On Terminator: Rise of the Machines

Continuing from The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day is Terminator: Rise of the Machines. It is also the first Terminator film not being directed, written, or produced by James Cameron.


The T-X is very clearly an Evil Demon Seductress (see Feminist Frequency‘s #4). According to the Deep Focus Review:

James Cameron is some kind of genius. His large-scale efforts changed how we think of grandiose action movies; his approach is layered with melodramatic themes, snowballing momentum, and always a jealous and sometimes snobbish desire to propel new cinematic technological breakthroughs. Each film is a ride. Examples like Aliens, The Abyss, and Titanic demonstrate this with their crowd-pleasing, eye-popping, jaw-dropping effect. The only problem is, Cameron didn’t direct Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. The guilty party is Jonathan Mostow, helmer of unremarkable thrillers like Breakdown and U-571. Mostow carbon copies the most basic level of Cameron’s style, making his sequel into a generic version of the real thing, like fan art assembled by an enthusiast. With more “story by” and “written by” credits than my patience can tolerate, the screen scenario doesn’t have that crucial connectivity and progression that a Cameron film would. But that doesn’t mean the result isn’t sorta fun.

Though the machine apocalypse was prevented in the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Hollywood had other plans not contingent on any established mythology. Once again, the savior of the future, John Connor, here played by Nick Stahl, must survive another attack from the future so that he may live and eventually lead a resistance against the machines. Yet again, a “classic” Terminator model (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent to protect John from a more modern version, namely the T-X (Kristanna Loken). A combination of the classic model and the T-1000 from T2, she’s a combo package with a robot skeleton covered by liquid metallic alloy. Her arms can turn into elaborate energy weapons and her tongue can identify DNA. And why a woman Terminator? Does she plan to covertly seduce John Connor and then kill him? Nope. There’s no reason for her gender, except for the sex appeal when she arrives naked after time travel.

Though John believes they stopped armageddon, he remains “off the grid,” drifting from place to place. When the Terminator makes contact, he discovers the robot apocalypse of 2029 was not prevented but rather postponed. After randomly running into his junior high school sweetheart Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), with whom he shares recollections of making-out in a classmate’s basement, the Terminator informs John and Kate that they will be married in the future, and that its mission is to get them both to safety before the inevitable nuclear holocaust. Meanwhile, they just survive attacks from T-X, whose mission is to wipe out John and his future generals, most of which are teens working in fast food drive-throughs.

Anyway, it seems there’s a computer virus infecting the planet and the military plans to use Skynet to stop it, and we all know what happens then… But wait, wasn’t Skynet and all its data destroyed in the previous film? Oh, nevermind. Trying to apply accurate time travel logic to this franchise has always been a mistake. The filmmakers would prefer that we lose ourselves in the action, which is easy enough when it hardly slows. Action scenes aplenty tear up the screen, except without their one-after-another connectivity that Cameron might imbue—they’re very episodic. A massive sequence where T-X chases our heroes in a crane truck involves smashing through anything and everything; cars are crushed, buildings are flattened, and it’s all very impressive visually. But the effect on the viewer, aside from an appreciation of the scene’s bigness and loudness, falls flat on every level other than aesthetic. Mostow directs without concern for his own ideas, and instead considers What Would Cameron Do? In turn, we wonder the same thing. The result isn’t poor direction, just clearly not that of a singular voice.

Everything feels just a little off somehow. Jerky head motions similar to Robocop make both the Terminators feel unnatural, more so even than they should; their movements don’t glide in that eerie way that Robert Patrick shifted his head and neck in T2. Stahl makes a fine John Connor who’s finding out what exactly it takes to be a leader, except the absence of mother Sarah, played by the formerly ripped Linda Hamilton, leaves a wild element to the story untapped and therefore lacking. So where did she go? The movie tells us she died of leukemia, which is just depressing on so many levels. To literally write-off her character was a sad mistake by the filmmakers.

