March 2023

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

DIRECTOR: Jonathan Mostow


Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, Kristanna Loken, David Andrews


Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was probably the best summer action movie of 2003. As action flicks go, it’s above average. But it’s not up to the level of either the original Terminator or Terminator 2: Judgment Day . Terminator 3 lacks the vision and depth of its predecessors, and coming next in line after Terminator 2, one of the best sci-fi/action films ever made, it’s a clear step down. This does not mean it is a bad movie. In fact, it is a thoroughly entertaining, sometimes spectacular action movie, a skillful and immensely enjoyable piece of summertime entertainment. But the first two installments were more than that.

It’s approximately ten years since the events of Terminator 2. In the meantime, Sarah Connor has died of leukemia and her son John Connor (Nick Stahl) is living off the grid, roaming endlessly, with no home or records. It’s well past the 1997 deadline for doomsday, but John is still haunted by nightmares of man-hunting machines and nuclear apocalypse. In his heart, he can’t fully convince himself that the world has really been saved. His worst fears are confirmed when his old friend- or at least an identical model- the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) shows up once again with news that Judgment Day has only been postponed, and that a new, female ‘Terminatrix’ (Kristanna Loken), who like T-1000 before her, is far more advanced than her adversary, is on the hunt, not only for John, but for those destined to become his subordinates in the human resistance, chiefly Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), the daughter of a military official (David Andrews) who is involved in the construction of the infamous super-computers which will take over the world and launch a war against mankind.

Terminator 3 starts out as a spectacular action movie, then becomes more of a road movie, and ends up again as a spectacular action movie (the same could more or less be said for the other installments). The film moves along at a fast clip, and its brisk running time of under two hours passes quickly, along the way ignoring a few plot holes. If John, Sarah, and the previous Terminator destroyed the technology which led to the creation of Skynet in Terminator 2, why are there still Terminators being sent back through time? If the technology that gave birth to them was destroyed, the Terminators should no longer exist in the future, should they? The movie doesn’t offer an explanation for that one, except the vague statement that Judgment Day is inevitable, which flies in the face of the first two installments’ mantra of ‘no fate but what we make’. Also, if Skynet doesn’t know John Connor’s whereabouts in the present, why doesn’t it just send the Terminatrix further back in time to when he had a fixed location instead of assigning her secondary targets? Terminator 3 isn’t as interested in examining the time paradoxes it creates and the increasingly tangled timeline of the past, present, and future. This is first and foremost an action movie, and offers a steady supply of action, with the most spectacular sequence coming fairly early, in a prolonged and destructive car chase involving a truck, an enormous crane, and a lot of police cars (when the movie threatened to go over-budget, Schwarzenegger chipped in $1.6 million of his own money to get this scene made). As always, the Terminators go for big guns and big vehicles. Other notable action sequences involve a weapon-filled coffin, the Terminatrix and a hearse, Skynet-controlled machines gunning down their human creators, and of course the obligatory final smackdown between the Terminator and the Terminatrix (at times it’s almost amusing watching Kristanna Loken get her head slammed around without changing her expression). Jonathan Mostow, replacing James Cameron in the director’s chair, handles the action scenes adeptly and avoids confusing quick cuts or an over-reliance on computer animation. What little digital animation there is in the most impressive action sequence blends almost seamlessly with the live-action. The middle ‘road movie’ section provides the most humor, most of it supplied by the deadpan Schwarzenegger. Character-development, which was a strong point of the second film, is perfunctory here.  The Terminator, John, and Kate form a likable enough trio, but the actors aren’t given much room to develop into three-dimensional characters, and the movie doesn’t make time for substantial emotional bonding between the humans and the Terminator or between John and Kate on the level of the unlikely ‘family unit’ that was forged in Terminator 2.  By the end, there’s some sense of camaraderie, but the character relationships, like the overall narrative, are lacking in both depth and substance.

Arnold Schwarzenegger slips effortlessly back into his best role, bringing the same cool, imposing presence and deadpan humor that he brought to the second film, and with the sunglasses, the leather jacket, and the obligatory big guns, it’s hard to tell that so many years have passed. John Connor may be the savior of humanity, but there can be no Terminator without Schwarzenegger. One issue for some is the admittedly substantial gap between Nick Stahl and original John Connor, Edward Furlong. Not only is there no physical resemblance whatsoever between the two, but their takes on the role are markedly different. Edward Furlong had more spunk and feistiness, while the haggard, haunted-eyed Stahl is more weary and weight-of-the-world, more in the direction of Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese in the first film. Also, while I consider Stahl one of those actors who merits more than he receives (for good examples of his underrated acting ability, check him out in Bully or In The Bedroom), he doesn’t come across like a strong, stoic leader of the human resistance. Stahl is appealing enough in a scruffy underdog kind of way, but he’s lacking in authority and presence. Claire Danes doesn’t get a lot to do besides the thankless role of the damsel in distress, at least until she eventually gets more in on the action in the climax. Kristanna Loken does an adequate job of looking expressionless and relentless, but despite a surfeit of nifty abilities and a lot on her plate (while her predecessors had single-minded missions, she’s got a whole hit list she’s working her way through), she’s not nearly as intimidating as either Robert Patrick in T2 or Schwarzenegger himself in the original film.  In fact, she’s kind of bland.  David Andrews is a standard-issue military man type as Kate’s father, and there’s even a cameo from Earl Boen as Dr. Silberman, making him the only actor besides Schwarzenegger to appear in all three movies.

Terminator fans are likely to be divided about this latest entry in the series. Many viewers will find themselves missing Linda Hamilton’s heroine Sarah Connor, at least initially (Hamilton declined an offer to appear, reportedly dissatisfied with the script). Also missed is the original ominous music; Marco Beltrami supplies a generic action score.  Most of all, it is more of a standard, if skillful and enjoyable, action movie than the more visionary and thought-provoking first films. I also found the climax and denouement dissatisfying. It negates many of the efforts and sacrifices of the second film, and while Terminator 2 repeatedly stated its motto of ‘no fate but what we make’, the third simply comes along as if to say ‘uh, well, yes there is’. Schwarzenegger steps back into the Terminator shoes as if he never left them, but we’re not given the chance to develop an emotional attachment to him as we did in the second film. He’s the same at the end as the beginning.

Whether you enjoy Terminator 3 depends on your expectations going into it. If you’re expecting a sci-fi/action thriller classic with the scope, depth, and impact of Terminator 2, you’re likely to be disappointed. But if looked at as an individual sci-fi action flick, the movie scores high. It’s entertaining, briskly-paced, features Schwarzenegger in familiar deadpan butt-kicking form, and some memorable action. Terminator 3 is a good action movie. But for the Terminator series, simply being a good action movie isn’t quite good enough.