Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Zaki's Retro Review: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Click here to read my retro review of Terminator 2

In 1991, as production on Terminator 2: Judgment Day wore interminably on, its frustrated mastermind James Cameron began to proclaim, "T3 without me!" as a way of expressing how taxing an experience it had become to guide this mammoth enterprise with the biggest budget in history. Of course, as the saying goes, pain is temporary, but film is forever, and once the movie came out and garnered a rapturous response by both critics and audiences, suddenly the thoughts of all concerned turned to how best to capitalize on Judgment Day's runaway success. As a matter of fact, Cameron did do a sequel...of sorts.

The twelve-minute short T2 3-D: Battle Across Time debuted in 1996 and played in Universal theme parks, reuniting the director with Schwarzenegger, Hamilton, and Furlong, as well as potentially (per Cameron himself) opening the door for another feature. However, just as they'd stymied the previous sequel's development, financial difficulties would rear their ugly head again, this time at Carolco, which had acquired Hemdale's share of the property just a few years earlier. Even as it turned some tidy profits off T2, Total Recall and Basic Instinct, Carolco bet heavily on big budget losers like 1995's pirate disaster Cutthroat Island, which ultimately plunged the company into bankruptcy.

At this time Cameron had a holding deal with Twentieth Century Fox, for whom he'd made the 1994 Schwarzenegger vehicle True Lies (arguably the star's last true blockbuster). And while both Cameron and Fox had eyes on bidding for Carolco's portion of the Terminator rights out of bankruptcy, by then he was already over-schedule and over-budget on a little picture called Titanic, and the furthest thing from his mind was more trips to the Terminator well. Despite repeated entreaties from the star, who was already anxious to suit up once more, the director and Fox let the property go.

In the end, what ultimately resolved the rights logjam was ex-Carolco heads Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna's reorganization as a new company, C2 Productions, expressly intended to serve as the new home for The Terminator, and from which they re-purchased their share in the franchise along with the half held by Gale Anne Hurd (who'd produced the previous two films alongside her ex-husband James Cameron). Now, with the property under one roof, the pair set about luring back its two key components. It was 2001 now, and Cameron had already crowned himself King of the World three years earlier in the wake of Titanic's record-breaking run.

Kassar and Vajna did the hard sell, but Cameron didn't bite, and with him definitely out, they instead turned to director Jonathan Mostow. A decidedly odd choice to step into Cameron's super-sized shoes given his eclectic filmography, Mostow had nonetheless proven his utility with big stars, big action, and big budgets thanks to his work on 1997's Breakdown as well as 2000's U-571. And though he'd moved on, his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger (in the middle of an extended box office dry run) hadn't, and after ultimately getting Cameron's blessing the star joined the developing Terminator 3 for a cool $30 million. 

Finally, after eleven long years of waiting, production on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines began in 2002 for release the following summer. With Schwarzenegger the only major star to return (Hamilton too begged off, with Sarah Connor having died off-camera), the remainder of the cast was filled with franchise newcomers. Nick Stahl replaced Edward Furlong as a young adult John Connor (Furlong was briefly attached to the project, but bowed out). Also cast was Claire Danes as Kate Brewer, Connor's love interest, and in the key role of the villainous T-X, the latest baddie, they chose twenty-three year old actress/model Kristanna Loken.

Terminator 3 came armed with a budget of nearly $190 million (the biggest ever at the time for a non-studio production -- once again a Terminator production was in danger of breaking the bank). However, after such an extended absence and without its most important creative figure, this movie would be the biggest test yet of the brand's continued box office viability. Written by John Brancato & Michael Ferris from a story by Tedi Sarafian, T3 rejoins John Connor several years later (the internal timeline is a bit dodgy, but it's apparently been nine years). Despite his belief that the future war has been prevented, Connor nonetheless lives a nomadic existence off the grid.

Things change when those pesky time bubbles show up once again, this time depositing yet another Arnold Schwarzenegger-looking Terminator, as well as the female-looking T-X, even more advanced than the previous flick's T-1000, in Los Angeles '04. As it turns out, the big fireworks show at Cyberdyne last time only postponed the inevitable human subjugation rather than actually stopping it. Soon enough, the Terminator and Connor, along with Kate Brewster (whose military father has oversight of a defense program called Skynet) are racing to prevent Judgment Day, while keeping one step ahead of the T-X, which has combined the T-1000's liquid metal with old-fashioned robotics.

Okay, let's get the big thing out of the way first. Terminator 3 has no involvement from James Cameron, so it can't help but feel a little bit "lesser" as a result. Even with Schwarzenegger back in his most famous role, there's no Bill Wisher script, no Brad Fiedel music, not even Gale Anne Hurd producing. Instead, there's an off-the-rack feeling to the proceeding that can be distracting at times. Nonetheless, Mostow does everything that's asked of him. He demonstrates skill with the action and the character moments, and I've long said that Rise of the Machines is probably the best version of T3 we were going to get without the man who dreamed the whole thing up calling "action."