Referential to a fault, the film repeats scenes from its predecessors, believing the mild twist on the recipe will be enough to avoid earning a derivative label. It’s not. Consider when Arnold first arrives, naked per usual, he walks into yet another bar to find clothing—this time, it’s a strip club on “ladies night.” The Terminator sizes up the male dancer who is dressed like a biker dude with leather pants and jacket, and when the Terminator asks for his clothes, the response is “Talk to the hand!” That hand is broken. Later, in an attempt at humor, the writers have the Terminator repeat, “Talk to the hand.” Not only was this joke out of date upon this film’s release, but looking back years later, this moment is just embarrassing. That, along with this franchise’s reliance on the “I’ll be back” line in any of its forms, reduces this film to a self-referential cliché.

Redeeming itself in the final scenes, T3 has an impressively cynical conclusion, resolving that John Connor’s fate comes only after the machines wipe out billions from dropping atomic bombs galore. If only everything that came before this ending had the same awful, dreary tone, the film might have harbored the drama necessary to match Cameron’s entries. Mostow resolves to standardize his action and narrative alike, but now that we’re on the third time around, the standard blueprint can’t sustain itself and the story has clearly tapped its possibility. It’s time for something new. Cameron realized that, which is probably why he passed on directing duties. Why didn’t Mostow?


Additionally, according to the Collider article, “Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines Revisited: “Talk to the Hand”“:

If The Terminator is the hard-edged action movie of 80s, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the polished blockbuster of the 90s, then Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is the forgettable film of the 2000s. It’s a movie done to service a star and a studio, not a story. The raves and devoted fanbase for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles show it wasn’t impossible to follow up Terminator 2, but the FOX TV series had the benefit of long-form storytelling. The conclusion of Terminator 2 is hopeful because it claims the future isn’t set, and we can avoid Judgment. Sarah Connor Chronicles slightly alters that to say that fate is pushing back, so it’s a constant struggle to stop Judgment Day from happening, which is a compelling story.

Terminator 3 discards all of that along with pretty much everything that made the first two movies special. To begin, the film obliterates the ending of T2. The message of hope no longer exists since John Connor (Nick Stahl) lives off the grid because he feels like he’ll always be hunted, which makes no sense since not only did they destroy Skynet (or think they did), but he also formed an emotional attachment to the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger). And yet he lives a life where he has to break into a veterinary office when he’s injured rather than go to a hospital.

But the damning moment comes when the T-800 tells John that Judgment Day is inevitable. While I’ll go into the film’s strongest aspect, the ending, in a bit, I need to point out that this revelation not only undermines T2, but also paints Terminator 3 into a corner. Either one of two things can happen: John Connor and Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) will either delay Judgment Day, which means they’ve repeated Terminator 2, or the world ends. Credit to the film for doing latter even if it tries to end with the positive line, “all I know is what the Terminator taught me; never stop fighting. And I never will. The battle has just begun.”

It’s a promise of a bigger movie, which makes Terminator 3 an awkward prelude. It’s a middle chapter that fumbles the best parts of the previous movie and attempts to build to a sequel it doesn’t earn. In almost every moment you can feel the absence of James Cameron’s sure-handed approach. Cameron is a perfectionist and even when his films aren’t great (Avatar), there’s no doubt he was unrelenting until he got what he wanted.

By comparison, director Jonathan Mostow seems to be at a loss for what to do. I assume he, perhaps more than other franchise directors, was in unenviable position. On one side, he has Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had pulled in a record payday of not only $30 million up front, but 20% on the back-end, which basically guaranteed the actor would make more money than the studio. And keep in mind that Schwarzenegger hadn’t had a hit film in seven years. He needed this movie as badly as the studio needed to keep the IP alive.

I don’t know how much Schwarzenegger influenced the script, but it feels like the comic beats are his. No one tells Schwarzenegger to go into a ladies strip club, put on Elton John glasses, and later tell a guy “Talk to the hand.” Also, Schwarzenegger consented to do this scene, which mercifully was cut from the film, although the fact that it even exists should tell you a lot about why the movie is a mess.

