If 1984's low-budget "The Terminator" was like a pre-meal appetizer, and 1991's visionary "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" was reminiscent of an extravagantly designed and garnished entrée, then "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" is the series' 12 oz. New York strip steak. Without the participation of original filmmaker James Cameron, who enlivened the previous installment with a scope, grandeur, and innovation that had not yet been glimpsed on film at such a large scale before, new director Jonathan Mostow (1997's "Breakdown") goes for something grittier, to-the-point, more fast-paced, and not nearly as original.
Set ten years after "T2," 1997 has come and gone without the arrival of the destined Judgment Day, and 23-year-old John Connor (Nick Stahl, taking over for Edward Furlong) has become a reclusive drifter in an attempt to thwart his fate as a soldier fighting for mankind's survival. Then the Terminatrix, also known as the T-X (Kristanna Loken), shows up on a mission to assassinate John and his as-yet-unknown future wife/lieutenant, veterinarian Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), on the day Armageddon is scheduled to arrive. To protect John and Kate, the now-obsolete T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is also sent from the future, a model that John remembers all too well but who, because it is simply a replication of the robot from "T2," does not remember him.
At 108 minutes, "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" clocks in a full 30 minutes shorter than "T2." The leaner running time proves to be both a luxury and a hindrancea luxury because the movie is tightly edited and doesn't ever slow down long enough to start dragging, and a hindrance because it lacks the depth and vision of the second picture, and is too brief to be fully satisfying. The finale is the weakest part of all, woefully anticlimactic and over before it has gotten a chance to sure-footedly take off. In comparison, the final scenes (everything following a key plot twist) is appropriately grim, courageous, and fascinatingly unshakable. It also unsubtly sets up further sequels.
In all fairness, director Jonathan Mostow effortlessly takes over the helm of the series with the same tone (serious and humanistic, but not without its jokey side) of the previous films, and knows how to set up and deliver slam-bang action sequences. A nearly ten-minute chase scene involving a big-rig truck careening out of control on the streets of Hollywood is the movie's easy centerpiecemore realistic and practical from a special effects standpoint and every bit as breathtakingly exciting as the highway chase in "The Matrix Reloaded
." A hands-on showdown between the nasty Terminatrix and the heroic T-101, both of whom will stop at nothing to succeed at their respective missions, comes in a close second for sheer technical craftsmanship.
At this point, Arnold Schwarzenegger (2002's "Collateral Damage
") could play the T-101 in his sleep and, despite a 12-year gap between films in the series, the role fits like a snug glove. Then again, the character is nothing more than a machine who is supposed to act robotic, which is genuinely perfect for Schwarzenegger's abilities. Although the talented Nick Stahl (2001's "In the Bedroom
") is effective as John Connor, original character inhabiter Edward Furlong is undeniably missed. Stahl looks nothing like Furlong, and so it is difficult to imagine him taking over in the same continuous role. With previous series regular Linda Hamilton also nowhere to be found (her Sarah Connor has died from Leukemia in the years since "T2"), there is somehow a gap that remains unfilled from start to finish. Attempting to fill in is the new strong-willed and fetching character of Kate Brewster, played by the lovely Claire Danes (2002's "Igby Goes Down
") in her very first action role. She slides into the physicality and steep demands of the genre with ease. Finally, newcomer Kristanna Loken has got the icy stare and unstoppable quality of her villainous Terminatrix down pat, but she lacks the full conviction of Robert Patrick's T-1000.
Whereas "T2: Judgment Day" introduced advanced CG effects (for its time) that had never been done before onscreen, "Terminator 3" lacks the imagination to take things any further than they did in 1991. The visual effects here are often so convincing as to seamlessly blend into the action with photorealism, but director Mostow remains unwilling to take gambles or try anything different. Save for the choice final scenes, the conventions of the premise are almost exactly the same as in "T2." And the quick running time does not allow for relationships to be effectively formed, such as the reunion of John and the T-101 model. For the most part, the movie is one long chase with critical exposition dropped in from time to time.
As a hugely-budgeted summer action thrill ride, "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" does its job and does it with efficiency, not demanding any more from the viewer than to just sit and take in the sights, sounds, and innumerable explosions. As a sequel to "T2: Judgment Day," however, the results are underwhelming and easily inferiorthat James Cameron classic was that rare example of a superbly realized and highly original summer blockbuster, while "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" is little more than a loud and kinetic action flick. Nonetheless, from a pure visceral viewpoint, the movie delivers the goods fans will likely be expecting. Just go in expecting a base hit, rather than a full-blown home run.