‘Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines’ – No Cameron, No Problem

Threequel proved you don't need 'Avatar' maestro to deliver the goods

Jonathan Mostow’s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003) had the misfortune of being the first new film in the franchise since James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991) and the first without his involvement.

Imagine being in Mostow’s shoes: you not only have to follow up a beloved series minus the key ingredient behind the camera but make a sequel to one of the greatest, most influential action movies of all time.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Twenty years ago, when “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” was first unveiled, it was 12 long years since the summer smash of “T2.” Aside from some video game spinoffs (on DOS, Sega and Nintendo) and comic books series (from NOW Comics, Dark Horse Comics and Malibu Comics), Mostow was only competing with “Judgement Day.”

Now, post-“T3,” there’s not only three additional Terminator installments but two seasons of “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” (2008-2009).

With “T3” now two decades removed from its mostly well-received unveiling and current fears regarding the speed and use of A.I. (and no, I didn’t use ChatGPT to write this), it’s a good time to look back at “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.” It’s not just one of the better 21st century takes on the franchise, but a much stronger machine than most remember.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

The establishing scenes reveal that John Connor, now played by Nick Stahl, is on the run, living off the grid and taking jobs from town to town. Since the prophesied events of Judgment Day didn’t happen, and it appears that the prior destruction of Skynet and the dueling Terminators did the trick, Connor’s cautious optimism about his life appears justified.

On the same night, Connor gets into a motorcycle accident, a T-X Terminator model (Kristanna Loken) and an original model (Arnold Schwarzenegger) both appear from the future, with dueling missions to protect and destroy not only Connor but someone else.

Spoilers from this point on.

What most will remember uneasily is how much humor is infused into Mostow’s film, with Dad Joke bits of The Terminator wearing Elton John glasses (though exactly where he gets it is a clever bit), spouting “Talk to the Hand” (which was not even cool in ’03) and uttering would-be variations on the classic catch phrases.

For some reason, “She’ll be back” just doesn’t land.

Another big complaint was the T-X herself, as Loken’s steel-eyed, hard-working performance is chilling in the first act (her drop-of-the-hat killing sprees are shocking) but she’s never as scary as Robert Patrick in “T2.”

TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY Clip - "Hasta La Vista, Baby" (1991)

While much of “Rise of the Machines” fails in its efforts to match or surpass “T2,” there are some major assets here that stand out just for being so different. The dynamic of Stahl (very good and grounded as Connor, though unquestionably less gritty than Edward Furlong) and co-star Claire Danes as Kate Brewster grounds this.

Both are the film’s human center and give performances strong enough that the action and spectacle don’t overwhelm their acting.

Schwarzenegger manages to invest everything he has in a role that would limit most actors but suits him perfectly. The droll humor and emotionally detached line readings are all spot on, as though Schwarzenegger couldn’t wait to get back in the leather jacket.

Mostow’s approach to directing lacks the chilly precision Cameron brought to the first two (and, it goes without saying, the absolute best) Terminator films. However, the director of “Breakdown” (1997) is more than capable of generating suspense and staging jaw-dropping action.

The act-one auto chase, which involves a firetruck and miles of storefronts turned to rubble, is an incredible set piece (minimizing the score during this sequence only demonstrates the confidence Mostow has in the spectacle).

In between the giant action scenes, screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris lean into the element that gives this franchise a thematic distinction: existential dread. A key second act turnaround comes not from a conversation about the right thing to do, but Connor putting a gun to his head and forcing The Terminator to consider the ramifications of his suicide.

The scenes of David Andrews playing the Lieutenant General who makes the final decision about hitting the GO button on Skynet have the discomfort of hindsight (you wish anyone would step forward and stop him).


The story device pitting Connor and Brewster together is, likewise, a real bummer: Connor’s horrific childhood memories were countered with the assurance that he and his mother had saved the world, which he now realizes didn’t happen.

Brewster has been abducted and traumatized and, on top of that, is not only briefed on an insane explanation regarding the future of humankind but learns that one of her abductors will eventually be her husband.

Connor and Brewster are pushing back against destiny and inevitability, only to learn, again and again, that, in this world, there is no free will. Survival, and not prevention of an apocalypse, is the only obtainable goal.

Schwarzenegger’s last two scenes here give him a real chance to act and he’s up to the challenge. I wasn’t expecting to be moved by The Terminator expressing his dark role in Connor’s present and future life, but the former Mr. Universe (and, at that point, soon to be Governor of California) pulls it off.

Likely the biggest objection most longtime fans have lobbed at “T3” is over the abrupt, Rod Serling-esque ending. No question, it’s a big surprise and a real downer but not a thematic betrayal of the Cameron films (in fact, it’s much bleaker than the ending of either predecessor).

In the closing moments, Connor and Brewster become fully aware of how they have lost, and that the only option is to go forward fighting and leading an awful war. After contemplating killing themselves, a distress call snaps them out of their self-defeat and gives them a sense of purpose.

As the concluding imagery (shades of “Dr. Strangelove”) and narration indicate, Skynet couldn’t be defeated, since the carried mythos of its origins never explained exactly how it would take over. Or, as a favorite Nintendo game from my youth would declare every time I lost: “You and your friends are dead. Game Over.”

The extermination of the human race has always been the sad thematic core of these movies – do we fight the future or face the inevitable? While the subsequent Terminator films are less successful at being idea-driven and more showcases for Cameron-inspired action, only one of them is truly objectionable.

That’s the 2015 “Terminator: Genisys,” with its MCU-inspired future sequel set ups, miscasting and ambitious but unsuccessful plot alterations, is the one that doesn’t work. The others are hit-and-miss but still impressive and underestimated.

The first three Terminator films all have this in common: despite the awesome visuals and iconic leading man, here’s a summer popcorn movie franchise that will leave you too depressed to finish every kernel in the bucket.

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