On the other side you have a studio that’s not only bending to the will of its lead actor, but also to forcing every story demand onto a hapless director who only has three feature films under his belt, and was in no way considered a visionary. He was a hired gun who could be pushed around, and the best he could hope for was to get out of this mess with his dignity. The guiding principle behind Terminator 3 seemed to be making it like T2 but with a few inoffensive alterations, keeping the focus squarely on the Terminators, and piling on action and comedy to pummel the audience into submission.

Terminator 3 doesn’t even really want “The Terminator”. It wants the T-1000, and so it invented the TX (Kristanna Loken), and while I’m sure it’s possible to make a worse Terminator, I don’t want to consider what that would be. The TX can be summed up as “T-1000 but a sexy lady.” Yes, she has liquid metal skin that allows her to absorb bullets, and she can hack any machine, but her main power is being sexy. She can inflate her boobs, and when she needs to test a blood sample, she licks it seductively. This is how the franchise that created Sarah Connor treats its first and only female terminator.

Kate doesn’t do much better. Future Kate sounds like a badass. She responded to her husband’s death by taking control of the cyborg who killed him and sending him back to be his protector. By comparison, Present Kate has the worst day ever in human history. She is kidnapped, her fiancée is murdered, her father is murdered, and then the apocalypse happens. I suppose you could argue that Kate’s a strong person because she’s not curled up and sobbing in the fetal position by the end of the film, but I think that’s more because the character is drastically underwritten and almost always infantilized. She spends a large portion of the film locked in the back of the truck, and when her father dies, he tells John Connor—a guy he just met—to take care of his daughter.

All of this is piled on the sloppy storytelling and simple errors that could have been easily corrected. Why does the TX need a gun when her arm is a goddamn cannon? When the TX is disguised as Kate’s dead fiancée, why does it reveal its true form before the kill? If killing a future lieutenant is so important to the TX, then why is there no impetus from the Terminator to save them? Why does a film that’s rarely gruesome have a scene where the TX drives a car by punching through a guy’s torso to grab the steering wheel?

If you look closely at Terminator 3, you can see every studio note and every Schwarzenegger suggestion written down. And yet, every now and then, there’s a glimpse of a better movie that existed somewhere along the way. You have a protagonist who’s basically in purgatory. John Connor was born to be humanity’s savior, but if he stopped Judgment Day, then he has no purpose. And in case he didn’t really stop Judgment Day (although there’s no real reason for him to believe this), then it’s too dangerous to build a life. The film briefly comes back to this conflict by having John consider that, in some twisted way, he needs the apocalypse. He also rejects his destiny only to have the Terminator quickly bring John back to the realization that’s he’s a fighter (even though he gets the Terminator to do most of the fighting).

Then there’s the ending, which is ballsy insofar as it’s kind of a downer for a film that, at the time, had the biggest budget ever greenlit by a studio. And yet, as I said, this is really the only ending the movie could come to, not only because anything else would be the same damn ending as the first film (not that T3 is against cribbing from T2), but it’s the completion of John Connor’s arc; he accepts he has to lead humanity post-apocalypse, which requires an apocalypse. It’s a satisfying moment, not just because it’s a bit of a twist they realize they’re in a bunker instead of Skynet’s core, but also because it’s where the movie feels like it’s telling a real story with characters, plot developments, and resolution. Take away the TX, the set pieces, and Schwarzenegger, and you have an interesting movie.

But losing Schwarzenegger and moving the setting to the post-apocalypse presented its own problems.

Finally, according to the Den of Geek article, “Are we too hard on Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines?“:

This summer’s Terminator Genisys has received what might be considered its first and most important stamp of approval – from James Cameron. In a promo clip for the sci-fi action sequel, directed by Thor 2 and Game Of Thrones’ Alan Taylor, Cameron said he felt that the franchise has been “reinvigorated” by Genisys.

Cameron then went so far as to say that, “In my mind, I think of [Genisys] as the third film.”

That’s praise indeed from a filmmaker who’s rarely diplomatic when expressing his opinion. Twelve years ago, the BBC asked Cameron what he thought of Alien 3 – David Fincher’s sequel which, of course, followed on directly from Cameron’s 1986 classic, Aliens. “Hated it,” Cameron said. “Simple as that. I hated what they did. I couldn’t stand Alien 3 – how could they just go in there and kill all these great characters we introduced in Aliens?”

On the other hand, Cameron did state that he liked Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines in that same interview, describing it as, “Great.”

“There was a small part of me that hoped it wasn’t good,” Cameron added, “but another part of me hoped it [would succeed]. And it did. And I’m so glad it did. Jonathon [Mostow, director] has made a great movie. Arnold’s in great form. I really like what he’s done with it.”

Time, however, seemed to dim Cameron’s opinion of both Terminator 3 and the film that followed, 2009’s Terminator Salvation. Last year, Cameron wrote on Reddit that he wasn’t a big fan of the third and fourth films after all.

“I didn’t make the second film until I had an idea as big as the first film, and it had to do with the moral complexity of the story, and asking the audience by the end of the film to cry for a Terminator,” Cameron wrote. “I don’t think that the third or fourth film lived up to that potential […] I’m hopeful that the new films, which are being made right now as a reboot, but still involving Arnold, will be good. From what I’ve seen from afar, it looks like they will be quite good.”

For Cameron to state that Terminator Genisys is “the third film” in the series is, therefore, quite an accolade. His sentiments also seems to chime with the intentions of the producers behind Terminator Genisys. When, during our set visit last year, we asked them which film Genisys resembled most closely in terms of tone, David Ellison and Dana Goldberg replied, almost in unison, “Terminator 2.”

When asked whether Genisys would be taking any ideas from Terminator Salvation, Goldberg emphatically replied, “Honestly, no. No offence to that film but again, it’s going back to the beginning.”

(You may recall that, in April this year, Schwarzenegger provided his own review of Terminator Salvation: “It sucked”.)

Really, this makes perfect sense: every fan of the franchise would surely agree that The Terminator and T2 are far and away the best in the series, so taking inspiration from them is perfectly natural. Besides, opinions of Terminator 3 and Salvation only seem to have dimmed in recent years – to the point where even Terminator 3, which actually garnered quite a few cautiously positive reviews in 2003, is now commonly a source of disgruntlement in online forums.

But is it possible that we’re all being just a little too harsh on Terminator 3? For us, both Rise Of The Machines and Salvation have more than their share of problems – particularly the noisy Salvation, which didn’t always feel much like a Terminator sequel – but Rise Of The Machines still has much to offer.

Rise Of The Machines stuck rigidly to its predecessors’ chase format, with a now 20-something, disillusioned John Connor chased across California by a new assassin, Kristana Lokken’s wily T-X. When compared to the less focused Salvation, this doesn’t seem like such a bad choice, since Terminator 3 does at least feel of a piece with The Terminator and T2 in terms of action and breakneck pace. Schwarzenegger still convinces as an action lead, and his tussles with the T-X – not to mention the early versions of Skynet’s future army towards the end – are solidly staged. It’s a pleasure to see Earl Boen back, too, as the luckless Dr Silberman, whose relentless skepticism is stretched to breaking point in his brief cameo here.

The problem with Terminator 3 is, most obviously, that it doesn’t have a filmmaker with as distinct a style or worldview as James Cameron at the helm. Jonathan Mostow provides a safe pair of hands for the franchise, staging his action scenes competently and keeping the plot moving from point to point, but there’s not a single shot in Rise Of The Machines to rival the stark, inhuman expression of the T-800 framed in a front door in The Terminator (you know, the scene where we see him blow away one of several Sarah Connors he finds in the phone book), or the nightmarish sense of claustrophobia we get from the future-set scenes in T2.

Similarly, T3’s screenplay lacks polish of Cameron’s original pair of classics. We’re asked to swallow a couple of hefty coincidences early on, while the entire premise – that Judgment Day can’t be stopped, no matter what we do – flies in the face of the positive “there is no fate but what we make for ourselves” message of Terminator and T2.

All this aside, Terminator 3 still entertains as an action film. Once the rather-too-broad humour has abated (Schwarzenegger’s “Talk to the hand” moment remains a toe-curler even 12 years later), some of the darkness from the 1984 film starts to creep in. The downbeat conclusion has quite an impact, and the two leads, Nick Stahl and Claire Danes, both provide effectively haunted performances in the dying moments.

Terminator Salvation, meanwhile, is a film I find far harder to defend. It bears the scars of its numerous script rewrites and a reshot third act. As a result, Salvation feels like a collection of ideas in search of a coherent plot; the notion of telling the story from the perspective of a cyborg (Marcus, played by Sam Worthington) is a good one, for example, but the philosophical implications of a human waking up as a machine are quickly set aside. The biggest problem with Salvation is that it feels like the product of an effort to push the Terminator franchise into broader sci-fi action territory, and the resulting film winds up jettisoning the horror undertones that gave the previous entries their distinctive texture.

Rise Of The Machines, even with its misplaced humour, retains at least a hint of the previous two films’ nightmarish quality – the sensation of being chased by a force that cannot be reasoned with, and absolutely will not stop. And then, of course, it has that doom-laden ending.

To awkwardly sum up, then, I’d argue that, misplaced humour aside, Terminator 3 at least feels like a continuation of the earlier films, even if James Cameron’s absence leaves it loitering in a league below Terminator and T2.

The question remains, then, whether director Alan Taylor can bring us a Terminator sequel that will stand up when compared to the first two movies. Because, let’s face it, if Terminator Genisys really is as good as Cameron says it is, then we could be entering an exciting new phase for the Terminator franchise. Two more sequels beckon, and after that, who knows?

But even if Genisys provides the series renaissance that Cameron predicts, I’d say that Terminator 3 – and, dare I say it, even Salvation – shouldn’t be written off as an aberration. Whether or not Alan Taylor can better the efforts of Mostow and McG, only time will tell. Regardless of where the Terminator franchise goes next, I’ll still happily return to Rise Of The Machines from time to time, despite its flaws.


According to the CinemaBlend review:

After a long stretch of abysmal film making, Schwarzenegger is returning to his roots by revisiting all the great characters that made him famous in the first place. Now well over fifty, some might say that this is the time in his career when he should be moving away from playing nothing but big muscled heavies. But, with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines Arnold proves that age hasn’t changed a thing.

I saw T3 in an audience full of bikers. Here’s a revelation: Terminator is really popular with bikers. So, someone must have hit the Harley shops and handed out tickets to see it with the press. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the local weatherman wedged between two leather clad biker boys. Luckily, T3 has the goods to keep both rowdy bikers and bespeckeled news anchors happy, with a non stop slate of action mixed into the same head tripping destruction of the previous two Terminator films.

This time, the enemy is a female Terminator, played by statuesque model Kristanna Loken. Sent back in time to kill John Connor and others who lead the future human resistance, she hunts her prey with robotic efficiency and almost human-like cunning. Loken does admirably in her debut, bringing back fonder memories of Schwarzenegger’s first stint as the original T-800. Loken’s Terminator, dubbed the T-X , is far beyond the simplistic design of the original. She has a host of new gadgets in her arsenal, which seem to blend the abilities and styles of the T-800 with that of his Terminator 2 opponent the T-1000

As in T2, the only thing standing between Connor and death is yet another T-800 Terminator (Schwarzenegger). Sent back in time by benefactors from the future, Arnold’s character first appears as he always does, naked and alone. Schwarzenegger, now 55, pulls off the same amazingly cut body he had over a decade ago. He hasn’t aged a day. In a movie packed with stunning visuals, that is perhaps the most amazing achievement of all.

However, this Terminator has left behind many of the elements which made the first a success. John Connor is now a man. That means he doesn’t need mommy anymore. As a result, Linda Hamilton, linchpin of the previous movies is not on board. Nor is director James Cameron, whose big movie skills have been the driving force behind all that is Terminator since the very beginning. With Cameron refusing involvement, the reigns were turned over to U-571 director Jonathan Mostow, because let’s face it, the only person you absolutely need is Arnie.

