Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)



Jonathan Mostow

Nick Stahl (John Connor), Claire Danes (Kate Brewster), Arnold Schwarzenegger (The T-800), Kristanna Loken (The T-X/Terminatrix), David Andrews (Robert Brewster), Earl Boen (Dr. Peter Silberman)

Sentient Robots/Nuclear War

“The future has not been written. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves. I wish I could believe that. My name is John Connor, they tried to murder me before I was born, when I was 13 they tried again. Machines from the future. Terminators. All my life my mother told me the storm was coming, Judgment Day, the beginning of the war between man and machines. Three billion lives would vanish in an instant, and I would lead what was left of the human race to ultimate victory. It hasn’t happened, no bombs fell, computers didn’t take control, we stopped Judgment Day. I should feel safe, but I don’t, so I live off the grid – no phone, no address, no one and nothing can find me. I’ve erased all connections to the past, but as hard as I try I can’t erase my dreams, my nightmares.” – Opening narration

Terminator 2 was extremely successful so once again a sequel was just about guaranteed but, as before, there were a ton of behind-the-scenes problems which made the reality of making one nearly impossible.  (I’m going off of IMDb trivia and a wikipedia article here, so don’t take this as gospel.)  Though James Cameron announced it for years, a script was never officially completed and Carolco Pictures (owners of 50% of the rights) went under.  There was an attempt to buy all the rights but eventually Fox backed out. Carolco founders Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna purchased back the rights (as well as Gale Anne Hurd’s share; the remaining 50%) and started their own company.  Various scripts were attempted, some featuring Sarah as well as John.  One featured a terminator that could turn invisible, another featured one that could turn into a gaseous state.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was finally convinced to return and he attempted to coax Cameron back, at least as a producer, but Cameron declined saying that T2 finished the story he wanted to tell.  (It’s more likely that he was too busy gleaning bits of other peoples’ ideas to uses in the story he planned on telling for the rest of his natural life.)  Cameron told Schwarzenegger to go ahead and do it without him but to ask for no less than thirty-million dollars.  He then cackled like a madman and jumped into the sea where he lives to this day.

Schwarzenegger signed on for a record-breaking $29.25 million dollars (plus 20% of the profits), Edward Furlong was considered for John Connor but was passed over when it was clear that he was having a lot of substance abuse issues, and Linda Hamilton flat-out turned the studio down (she likely read the script.)  After looking at potential directors (Ridley Scott and John McTiernen were considered, Ang Lee reportedly turned the production down so that he could make The Hulk) they landed on director Jonathan Mostow (maker of the decent Kurt Russell suspense thriller Breakdown and submarine film U-571) who brought in writers Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato (The Game, The Net, Mindwarp, later Catwoman and Primeval) to work on the script written by Tedi Sarafian (The Road Killers, Tank Girl.)  The movie came out in 2003, after having gone over budget projection by about 10 million dollars (at the time it was the most expensive production ever greenlit.)

The role of John Connor was down to Nick Stahl or Shane West (he played Tom Sawyer in 2003’s other big dud The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  Unimportant fact: I watched both movies the same week on hotel pay-per-view and regretted both instances, though I’ve since decided that LXG is at least stupid fun) and it looked to be West’s role due to scheduling conflicts but a robot was sent from the future to kill Nick Stahl’s career before it ever started and suddenly his schedule was wide open.  After this, Mostow decided that Sophia Bush was too young to play the role of Kate Brewster and Claire Danes was brought in to replace her so close to time that she was learning many of her lines on-set.

As you can see, the conception of this movie was a long, traumatic mess and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was the malformed abomination that slithered out of the studio’s poison womb to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public.

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We meet up with John Connor as he sits on a bridge and contemplates suicide.  Judgment Day was averted but just to be safe he’s been keeping off the grid and living as a drifter.  He has mixed feelings about his destiny, he doesn’t want Judgment Day to happen but his life has no meaning if the world doesn’t end.  He wrecks his motorcycle on a lonely highway and breaks into a veterinary hospital to steal some pain medication.

