In defence of Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines

Daniel argues that a revisit to the third Terminator instalment, away from the fanboy furore of 2003, could be a pleasant surprise...

Kristanna Loken as the Terminatrix in Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines (2003)

With the release of the fourth in the Terminator franchise finally upon us, I thought I’d take a look at the often maligned third instalment. Viewed by most (and rightly so) as the weakest in the series, Terminator 3 does have a hell of a lot more going for it than a lot of fans realise.

Jonathan Mostow’s heavy handed treatment of the plot, along with some poor performances on the acting front, don’t help its case, nor does the fact that, well, it’s all just a little too safe. The violence is surprisingly brutal given the rating, but it’s missing the feeling of dread that permeated the original or the sustained threat of the follow up. However, the ending was a belter, bravely subverting conventions to deliver a sucker-punch in the dying minutes, but more on that later.

Firstly, its one saving grace is that franchise mainstay Schwarzenegger was actually a part of it. His cheesy introduction might have been a piss-poor riff on Terminator 2, but otherwise the performance was almost pitch perfect, slipping seamlessly back into the role, albeit looking slightly rougher round the edges, but still fantastic for his age. There were some concerns about his comedic, lilting delivery that, at times, can be grating, but it was necessary to lighten the tone at times, given the apocalyptic subject matter and the desire for a more family-friendly rating.

Further criticism involved the casting of Nick Stahl in the role of John Connor, a decision which incurred the wrath of the devoted upon release. Edward Furlong’s portrayal in T2 was definitive, and the decision to recast the role was due, in part, to the fact that Furlong was having some well-publicised personal issues.

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Stahl’s interpretation, whilst not exactly groundbreaking, was exactly what it needed to be: functional. In James Cameron’s skillful hands, T2 managed to construct an arc for each of its protagonists, giving the titular machine its shape-shifting nemesis and both John and Sarah Connor seemingly a whole movie to themselves, perfectly fleshing out each character and allowing them to carve their own path.

For Mostow (who I’m sure everyone will agree is not, and will never be on a par with James Cameron), the key to the movie was the action, with the Connor character nothing more than a Macguffin, a role that Nick Stahl takes on admirably. The action is where the movie really spreads its wings, with a cemetery shootout amongst the highlights, and, of course, the crane chase in particular still stands out as one of the movie’s strongest set pieces.

Elsewhere on the casting front, the last-minute addition of Claire Danes as Connor’s future wife (and second in command) Kate Brewster created further problems, but again turned out for the better. Brought on board after Sophia Bush was deemed too young to play Stahl’s love interest, Danes gives a spirited performance, given that she had only a day or so to prepare for the role. Much like Stahl, she was given very little to do other than look helpless until it mattered, some might say an interesting parallel to Sarah Connor’s transformation over the course of Terminator and T2.

My biggest pet peeve with this movie (and yes, I know I’m supposed to be writing in defence, but I have to say this) is the villain. Kristanna Loken as the Terminatrix, or TX, is nothing but a sub par caricature of Robert Patrick and a failed attempt at raising the bar from the last movie. Sure, she is supposed to be robotic, but compared to the subtle, nuanced performance of Patrick, Loken simply appears cheap, amateurish, and not fit to share the screen with the Governator.

Lucky, then, that the plot is strong enough to hold our attention. The notion that, after failing twice to terminate John Connor, the machines would change tack and go after his lieutenants is inspired, as is the much talked-about ending. Having the Terminator intentionally deceive the humans, allowing judgement day to happen after leading them to the safety of a fallout shelter, is a pretty ballsy move, one that Mostow was luckily allowed to keep. Given the studio’s desire to broaden the movie’s appeal as much as possible, such a downbeat ending is a revelation, and one that makes a welcome break from the norm.

Re-watching the film after 6 years, having not seen it since it was released theatrically, I believe it has been treated somewhat unfairly. The film I remember seeing is certainly not the one I saw today, my initial judgement most likely clouded by my massive expectation, given my love for the previous films.

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No, the film I watched today is flawed, yet worthy, occasionally corny, yet often brilliant, and above all, entertaining throughout. It doesn’t hold a candle to The Terminator, nor is it as spectacular as T2 in the action stakes, but few films can claim either. What it is, though, is a thoroughly enjoyable movie and a worthy addition to anyone’s collection, but you might want to hide it behind something cooler on the shelf.