This story, as it did in the previous film, revolves around John Connor. We’re left delving into the questions Terminator 2 didn’t answer. Was Judgement Day averted? What does the future hold for mankind? But the star of this Terminator movie, as in the others, remains the Terminator himself. Arnold has not lost a step. He’s every bit as menacing, powerful, and flat out dangerous in the role as he ever was. My only minor quip with his fantastic performance is that perhaps this Terminator, and this movie in general, has become just a little too self aware. It’s obvious that when this T3 script was written, it was written with a strong knowledge of the place this character holds in the minds of moviegoers, and as a part of pop culture in general. That’s reflected in the Terminator himself, who has, compared to his stoicism of the first film, become a bit of a chatterbox.

Still, that’s only a tiny reflection in an altogether fantastic movie sequel. Mostow has taken great care of Cameron’s baby, carrying his irreplaceable legacy smartly into the future. In some ways, he even tops Cameron’s vision, delivering bigger, badder action set pieces which spit in the face of today’s cgi-centric movie development. When Mostow wants to destroy a building… he DESTROYS a building. He doesn’t build an animated version in cyberspace for an animated Arnold to blow up. When the movie DOES go to digital wizardry, it does so with a flair and style that makes the transition almost unnoticeable as any different from the detailed reality of the rest of the film. The result is a marvelous mish-mash of insanely explosive mayhem. In particular, there’s hyper-destructive chase scene in which the T-X does more damage to LA than the last four earthquakes combined. It’ll leave you gasping for breath. These filmmakers seem to have a wonderful grasp on just how much havoc two nearly invulnerable cyborgs can truly wreak on each other… and all the rest of us.

For me, what sets T3 most firmly on high, are the human dimensions it keeps within the story. Often, sequels, particularly those in which the original creators are not involved, get so caught up in trying to give us more explosions and bigger action, that humanity is lost. Nick Stahl, who replaces Eddie Furlong as an adult, vagabond version of John Connor,doesn’t have a ton of romantic chemistry with his costar Claire Danes. But there is a strong element of shared humanity between them. A survival instinct which both express while dealing with the shock and pain of their crumbling place in human society. Their characters make this more than just another tale of man Vs machine. Instead we’re watching the future unfold.

This script is every bit as smart as the people involved in it. The plot is tight and the story is a bender, resulting in an inevitable outcome that leaves delicious questions of predestination and man’s ultimate demise to bobble around infinitely in our under-used heads. Mostow nails every aspect of it, doing a skilled recreation of James Cameron’s past Terminator style in a clear cut homage, while staying relevant to current cultural trends. The only thing really missing is T2’s highly identifiable music, replaced with something far less involving. Why they chose to save that familiar Terminator theme until the credits is a mystery. A big movie like T3 could have used a better orchestral boost than the muted background scoring that most of it has been given

In a lot of ways though, this is a much darker movie than the previous Terminator incarnations. John Connor seems lost and in denial about his destiny. Hope seems a much bleaker thing. Throughout there’s this continual sense of inevitability, so that even when the good guys are winning… it still seems like everything is sliding downward toward some inescapable and truly horrible conclusion. I love that this movie, more than the other two is not afraid to do that. Is not afraid to face truly horrible questions that maybe we’d all be better off not facing. Most of all, I love the way John Connor can’t really deal with any of it, any more than we could.

Terminator 3 has defied all expectations. The first two films are undeniably classics. The third may not quite reach that, but comes wonderfully close. The great lumbering Schwarzenegger beast has come back to stomp us flat. Forgotten are all the years of half-baked, terrorist fighting fireman and coldly done trips to hell. Revisiting the Terminator was the right decision for Arnold and a great movie experience for us.



2 thoughts on “On Terminator: Rise of the Machines

  1. Pingback: On Stardust | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: On Terminator: Salvation | The Progressive Democrat

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