or Charlie’s Angels–style, over convincing you of how entertaining it is. Here’s a picture that you actually want to see a second time, not for the sake of further wrapping your head around its gnarly conceptual matrix, but because of the sheer visceral charge it provides. Here, at long last, is a summer movie — like its precursors in the Terminator canon — worth its weight in cybernetic organisms.
Released in 1984, The Terminator — with its crudely elegant stop-motion effects by Stan Winston — was a crackerjack specimen of lyrical, bargain-basement sci-fi on the run, revving up the career of writer-director James Cameron and demonstrating that its hulking Austrian star with the unpronounceable last name might, indeed, be destined for greater things than Conan the Barbarian. Taking his cue from George Butler, who spotlighted the engaging young Schwarzenegger in his 1977 weightlifting documentary Pumping Iron, it was Cameron who first seemed clued in to how deadpan-funny Ah-nuld could be.
Seven years later, Terminator 2: Judgment Day was not only among the first movies to feature eight zeroes in its budget, but was the first ever to become better-known by its ad-slick acronym (T2) than by its proper title. In making the upgrade, some of the intimacy and economy of the first movie had been sacrificed: T2 was both blunter about its anti-nuclear message and murkier in its stance on modern technology. Yet, the movie was a bona fide phenomenon (and deservedly so; few films of any kind have carried two-plus hours of running time more breathlessly), packing such a revolution in visual effects that movies would spend most of the next decade trying to catch up (until one, called The Matrix, finally did). On top of which, in deftly reworking the premise of Shane, Cameron had managed to turn the impassive Schwarzenegger — who had uttered not more than a dozen lines in the original film — into a heroic (if monolithic) father figure, inadvertently laying the groundwork for the actor’s gubernatorial bid.
Cameron seems to have intended for things to end there. Likely, he felt some of the same anxiety that’s been nagging at audiences ever since T3 was first announced — that the idea of surpassing T2’s accomplishments, on a technical level alone, was the very definition of a fool’s errand.
Nothing, though, is impossible, and certainly not where billion-dollar movie franchises are concerned. Not having created the series, director Mostow (late of the submarine thriller U-571) doesn’t have to give a second thought to the notion of topping himself. He knows he can’t outscale T2’s grandiosity, and he doesn’t try — that’s his special freedom. Instead, he’s gone back to basics, to the B-movie beauty of the one that started it all (no matter that T3 cost even more than T2), gambling that audiences — weakened after the June gloom of forbidding, morose or enervatingly hyperactive comic-book movies — are jonesing for just such a down-and-dirty jugular shot of high-test adrenaline.
At the same time, Rise of the Machines may be the most respectful inheritance of a franchise by new filmmakers since Cameron himself got his hands on Aliens. The screenplay, credited to The Game’s John Brancato and Michael Ferris, riffs joyfully on its predecessors, opening with the familiar “arrival” sequences in which the terminators casually appear — crouched down, fully nude and encapsulated in transparent balls — somewhere on the streets of Los Angeles. From there, it’s on to the ritual of obtaining clothes and vehicles, in the course of which the souped-up T-X (the latest terminator model, played by newcomer Kristanna Loken) shows even less trepidation, and much less tact, than the venerable T-101 (Schwarzenegger, carrying his 55 years with unexpected grace). The T-X is more than just the liquid-metal descendant of Robert Patrick’s stone-cold T-1000; with her fiery female exterior and inflatable bust, she can get a lot more accomplished with a lot less effort. (It’s hard to imagine anyone not answering the door for her.) And did I mention that her right arm can, at a moment’s notice, transform itself into a plasma-firing ray gun?
Of course, both machines are after the same thing: John Connor (Nick Stahl), destined — if he survives — to become the leader of human resistance in the coming war of man and machine. (When you think about it, it’s amazing how much juice this now-trilogy has had, given that each film works through what is, essentially, the exact same plot.) Since apparently saving the world at the end of the last installment, Connor has been living “off the grid,” meaning that both the T-X (programmed to destroy not just Connor, but those who will become his lieutenants in the resistance) and the T-101 (mission: to protect and serve) have a spot of trouble locating the now-20-something. And when they do, it’s in the supply room of a veterinary clinic, where the druggie, dropout Connor has broken in for a quick fix of benzodiazepine. This is also where Connor meets up with Claire Danes’ Kate Brewster, a veterinary nurse destined — in one of those indelible time-travel-movie paradoxes — not only to become his future wife, but to send the T-101 back from the future to save him.
Why, you might ask, is all this happening, after Connor (with help from Linda Hamilton and that other T-101) evidently destroyed every shred of scientist Joe Morton’s research more than a decade ago, the very research that, left unchecked, would have been used to develop the Skynet computer software that would, in turn, develop a HAL 9000–like instinct for self-preservation and eliminate all those (namely, humans) who stood in its way? Let’s just say that Brancato and Ferris do pull an explanation out of their hat, and that it’s not the most compelling trick in their considerable repertoire. (Whereas Cameron, in T2, saw that every last unanswered question from the first movie had been satisfactorily nailed down.)
Only a true grinch, though, is likely to grouse about an infidelity to narrative logic which allows for a movie that affords so much pleasure. Which is to assume that said grinch will have enough time to chop such logic in the thick of T3’s mania. Which isn’t at all likely. Thirty minutes or less into T3, just for starters, comes the car chase to end all car chases, an elaboration on the motorcycle-versus-18-wheeler pursuit at the start of T2, but with the big-rig here replaced by an even wider load — a 100-ton crane, driven by the T-X, that upturns other vehicles like matchbox cars and reduces entire buildings to rubble in one fell swoop. Just when you think things are slowing down, they’re really kicking into high gear: The chase goes on and on (and on some more), dazzling us with its explosive real-time mayhem, its orgiastic stunt work and its sparing use of computer effects. What’s more: Mostow keeps up that feverish pitch not only for the chase scene, but for just about everything that follows, up to and including a dynamite bathroom brawl between the two terminators. Rather than relying upon the slo-mo, Hong Kong–style fight choreography that has become so de rigueur (and so unconscionably bastardized) in the wake of The Matrix, Mostow allows his actors to smash together and spring apart with Looney Tunes ferocity. The energy’s right there in the camera, and thus doesn’t have to be manufactured later in the editing room.
Imagine: an action movie where the action is so carefully storyboarded and blocked out, we can actually follow it! It’s the same sensibility Mostow brought to his first theatrical feature, 1997’s Breakdown, the crazed jolt after welcome jolt that comes from a filmmaker pouring his heart and soul and every good idea he’s ever had into a movie. It’s also where the filmmaker shows his true kinship with Cameron: While they draw from considerably different aesthetic palates (Mostow has brought a new cameraman, composer and team of editors to the project), they’re born of the same irrepressible, vaudevillian desire to give us more than we bargained for, to put on a better-than-good, showstopping show. And that’s just what Mostow’s done: He’s made the summer movie audiences have been waiting for, come to save us, like our own personal T-101, from one more regrettable night out at the multiplex.
TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES | Directed by JONATHAN MOSTOW | Written by JOHN BRANCATO and MICHAEL FERRIS, story by Brancato, Ferris and Tedi Sarafian Produced by MARIO F. KASSAR, HAL LIEBERMAN, JOEL B. MICHAELS, ANDREW G. VAJNA and COLIN WILSON | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide