Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Jonathan Mostow

Written by John Brancato, Michael Ferris, and Tedi Sarafian

With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, and Kristanna Loken.

“The future has not been written,” intones rebel leader John Connor (Nick Stahl) in a voice-over at the opening of Terminator 3. “There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” Fans of the series will recognize this as the message that Connor, living in postapocalyptic 2029, sends back in time to his mother. In The Terminator (1984) a commando from the future arrives with sobering news for Sarah Connor: unless something is done, an impending nuclear holocaust will leave machines in control of the earth, with her unborn son the leader of the human resistance against them. Worse yet, the machines have dispatched a cyborg assassin, the relentless T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), to prevent her becoming Madonna to the new J.C.

One can’t help but welcome the notion of free will in a series whose vision of the future involves piles of human skulls, and certainly Sarah takes her son’s message to heart. In Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) she carves the words NO FATE into a tabletop, and in Rise of the Machines her mausoleum head plate bears the inscription NO FATE BUT WHAT WE MAKE.

Unfortunately John Connor’s free-will philosophy rings a bit more hollow with each installment of the series. By the end of T2, Sarah, ten-year-old John, and a second T-101 (this one reprogrammed to serve the resistance) have seemingly steered the world away from its rendezvous with disaster. But in Rise of the Machines the adult John is notified by yet another reprogrammed T-101 that, despite the trio’s valiant efforts, the missiles are set to fly that very evening. When John protests that the holocaust was forestalled the last time around, Arnold replies, “Judgment Day is inevitable.”

I don’t know whether Judgment Day is inevitable, but after the movie grossed $500 million worldwide, Terminator 3 probably was. James Cameron, who wrote and directed the first two episodes, was planning to script and produce it but pulled out after losing control of the rights. Actress Linda Hamilton, whose Sarah Connor metamorphosed from a mousy waitress in the first movie to a hardened, joyless guerrilla in the second, opted out as well, thus retiring the franchise’s most interesting character. And Edward Furlong, who was plucked off a Pasadena street corner to play John Connor in T2 and has since gone on to a fairly respectable acting career, has been replaced by Stahl. Other than makeup wizard Stan Winston, the only major player still involved is Schwarzenegger–but the producers no doubt concluded that he’s the only one they needed.

If there is such a thing as destiny, Schwarzenegger surely found his the day he was cast as the Terminator: the role made him a superstar, and nearly two decades later he’s still completely identified with it. “No matter where I go in the world,” he says in the film’s press book, “no matter what movie I have promoted over the last twelve years, people always ask me, ‘When are you going to do another Terminator? You’ve got to do another Terminator. Please, Arnold, do another Terminator.'” (If he was promoting duds like The Last Action Hero, Jingle All the Way, or The Sixth Day, then another Terminator must have seemed like a good idea.) Although he’s still a remarkable physical specimen at 56, the Austrian oak isn’t getting any younger; the cyborgs he plays in The Terminator, Judgment Day, and Rise of the Machines are supposedly duplicate models, but the living tissue stretched over their steel endoskeletons seems a little looser with each movie. If he’s going to see the role through to the end, the time is now.

Schwarzenegger’s identification with the role of the Terminator reminds me of Boris Karloff, who created a similar pop-culture icon in the Frankenstein monster and spent the rest of his life in its hulking shadow. Both characters captured the public’s imagination with their power, their compromised humanity, and their sheer mechanical relentlessness. In the Terminator movies, that implacable momentum becomes the on-screen embodiment of the future the protagonists are trying to prevent.

Son of Frankenstein (1939), Karloff’s third and final film as the monster, was a respectable effort but lacked the imaginative spark of James Whale, who directed the first two. Likewise, without Cameron at the helm Rise of the Machines feels similarly depleted: screenwriters John Brancato, Michael Ferris, and Tedi Sarafian are careful to reprise all the elements that made T2 a planetary blockbuster, but they seem to have been too intimidated to do anything new with the story until the very last scene (which we’ll get to later).