We flash to a clothing store window as a time displacement bubble appears.  A tall blonde woman appears and kills a lady in a convertable, stealing her fancy convertible and red leather pantsuit.  She then runs a red light, gets pulled over, inflates her breasts for no reason, and kills a policeman for his gun.  This is our new villain, the T-X A.K.A. The Terminatrix.

Now we join Kate Brewster and her fiance as they try fruitlessly to get the scanner gun in an upscale department store to work so they can add it to their wedding registry.  She takes a call from her father (David Andrews of The Graveyard Shift and Cherry 2000), he’s a high ranking military figure in charge of stopping a major virus (the reason the scanner and electronic objects in general in this movie aren’t working), the solution to this problem is an experimental defense system (bet you can’t guess what it’s called) that could wipe out the virus as long as it had access to every single computer system simultaneously.

We move to the desert where the T-800 appears and makes his way toward a nearby bar.  After punching M.C. Gainey, he makes his way inside in search of clothing but it’s Ladies’ Night so the only outfit he finds belongs to the stripper on-stage.  After demanding the dancer’s clothes he is told to “talk to the hand.”  He grabs the dancer’s hand and speaks his request into it like a microphone.  He walks outside in a shot echoing him leaving the biker bar in the previous movie and puts on a pair of sunglasses that he finds in the pocket, these sunglasses.

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He throws the silly star sunglasses away because his homophobia circuit alerts him to the faux pas.  It’s okay though, because he finds some cool shades on the dashboard of a truck he steals.  Are you sick to your stomach yet?

Kate gets called into work, which just happens to be the veterinary hospital in which John Connor is passed out on the floor.  She shows up and pushes him into a human-sized cage just waiting, door wide open, in the next room.  The T-X arrives and kills a woman, thinking she’s Kate.  The T-X tests the woman’s blood and that looks like this:

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She determines that the woman isn’t Kate Brewster so she walks into the next room where she finds some bloody gauze.  She checks that blood, finding out that it belongs to John Connor and makes this face:

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Kate makes herself known, the T-X catches her, the T-800 hits the T-X with a pick-up truck (causing her car to careen into a propane tank and explode), the T-X’s arm turns into a plasma cannon and she shoots the T-800 with it.  John and Kate escape in a truck while the T-X gives chase in a big crane truck, simultaneously controlling four emergency vehicles remotely.  The T-800 gives chase on a motorcycle, making the scene that much more reminiscent of a similar scene in Terminator 2.

After the chase, The T-800 takes the wheel and tells John that he only postponed Judgment Day in stopping Dyson’s project and that it’s inevitable.  His job is to take John and Kate (his future wife) to a safe location so that they can survive the apocalypse and start the war.  In the midst of this, he takes out a knife and removes Chekov’s hydrogen fuel cell from his chest plate, the fuel cell explodes in a significant blast that lets us know what the other (there’s two so you can know what one does) will do later in the movie.

We later learn that this T-800 is a different one than the one from Terminator 2.  He has successfully killed John Connor in the future, using his emotional attachment to that particular model, and was reprogrammed and sent back to the past by Kate to protect them from the T-X and see that they survive to become the resistance.  But John and Kate of the present want to go meet up with her father and try to stop SKYNET from becoming self-aware to begin with.

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I had only seen this movie once back upon release so I was surprised to find out that the film isn’t quite as bad as it was when it had 12 years of built-up expectations weighing it down.  Terminator 3 is still a very bad movie but I found that some of it is more watchable than I remembered.

First of all, I like the way that the movie decided to take the T-800.  Gone is the kinder and gentler “Uncle Bob” model from T2 which was one of that movie’s bigger flaws.  This T-800 is much sterner with John, urging him to be stronger rather than catering to his whining, which is a big step in the right direction.  He isn’t back to his original brutal self from the first movie (future-Kate has forbidden him from killing any human beings) but he’s a lot less kid-friendly than the previous version.

