Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on July 2, 2003, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
How do you top an action/special FX standard-setter like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, particularly in this era of anything-goes CGI spectacle? The gratifying answer offered by the makers of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is: You don’t try.
I can still remember seeing Terminator 2 at an advance screening 12 years ago, and joining the audience in applauding each successive morphing effect. But today, digital technology can allow anything to happen, and more crucially, audiences know it. So there’s something to be said about returning to the fundamentals, which is just what T3 director Jonathan Mostow and scriptwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris (working from a story by them and Tedi Sarafian) have done. Rather than attempt to inflate the scope of their story to potentially unwieldy proportions, they’ve structured a good deal of it as a gritty, real-world pursuit film similar to James Cameron’s original, punctuated by action setpieces that are more hard-edged than flashy.
Here’s where I run the risk of annoying certain readers; certain people were upset when last year, I used the Lord of the Rings films as a stick to beat the latest Star Wars with, and I’m afraid a similar comparison just begs to be brought up here. The Matrix Reloaded got plenty of (somewhat justified) praise earlier this summer for its mammoth car chase, which sends Keanu Reeves and co. leaping from vehicle to vehicle as they whiz down a freeway. It’s an eye-popper all right, but it’s outdone by a lengthy T3 pursuit that incorporates a veterinarian’s truck, several police cars, an ambulance, a fire truck, an absolutely enormous crane and a number of innocent vehicular bystanders.
It’s as elaborate and destructive as the Matrix scene—but what makes a difference is that it all appears to have been done live—no CG cars, no impossible human tricks, just a stunningly executed series of crashes and smashes, expertly shot and edited (kudos to Neil Travis and Nicolas de Toth for the latter). Considering how inured most audiences (particularly genre fans) have become to digital trickery, the T3 chase stands out as more gripping and exciting than Matrix’s. (And in retrospect, those cool Matrix shots starting at the city’s outskirts and flying into the thick of the pursuit didn’t really add anything—they were just the Wachowski Brothers showing off.)
Another key difference is that Terminator 3 doesn’t surround its mayhem with the portentous philosophical mumbo jumbo that weighed Matrix Reloaded down every time the characters started talking. T3 does have issues of destiny and fate on its mind, but it never makes more of them than is necessary to drive the plot along. The film sees another Terminator (Arnold you-know-who) arrive in the present to protect John Connor (Nick Stahl, effectively replacing T2’s Edward Furlong) from the latest T-upgrade: the lithe, ruthless T-X (Kristanna Loken). John, having seen “Judgment Day” come and go without the machines taking over, is still living a life “off the grid,” constantly on the run to avoid leaving a traceable trail.
Yet after circumstances throw him together with veterinarian Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), he soon learns that not only do they share a past connection, but the future depends on them staying together. Meanwhile, the T-X has been bumping off future members of the Resistance against her kind, bearing even more advanced powers than her predecessors. (One has to wonder why our inhuman foes of the future didn’t just send one like her in the first place, but never mind…) The rest of the film is structured around her clashes with the Terminator and the couple he’s protecting, but there’s enough time taken out for John and Kate to confront their futures, plus revelations of what happened to John’s mother Sarah and an unfortunate connection between John and this particular Terminator, to give the mayhem a dramatic backbone.
Mostow and the writers shrewdly incorporate as many references back to the two earlier movies as this feature can bear without collapsing, though as far as humorous references are concerned, a cameo by a familiar face midway through is funnier than many of the Terminator/Arnold’s trademark one-liners. There’s also a smattering of clumsy expository dialogue, and perhaps a record number of “Come on!”s shouted by the hero to the heroine, as if she needed inspiration to run when an unstoppable futuristic dominatrix or balls of fire are nipping at her heels. Yet Terminator 3 emerges as a surprisingly good sequel all told—perhaps the best that could have been done without Cameron’s involvement. In Cameron’s hands, this installment might have been as groundbreaking as his previous entries—yet it’s not the least of T3’s achievements that going back to basics proves to be its blessing rather than a curse.