In contrast to the optimistic conclusion of the second movie, Rise of the Machines ends with a point-blank setup for the next installment, which seems more likely but less necessary than ever. Less a sequel to than a remake of T2, the third Terminator is the weakest in terms of character development, and some of the most entertaining scenes in the first two have begun to harden into ritual–or parody. In The Terminator the T-101 arrives in the present unclothed and acquires a black leather suit from a punk rocker after ripping his heart out of his rib cage. In T2 it lands next to a roadhouse and appropriates a nearly identical getup from a grizzled biker. In Rise of the Machines it appears next to another remote bar (that time-travel technology is marvelously accurate), this one hosting a ladies’ night. Of course the ladies are delighted to see Arnold stride in buck naked, but he pushes past them to get to the leather-clad male dancer onstage. When the T-101 leaves the bar in yet another black leather ensemble, it reaches into a pocket and dons not the expected black wraparound sunglasses but a pair of star-shaped specs with pink lenses. Then it tears them off and crushes them under its boot heel.

When Schwarzenegger made the leap from villain to hero in T2, the role of the heavy was taken over by an even more awesome assassin: the shape-shifting T-1000. Made of liquid steel, the T-1000 could impersonate anybody and reconstitute itself after being blown apart, and the mind-boggling visual effects that allowed it to bend and twist like chromium Silly Putty were key to the second film’s mammoth success. In Rise of the Machines the big innovation is making the robotic stalker female–the T-X, or Terminatrix, played by ice goddess Kristanna Loken. This gender bending allows for some funny scenes early in the movie (the T-X materializes in a shop window on Rodeo Drive and, after checking out the model on a Victoria’s Secret billboard, pumps up its bust a couple sizes). But even with its added superpowers (its right arm is a plasma gun, and it can control computers) the T-X isn’t nearly as scary as the T-1000, which was endowed with creepy intensity by Robert Patrick (and dressed as an LAPD officer to boot).

Of course a sizable quotient of the movie’s target audience just wants to see stuff destroyed, and in that regard Rise of the Machines won’t disappoint. The big set piece in T2 is the bombing of a steel-and-glass office complex that houses the nefarious Cyberdyne Systems Corporation, whose computerized missile-defense system, Skynet, is destined to trigger the nuclear holocaust and initiate the takeover of the planet. Rise of the Machines, which reportedly cost $178 million, features a hair-raising chase in which the Terminatrix pursues John Connor in a truck carrying a 100-ton crane, at one point swinging its arm out at a 90-degree angle so that it rakes through the glass facade of an office building. James Cameron–whom critic Richard Corliss once called “the high priest of Hollywood bloat”–couldn’t have done it bigger. The Terminator, which cost a measly $6.4 million, had a much more interesting story, in which a hapless nobody had to come to terms with the responsibility of being the most important person on the planet.

The idea of rewriting the future is hardly fresh but it’s an endlessly fascinating one. The best thing the writers of Rise of the Machines do with it is create a love interest for John Connor: Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), a young veterinarian who must assimilate the notion that she’s fated to marry a messianic stranger and become his second in command. (Luckily the T-101 is equipped with an advanced exposition chip, so it can explain the plot to John and Kate while they’re careening together through the city streets.)

As with most time-travel narratives, the logic of the Terminator series starts to unravel the second you begin to think about it–if the machines really want to eliminate John Connor, why not send the more lethal T-X back to 1984, to the day before the first film began, and have another go at his unsuspecting mom? But we’re all suckers for the premise anyway. Cursed with 20-20 hindsight, we rue the bad decisions we’ve made and wonder how our lives might have turned out had we chosen otherwise. That’s why the climax of Rise of the Machines, which I’m about to disclose, is such a downer. Though John, Kate, and the T-101 do their best to prevent Skynet from launching its missiles, they fail, and in the last scene the two lovers find themselves underground in a deserted presidential bunker, fielding a distress call from a civil defense station in Montana. As it turns out, the future has been written all along.

Now that the guiding philosophy of the series has been refuted, I’m not particularly eager to see Terminator 4, no matter how much stuff they blow up. But summer blockbusters have a way of shaping their own destinies through saturation marketing. As I write, the opening of Rise of the Machines still lies in the near future, but by the time you read this the movie will already have grossed several million dollars.