WARNING - SPOILERS. I DON’T LIKE SPOILERS, BUT MOVIES LIKE THIS DESERVE THEM.
Terminator 3 has a few good points, and a legion of bad ones. While its action is decent, it’s quite blatantly just another by-the-numbers episode of a continuing franchise, and its last five minutes are an unbelievably hollow setup for a sequel. It also suffers horribly by comparison with the James Cameron works that preceded it: the first, trend-setting, career-building and utterly cool "The Terminator" and the sequel by which all action sequels are judged, the legendary T2.
I shouldn’t really have to discuss T1 and T2 in a review of the present film, but I will because T3 cannot (and doesn’t even try to) stand on its own. In case modern audiences have forgotten, The Terminator was the movie that made Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Cameron, and Linda Hamilton household names. Cameron and Hamilton were complete nobodies before T1, and Arnie’s most impressive showing to date was Conan the Barbarian - need I say more? It didn’t hurt Stan Winston and Michael Biehn, either. T1 wasn’t the most original SF-action movie ever made, but it was atmospheric, true to its own logic and way cool in spite of the wretched Eighties hairstyles. (See gleeme’s stunning review here).
A few years down the road, Terminator 2: Judgment Day was one of the few sequels ever made that actually set the bar higher than their predecessors. It was an epic work with a budget several times larger than T1. It had special effects and stuntwork that were absolutely unbelievable at the time, and are still pretty amazing twelve years later. It twisted the original story around in surprising ways, but also acknowledged that story and built upon its foundation. Its characters were living hellish lives that were plausible extrapolations of the first movie’s plot. It had a strong human side and a philosophical element, great acting for the genre, and combat and chase scenes that were an order of magnitude more extreme than the action in the first movie. T2 broke new ground in every department, and is still one of the most rewatchable action movies around.
T3, on the other hand, only scores well in the action department, and even there only its first big chase scene gets full marks. This scene, an extended fight/chase segment that takes us through half of Los Angeles, is the one bit that makes me think Jonathan Mostow might be an action director to keep an eye on. Night fades into day in a series of beautiful shots, as the Terminatrix chases the heroes in a heavy crane while driving a squad of police cars and fire vehicles by remote control. The action is intense, and the property damage is extensive and realistic, with the kind of visceral impact that was wholly missing from the CG-driven Big Chase Scene in the Matrix Reloaded. This chase is as good as anything seen in the first two movies, and we start the movie with a strong feeling that the Terminator franchise might not need James Cameron after all.
But as soon as that chase is over, the movie starts showing signs of advanced sequelitis. We see a long series of nods to T1 and T2, along with a bunch of moments where characters and motifs from the previous movies are used as jokes. We see some fair acting, and some not so great - Nick Stahl is fairly believable, and Claire Danes is Claire Danes, but Arnold seems to have forgotten that the Terminator is a machine, and the Terminatrix isn’t nearly as menacing as Robert Patrick’s T-1000. We see some rather inept Terminator prototypes, which are about as scary as the robot in Short Circuit. What we don’t see is the passion that Cameron built into his Terminator movies. We don’t see any sign that the filmmakers cared about this movie at all.
The new Terminator (does anybody believe that a guy like John Connor, who spent more time out of schools than in them and probably never had a chance to read a book in his life, would just spontaneously decide to call it a “Terminatrix”?) does have a couple of new tricks up her snakeskin sleeves, but by the end of the first chase she has no more surprises for us. I, for one, was looking forward to seeing her take over entire fleets of machines to use against the heroes, but it seems like the scriptwriters completely forgot about that power almost as soon as they introduced it. (Maybe because they couldn’t think of a way for the heroes to overcome it?) Instead they chose to emphasize her built-in weaponry. Obviously the fact that she comes standard with plasma weapons is meant to ratchet up the tension, but it actually has the opposite effect. This is the sort of “bigger and louder” thinking that marks almost every run of the mill action sequel, like the xenomorphs that get more numerous and clearly visible in every installment of the Alien saga - and, like them, it works against the movie. We’ve seen big explosions before, guys. In fact, we see them in almost every movie Arnold makes.
Most of the gags are pretty lame, too, and frequently stretch the limits of believability and consistency. When Arnold steals a car, he looks for keys in the driver’s visor instead of hotwiring it - despite the fact that he is supposed to be a different T-800, without any memories of events from T2. In fact, Connor pointedly gripes about how he is going to have teach Arnold all over again. When Kate (Danes) needs counselling, the psychologist on call happens to be the doc from the first two movies, who immediately begins to babble about how hostage situations can make you imagine insane things. And so on and so forth, until we come to the final scene. And this scene, unfortunately, is the ultimate insult to the audience. It’s almost as degrading as the end of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes. And, like POTA, it uses a hokey sci-fi cliche as a “Shocking Surprise Twist Ending” and falls flat on its face.
