Sunday, April 27, 2008
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
(Image from IMP Awards)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
In a word, disappointing. In another, mediocre. Following in the footsteps of James Cameron's classic 1984 thriller and 1991 action spectacular comes Jonathan Mostow's rather pedestrian third entry in the franchise (and I dread to see what 'McG' will do with the upcoming films). Even though 'Judgement Day' was itself something of a retread, it managed to up the ante and introduced new elements to the basic story framework of the original - two terminators, one ultra advanced assassin and one 'Arnie' model protector, the addition of John Connor himself as a kid, and the concept of taking charge and changing the future instead being resigned to fate. The film also had some good elements of emotion laden drama despite being a little heavy handed. This third entry is basically the exact same formula as part 2, and adds virtually nothing new up until its (admittedly terrific) left field ending.
A new terminator, the feminine TX (Kristana Loken), is sent back to kill future leader of the human resistance John Connor (Nick Stahl) and his lieutenants, including a young woman named Kate Brewster (Claire Danes). The resistance again sends a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to serve as a protector for John. Sarah Connor is dead, so John and Kate take it upon themselves to once again attempt to change the future - though they succeeded in stopping Cyberdyne Systems in part 2, John figures it just wasn't enough to prevent the supercomputer Skynet from coming into existence and gaining sentience. So in the midst of running away from the TX, they devise a plan to destroy Skynet before it takes control of the US Military's computer systems and causes nuclear armageddon.
Right from the start, the film is markedly inferior. There's no suspense, everything happens in a purely perfunctory manner like they were ticking off items in a checklist. Monologue opening, check. T-800 arrival and acquisition of clothes from seedy joint, check. TX arrival and acquisition of a vehicle, check. These scenes feel like cheap echoes of the previous films, and while it's true that T2 could be accused of the same thing, T2 was also markedly differently from its predecessor in terms of how those scenes were handled. T3 feels like T2 lite. Watching this, I never felt like the characters' lives were at stake, much less the future of mankind!
The inferiority permeates every aspect of the film. Mostow isn't alone in bearing the blame as the screenwriters contributed some of the film's flaws. Clearly realizing they couldn't really outdo what had come before, they decided to infuse ill advised humour into scene after scene, and much of it falls flat. The characters never really come alive - Connor is brooding sidekick to the T-800 for the most part, and Brewster is mostly just hysterical, and both seem to be merely serving the plot. Mostow's sense of pacing and scene construction are competent but workmanlike, be it the character driven moments or the action scenes. The latter are definitely big, but they often feel lifeless and fall back on CGI on too many occasions. I can't think of a single standout moment in this film, while the first two had so many. The things that are most memorable are the bits that made me groan, like the Elton John glasses and 'talk to the hand' scenes, jokes that really should have been dropped at some stage during the production.
Which isn't to say that everything sucks. On the contrary, the film is on the whole fairly decent and is better than the average sci-fi action flick. The design work, which follows from Stan Winston's originals, is still excellent, for one - those early prototype robots in action are very cool. The basic concept of killer robots from the future wreaking violence and causing massive mayhem is still a fantastic one. And the story framework is solid, even if its execution is less than refined. And the ending... well, the first time I saw it I actually liked the film as a result of that ending, which is such an atypically sober surprise in a summer blockbuster and one that completely wipes away the sense of optimism the second film concluded with.
The performances, unfortunately, are almost uniformly forgettable. Schwarzanegger just coasts through with a distracting sense of self-awareness. He acted a bit goofy in T2, but that was part of the character arc - here, he's just goofy from the outset. Even when he's not approaching parody, he's still not as coolly mechanical or as physically imposing as before; the T-800 is merely a shadow of his former self. Kristanna Loken certainly tried as the TX and she's good on occasion, but following in the footsteps of Robert Patrick's phenomenal turn as the T-1000 is no easy task and the inevitable comparison leaves her wanting. The quirky mannerisms and poses seem forced, and the icy menace just isn't that frightening. You'd think playing cold, unfeeling machines would be easy, but based on the evidence it would appear not to be so.
The only good performance comes from Nick Stahl, who plays Connor as a weary outcast who still possesses a grim sense of determination, although it has to be said that neither the writing nor the performance indicate he has great leadership potential - which is weird when you consider that the 10 year old in T2 did demonstrate such potential! Claire Danes, a fairly good actress, is simply irritating as the initially hysterical and then somewhat bland Kate Brewster.
'Rise of the Machines' is a wholly unnecessary film, one whose most meaningful narrative element, its conclusion, could easily have served as some form of prologue to a film about the actual war against the machines (That film is coming soon, but is in the hands of McG, whose greatest claim to fame is directing the Charlie's Angels films). T3, even as a retread, falls well short in every respect. The score is another example of what's wrong with this film - it samples a few recognizable themes from Brad Fidel's distinctive and memorable work and evokes good will by doing so, but is ultimately by the numbers and never really comes alive. And really, the same could be said about the film as a whole.