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Fight the Future


Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Jonathan Mostow, USA, 2003

Rating: 2.5



Posted: July 7, 2003

By Laurence Station

Hollywood lives for the sure thing. Why sink millions of dollars into a film project if you don't have faith that it will make a return on the investment? Thus, we have the franchise. From a bottom-line, Hollywood executive standpoint, the franchise is a good thing, as it provides a built-in audience already familiar with the characters. But those moviegoers have their own bottom line: They're nursing the hope that their return on investment will be rewarded with a satisfying filmgoing experience, and that Hollywood won't cynically attempt to rook them by either a) making the same movie they're seen before or b) simply beat a dead horse for the sake of a few bucks. So Hollywood studios walk a tightrope with sequels. They've got to deliver the same thrills as the earlier movies, but can't simply make a straight copy of what has gone before.

Which leads us to the latest installment in the Terminator franchise, a film that series creator James Cameron passed on (never a good sign), having said everything he wanted to say in the first two films. The amazing thing about Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is that not only does it rip off what has gone before; most astonishingly, its sole purpose seems to be to prepare audiences for the next installment. Rise of the Machines is the longest, most expensive teaser ever made. It's filler, meant to whet the audience's appetite for the big war between humans and machines (of which we've been teased with brief snippets in the first two films). No great cliffhanger, no overly startling revelations, just a perfunctory, by-the-number setup for No. 4. Which begs the question: why not just make that movie instead, and relate the negligible story here in voice-over narration at the beginning? It really wouldn't take that long to recap.

Allow me to illustrate. Rise of the Machines takes place a decade after Terminator 2: Judgment Day, wherein it turns out the future rise of the machines wasn’t averted, merely delayed. Skynet (the big bad computer system that started this whole man vs. machine mess in the first place) sends back a sexy T-X Terminator model (Kristanna Loken) to eliminate those people who will eventually become John Connor's lieutenants in the future resistance against the machines. To counter this, the resistance has sent a T-800 Terminator unit (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to protect Connor and his allies.

The whole point of the exercise, of course, is to get to the meat and potatoes of the tale: The war between man and machine. If all goes well, that would be T4, coming to a theater near you sometime in the not-too-distant future, with Schwarzenegger, by then the governor of California, giving a speech at the gala premiere about how proud he is to still be playing a buff Terminator well into his sixties. But until then, all we've got is Rise of the Machines, a frustratingly rote exercise in franchise management: Fill in the blanks of the tale (what happens to John Connor during his post-teen years and before the Resistance?); make as much money as possible to justify Arnold's next big payday. Rise of the Machines never feels like more than what it is: An as-straightforward-as-possible chase flick to get Connor and fellow Resistance fighter/predestined mother of his children Kate (Claire Danes) into a bunker so they can safely avoid the nuclear war that will soon follow.

The problem with all of this is that the very premise of the Terminator franchise, coupled with the demands of franchise management, robs the film of any tension. The female Terminatrix lacks any sense of menace simply because we know that Arnold's Terminator will eventually prevail. Even worse, as Cameron's plotline in the first two films repeatedly stressed, we know that John Connor will lead the Resistance to victory over the machines, or else why would Skynet be so hot to wipe him out ahead of time? (Of course, all of these nagging concerns would also apply to a T4, but no one seems to have thought that far ahead.)

Rise of the Machines does have a few redeemable qualities, however, the biggest and most important, naturally, being Arnold. Arnold delivers. He can still serve up tired one-liners with great timing and panache. Schwarzenegger earns his money here, and seems to still be having fun doing so. The special effects, on the other hand, are decent -- although not groundbreaking, as with 1992's far superior Terminator 2: Judgment Day. And the chase sequences, repetitive though they may be, are still fun to watch.

And yet there's simply nothing to hold onto after the credits roll. Whereas the first film had no intention or true hope of spawning a franchise, thus putting all of its low budget eggs into one basket, and the second was bloated but still technically astonishing, Rise of the Machines is nothing more than a means to one very specific end: Set up the Big War. It's an overblown, two-hour audience-baiting commercial for a film that not only isn't made yet, but, given its star's well-documented political aspirations, may never even get made. With Rise of the Machines, the very concept of the franchise has evolved, with machine-like precision, into its final and inevitable incarnation: Infomercials for nonexistent product. That's a future definitely not worth fighting for.

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