I like the movie for what it is, but it'd be foolish not to also acknowledge its flaws. The sketchy timeline, for one thing. Per this installment, John Connor was thirteen years old during the events of the last film, and, per this film, that was more than ten years ago. However, as this movie is set in 2004, that would place T2 sometime before 1994, which would have made Connor even younger than the ten or eleven he was supposed to be. Hey, there's that migraine I was talking about last time. The wonkiness with the chronology feels like it was a draft away from being fixed, but it points to a general sloppiness in a series that prided itself on its polish until now.

And while Arnold again dons his trademark leathers with a preternatural ease, there's something slightly "off" about his portrayal this time. In T2 he demonstrated how well he could balance the machine nature of his character with just the slightest bit of humanity, but here, the glowering, the one-liners ("Talk to the hand") all risk toppling over into self-parody. (I won't bother mentioning how he first arrives from the future nude outside a male strip club. Oops, Just did. Okay, I won't mention how he puts on Elton John star glasses before donning his familiar shades. Whoops, guess I mentioned it after all.) Plus, there was obviously no way Arnold was going to be the baddie, so the script has to jump through some hoops to justify his presence in the story yet again. 

You may recall that I praised the last movie for how it avoided seeming like a "karaoke regurgitation," but this one doesn't fare quite as well. It bugs me that an entirely different model Terminator comes back to an entirely different time, but manages to quickly find the same "uniform" to wear. Heck, when you think about it, the entire premise is distracting. Remember, the events of the first movie were a last-ditch effort, an all or nothing attempt to stave off inevitable defeat. But if Skynet has the power to travel through time, you wonder why it has nothing better to do than keep sending robot assassins to kill a few random people (in addition to Connor, the T-X's goal this time is to kill some of his key lieutenants while they're children). 

Still, even with some of its more glaring deficiencies, there's a lot that I like about Terminator 3. For one thing, there's Nick Stahl. I know this is an unpopular opinion among many, but I like his take on John Connor. Sure, he's a very different Connor from Furlong, but with more than ten years of story-time having elapsed, I can buy the difference in his personality. Stahl helps ground the central conceit, which asks the question, what happens to a soldier when the war he was engineered for never happens? All his life Connor was told about the destiny that awaited him, and when the future that facilitated that destiny was (they thought) prevented, what does that mean for the man? 

Stahl imbues Connor with a haunted demeanor, a sadness at the life he's lost and the life he'll never know, and his arc is what the rest of the story hinges on. He also has good chemistry with Danes, playing the woman who will eventually become his wife. Unfortunately, less effective is Loken. The limits of the T-X's abilities are so nebulous as to seem meaningless, and with scene after scene of the T-X pounding Schwarzenegger's T-850, it gets to be a bit much after awhile. She has the "evil Terminator" glare down, but she's just not particularly intimidating, and at least partly fails the test by virtue of not being Robert Patrick (who probably set the bar way too high).

Probably the biggest reason I like Terminator 3 a lot more than it deserves is its wowzer of an ending. Having dispatched the T-X thanks to the T-850's handy high explosive battery unit (which also destroys the Arnold-bot in the process), John and Kate descend into a heavily fortified bunker underneath a mountain, believing it houses Skynet's system core, and intending to destroy it with the armload of C-4 they're carrying. However, what they find is an abandoned bomb shelter from the Cold War era. Its only then that the realization hits: Judgment Day is here.

Finally, the event that's been prophesied since the first film is happening. Connor's voiceover informs us that Skynet was software, and had already taken control via the Internet. As we watch the end of mankind begin via Skynet's nuclear assault, it's a haunting, even beautiful image, and one that fundamentally shifts the entire series on its axis. No longer is this about "no fate but what we make for ourselves." Suddenly our fate is sealed. It's already been decided, and the only thing matters now is survival. I remember seeing it for the first time and being in absolute awe of how dark they were willing to go. You generally don't expect your big blockbusters to close with the end of the world (well, unless you're this one...)

Even with that ending (or perhaps because of it?), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was a success at the box office. Like its predecessor, it was released over July 4th weekend, and by the time it left theaters it had accumulated just over $430 million, which wasn't insubstantial, but was also less than T2 had made in 1991 (not even taking inflation into account). While it was considered a success, there was also a cloud hanging over the brand as it looked toward its uncertain future. Shortly after the threequel's release, Schwarzenegger ran for (and won!) the governorship of California, meaning he'd be unavailable for any follow-ups. And beyond that, now that the machine apocalypse was upon us, was that a story we wanted to see?

To Be Continued...

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