Are we too hard on Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines?

As James Cameron describes Genisys as the real third Terminator film, we wonder whether the Terminator 3 has been judged too harshly...

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.”

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“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 offense 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.”)

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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, T3s 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 humor 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.

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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 humor, 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 humor 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.

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