The other good thing is the cameo from Earl Boen as Dr. Silberman.  Silberman appears as a crisis counselor for the Sheriff’s department (he got demoted apparently) telling Kate that stressful situations make you see impossible things that it takes you years to get over (referencing the way he saw the T-1000 walk through the barred door in the previous movie) he then sees the T-800 walk out and a look of fearful recognition comes upon his face and he runs.

It’s a stupid scene, it serves no purpose to the plot, there’s no good reason for Silberman to even be there.  But it’s funny and Earl Boen sells it perfectly and the plot is drawn-out and stupid by that point anyway so I love it.  I don’t believe this scene was actually meant to feature Silberman originally; early drafts of the script supposedly featured Lance Henriksen reprising his role as Detective Vulkovich from the first movie, now confined to a wheelchair after being shot by the T-800.  The idea was scrapped but I think it was just repurposed for Boen, which is fine because he’s the best thing about the franchise at this point.

The other good thing is the first big chase scene I mentioned above.  It’s big and silly but it manages to be impressive enough and it’s largely done with practical effects which makes it look that much better in comparison to the rest of the film.  It represents just about the only time this movie feels like a Terminator movie.

I am out of nice things to say about this movie.

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The comedy, the most derided part of the movie by most is completely tonally inappropriate but I’ll admit that I got a few chuckles out of some of the T-800’s deadpan deliveries.  (Him screaming “RELAX” at Kate when she tells him to let her go actually got an audible laugh out of me for some reason.)  It undermines the serious part of the movie but the serious part sucks so it became the only port in a storm for me on this rewatch.

The CG effects are abhorrent, just the worst.  This movie had the highest budget of any movie at the time so there’s no good reason it should look like shit.  There are a few that work: the opening shot of the endoskeletons marching in formation looks pretty decent (not as good as Stan Winston’s puppets did, but whatever.)  I have no idea how the largest budgeted movie of 2003’s special effects can look dramatically worse than the largest budgeted movie of 1991’s.  T2 has one bad CG effect (the T-800 rolling off the liquid nitrogen truck), T3 barely has one good CG effect.

On that note, lets talk about the fight scenes.  It’s just a series of Schwarzenegger and Loken smashing each other into walls and hitting each other with blunt objects.   Considering how worth the build-up the fight was between the T-800 and T-1000, this just seems pathetic.

The T-X is not bad on principle.  She’s got the ability to make other machines work for her using a Robocop spike finger and she’s designed to terminate both humans and other terminators which is a sensible upping of the stakes.  Unfortunately her main gimmick (she’s a T-800 interior wrapped in a T-1000 candy shell) is pretty lazy and the use of the character (the stills I posted above may serve as exhibit A and B) is basically just for titillation.  She’s a horrible successor to both Schwarzenegger and Patrick, and most of that doesn’t seem to be Kristanna Loken’s fault.

Nick Stahl is wasted on this movie, he doesn’t give a terribly great performance but I don’t think he had much to work with.  I do appreciate that he does actually kind of look like the product of Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn though.  Claire Danes fares better but her character spends most of the movie being a shrew so I don’t much care for her.

In general, the plot is lazy and almost non-existent, it’s like the more boring parts of Terminator 2 have been made into their own movie and no amount of explosions can hide the fact that most of the runtime just features the three main characters milling around waiting for something to do.  T2 was bloated but it was over two hours long, T3 barely clocks in at an hour and forty-five minutes (not counting credits)and feels twice as long.

In a better world the movie would have gotten made in 1995, someone like Eric Red would have written (maybe even directed), the plot could have been a twist on the last one.  Maybe this time the T-800 is the villain again, or a more improved terminator which looks like the T-800 and Robert Patrick returns but it turns out this time he is the protector (then that scene where we see the Terminator approach in slow motion like it did in the previous two movies would have some weight because we don’t know who’s who this time) or if they wanted to just make T2-but-bigger then have SKYNET send back a bunch of terminators, maybe they amass over time as sleeper agents, and have the T-800 and the T-1000 be John’s protectors since the enemies are so numerous.  T3 doesn’t feel like a big budget movie, it feels like a direct-to-DVD sequel.  In no way is this film’s budget justified onscreen.