Despite all of my criticisms, I could have enjoyed T3 if it had ended five minutes earlier. If it had been a complete movie like T2 was, it still wouldn’t have been Great Art, but it would have been a decent summer blockbuster, worth seeing at least for the crane chase. But T3 isn’t complete. Like so many other films from the last few years, it's written as an episode from an old-fashioned serial. The ending not only deprives the audience of any sort of closure, but completely invalidates everything the heroes did in the second half of the movie. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not - none of the heroes’ actions has any importance whatsoever after what they discover in the final scene, which at least one of them should have known well in advance. He’s, like, from the future, you know? Where this already happened?
In short, stupid. After almost two hours of intermittently enjoyable popcorn movie, the last five minutes just made me want to ask for my money back. Scroll down if you don't mind major spoilers, because I simply feel compelled to gripe about the catastrophic silliness levels of the final scene...
(SPOILERS APPROACHING FAST...)
(SPOILERS RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW, AND I MEAN BIG ONES)
NOTE: several insulted fans have told me that the original version of the following was way too harsh on the movie. Also, several of our military types and tech-heads have pointed out that a few of my criticisms were inaccurate. Now, I'm far too stubborn to change my mind about the scene as a whole, but I'm always willing to admit when I've got my facts wrong. I have revised a couple of points to suit these rebuttals, and I've added notes to others. I still think the last fifteen or so minutes of T3 are based on dumb, lazy writing and the assumption that the viewers are all idiots, so don't get all excited.
What went wrong in the final scene, or “How to Kill the Suspension of Disbelief”:
- Obviously, Arnold knew that the mountain base was a fallout shelter/command center. He knew from the beginning that they weren’t going to stop Judgment Day. So did Claire’s character in the future. Wouldn’t she have programmed him to absolutely, without fail, just bring them to the shelter (or, lacking the access codes, some other safe place) instead of fucking around in the Skynet base? Wouldn’t she have told him “listen, Arnie, I’m going to want to go save my father. It won’t work and it might get us killed, so don’t let me do it”?
- There’s nobody guarding this ultra-secret command base, even though it is stocked with huge-ass computer mainframes and has active CnC access to the entire US military? Okay, maybe the Army thought that blast door was enough to protect the secret base. But there are working vehicles parked outside the blast doors, ready to drive, without any guards. Sorry guys, the Army doesn’t leave its hardware parked in the middle of nowhere without guards. Ever. Responding to Uberbanana on this point: First of all, this wasn't a junkyard, it was an antiquated but apparently functional command center built to survive direct nuclear attacks. The fact that Claire's father remembers this facility off the top of his head implies that the base is still part of some kind of contingency plan, although probably as a last last last resort. It would, therefore, be guarded, as would the hardware, no matter how old it was. Your claim that the trucks out front are forty years old and don't have any gas means absolutely nothing. In my own military experience, I've used vehicles and fired weapons that were more than forty years old and still got used on a daily basis. I've also been posted to guard bases that held much less valuable contents than that one, simply because in a certain kind of hypothetical conflict, they might become strategically important.
- The T-X crashes into the base in a huge fucking helicopter, sliding almost to point blank range of Our Heroes, but she can’t kill them before they read and enter the password to open the door? Uberbanana - yes, it is necessary to state this, because it is totally preposterous and has no plot justification whatsoever. If Steven Spielberg had come to the end of Jaws and decided that the heroes could beat the shark because it suddenly turned out that the shark was really, really slow and its teeth were made of rubber, wouldn't you protest?
- When Arnold crash-lands to fight off the Terminatrix, she is totally surprised, as if he had just popped out of a trapdoor. How in the name of the deus ex machina did he manage to sneak up on her? She's the most advanced military robot ever built. She's at least two generations ahead of Arnie. Did she not look around even once during her flight? Was she driven to disorientation by a futile series of stalemated Tic-Tac-Toe games with the navigational computer? Okay, as several of you pointed out, this is reasonable. The Jetranger the T-X is flying has no radar, and the T-X could reasonably have assumed that Arnie was gone for good thanks to her nano whammy, and thus been surprised. I'll concede that this within the realm of possibility. Still an annoyingly off-key note, in my opinion.
- Arnold has already removed one of his dual power sources after his first fight with the T-X. In the final fight, he pulls out the other one and stuffs it into the T-X’s mouth. And what, exactly, is keeping him running while he holds her down and utters his last retreaded tagline? NOTE - Walter says there is another auxiliary power source, as seen in T2. I got the impression that the second battery was the auxiliary, but Walter is probably right.
- The blast door didn’t close when the explosion occurs, because Arnie is blocking it. Half of the mountainside is instantly vaporized. But the heroes, standing maybe twenty feet away, are completely safe. Yeah, I can believe that. Sure. Tune in next week, when the Earth’s core explodes and John and Kate are protected from the blast by hiding in a portable toilet.
SPOILERS END HERE
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