WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Having prevented the rise of Skynet, John Connor lives from hand to mouth in constant mistrust of machines, suffering paranoid nightmares of a future that has not come to pass. Falling foul of a vet whose surgery he burgles, he involves them both in a lethal chase as a terrifying new Terminator arrives to hunt them down. Their only protector as they race to prevent machines taking hold of the nuclear arsenal is an old Terminator model who looks strangely familiar…
With a brief introduction and re-cap of events from weedy-voiced John Connor (Nick Stahl), Terminator 3 swiftly picks up the pace from where Terminator 2: Judgment Day left off some twelve years earlier. Injured in a motorcycle accident, John is forced to raid a vet’s surgery for pain relief, bringing him into contact with vet Kate (Claire Danes), who not only has a father responsible for America’s military computers, but also got her first kiss from Connor in a basement some years ago. Meanwhile, two ominous time bubbles have appeared, the first bringing the shapely, female TX model (Kristanna Loken) to the present day, programmed to destroy not only John Connor but his future generals in the war to come. The second brings a reprogrammed TX-101 model (Arnold Schwarzenegger), ordered to protect both John and Kate at all costs.
If by some miracle you come at T3 without having seen either the original Terminator or its incredibly successful sequel, it will be something of a mixed blessing. On the minus side, you won’t have a clue what’s going on for the first half hour. On the plus side, however, you will be saved from a sense of déjà vu; because this film essentially treads exactly the same path as its predecessor, except with a Lady Terminator in place of Robert Patrick’s T-1000 model. Although Loken’s Terminatrix (the film’s term, not mine) has added capabilities such as a weapons system and the ability to control other machines, the film still boils down to a cross-country chase, pitting Loken and Arnie’s enhanced abilities against each other.
Mostow takes two approaches to warding off feelings of over-familiarity. Firstly, he plays scenes we have seen before for laughs: when Arnie appears naked this time, his first port of call is at a club where male strippers are performing. As he puts on the clothes and shades, the extra little sound you can hear on the soundtrack as the killing machine puts on a pair of Elton John sunglasses is a worldwide audience groaning in unison. Mostow’s second ploy is to up the ante, so the first chase pits John and Kate in a dinky little van versus the TX in the biggest, widest truck in the world, Arnie joining in in a fire engine. These vehicle choices are pretty illogical (would the van not be a lot faster in reality?), but logic is not the point here. What you get is an action sequence which manages to destroy both sides of a street at the same time in a deafening display of explosive noise and extravagant stunt work.
Only once this is finished does the film pause to explain what’s going on. Essentially, future Kate has sent Arnie’s Terminator to the present day to protect present day John for when Judgment Day arrives, as it inevitably will. Arnie reveals that he was responsible for John Connor’s death and was later reprogrammed and sent back in time by Kate. You would think that, armed with this knowledge, John might not fall into the same trap when he met Arnie in the future – but then Arnie would never have come back to tell him. There are all sorts of paradoxes here but as they come up in most time-travel films, we won’t be too picky. What I will pick up on, however, is the film’s cavalier attitude to bumping off incidental characters: the film has an enormous death count (of which more later) including Kate’s fiancé and later, her father; yet the script has her recovering quickly from each of these events and hinting at an attraction to John. In T2, the fact that Arnie was not allowed to kill anyone was a cute gimmick. In this film, and with death and destruction going on all around him, it hardly appears to matter.
The care taken to preserve Arnie’s image is an example of the film’s uneven tone, aiming for a bit of funny, a bit of sexy, a bit of dramatic, and not doing any completely satisfactorily. Stahl never gives the impression that he is a potential leader of the human resistance (he’ll need to get a lot more authority into his voice), and although Loken’s TX is intimidatingly single-minded, it’s pretty poor that she can be crippled by something as basic as strong magnets. And of course there is the big bang ending: unable to prevent the machines becoming self-aware, Kate’s father tricks them into hiding in the relative safety of a nuclear bunker. Nuclear holocaust and the death of most of humanity is one way of ending your film, but unless it’s the jet-black satire of Dr Strangelove it’s not going to have the audience leaving with smiles on their faces.
For Terminator fans there are points of interest, such as the end of Sarah Connor’s story; and it is nice to see the very beginnings of the Terminator series of machines, robots gone awry in Robocop fashion. Taken on its own merits, however, T3 is a loud, brash action film with decent effects but a half-baked script, and a conclusion that none but the most morose will enjoy.