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Now, since I’m done talking about this shitshow, I mentioned last time that I had a theory on the plot inconsistencies as related to this series.  (NOTE: Many people have similar theories, in fact oh_riginal correctly guessed a big piece of it in the comments section on the last one.  I’m not claiming I have some crazy insight that no one else has, I just put this together on my own.)  The Terminator suffers from what I liked to call The Marty McFly Conundrum, based on the plot of Back to the Future where Michael J. Fox’s characters almost stops himself from existing by interfering in his parents’ first meeting as teenagers.  The problem with that concept is that if Marty McFly stops existing, then he never would have been able to interfere with the past, which means the problem would fix itself.

The way this series is related to The Marty McFly Conundrum is that if SKYNET sends a terminator back in time to kill John Connor and it succeeds, then John Connor would not exist, which means that they would never send a terminator back in time, which means that John Connor would exist.  This becomes an even bigger mess when we find out in T2 that both John and SKYNET exist as a result of the time travelers in the original movie.

I mentioned last time how the sudden mention of a second set of time travelers was not mentioned in the first movie, and that something Kyle Reese said to Dr. Silberman made it sound impossible.  But there’s another thing Kyle said that explains it: he said that the future he comes from is a possible future.  If time is completely linear, than anything the time travelers do in the past will be undone by a time paradox, so for change to actually be affected the time travelers are transported back into an alternate timeline, a parallel reality where their future is one of many possible ones.

The John Connor that Kyle Reese knows is not the John Connor he fathers; he has the same name, the same mother, but he’s a different person.  The original John Connor (we’ll call him John Prime) was fathered by someone in Sarah’s timeline where her life was normal and nothing weird happened until Judgment Day.

The assumption we are led to believe is that Terminator 2 is a direct continuation of The Terminator, but I think T2 actually takes place after the time loop has gone around one more time.  In an alternate world we see Sarah raise John into a revolutionary and he fulfills his destiny, the end, so SKYNET sends a second terminator back this time to interfere with those events, creating another divergent timeline.  This timeline ends with the alternate ending of T2 where Sarah grows to be an old woman and Judgment Day doesn’t happen (at least in her lifetime.)  T3 is another revolution on the time wheel where SKYNET sends a third terminator back to dispatch him as a young man; this explains why John Connor always looks different while his mother and the T-800 always look the same.

Furthermore I don’t think the T-800 is telling the truth when he says Kate sent him back.  I think the T-X and the T-800 were both sent by SKYNET as an elaborate ruse to get John Connor into a more advantageous position after Judgment Day.  In the original timeline, John is a resistance leader but at the end of this movie (and the entirety of the next) he’s at the nexus of humanity’s remaining military force and I think it’s SKYNET’s way of killing all the birds with one stone.

The T-800 tells John that it was easy to infiltrate and kill him and I think it’s because he came to John as an ally.  Just before the T-800 sacrifices himself to get John and Kate into the bunker he tells him that he’ll see him again, it’s played like a good thing but given the information he’s already given it’s rather ominous.  SKYNET has realized that this sending an assassin back in time thing doesn’t work, so it has stopped playing checkers and started playing chess.  By sending another T-800 they have set up John’s future assassination by making his murderer appear to be his friend.  I’m probably giving the screenwriters way more credit than they deserve, but I think it’s a sound theory even if it’s unintentional.

Next time we’ll talk about what happens when the timeline comes back around a fourth time.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is available as a DVD, Blu-Ray, and Instant rental from Amazon.  It’s also available as part of a box-set Blu-Ray with the other three movies.

“So that’s what death tastes like.”

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