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They're back

by Mark Sells

It’s been well over 10 years since John Connor last saved the world from judgment day. Now, a little older and a little wiser, John finds himself in a very familiar predicament -- having to save the world again from those confounded machines.

Directed by Jonathan Mostow, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines marks the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his famed role as the T-800, while also marking the absence of the franchise's originator, James Cameron. It introduces a sophisticated new villain in the form of a Terminatress, elaborates on the base storyline in a simplistic, yet darker fashion, and does not miss a beat when it comes to action.

Connor (Nick Stahl) is 22 years old when the story picks up. Paranoid after his previous encounter with the machines, and following the death of his mother, John lives as a nomad, without credit cards, cell phones, or any type of real job. His reasoning? Without a trace, he can avoid Skynet, the artificial intelligence network of machines that tracks his existence. While keeping a low profile, John also dabbles in hallucinogens, specifically the kind you find in a veterinary hospital. It is in one of these local clinics that we first meet Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), a veterinarian.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a new terminator arrives – the T-X (Kristanna Loken), a female terminator and an upgrade from the T-2000. In addition to manipulating liquid metal, she possesses the ability to control other machines remotely, almost telepathically. Shortly after her arrival, another Terminator arrives – an older model, the T-800 (Schwarzenegger). Both find their way to the veterinary hospital and after a brief melee, John, Kate, and the T-800 narrowly escape. Bewildered and defensive, Kate is informed by the Terminator why she is being sought. Most importantly, the two are informed that John’s previous encounter with the T-2000 10 years ago only delayed the inevitable.

Terminator 3 caught me totally by surprise. A big fan of the previous endeavors, I was a little skeptical after witnessing the cliché-driven trailers. It looked like it was going to be a rehash of the previous outings, or another Alien 3 - filled with anecdotes, bad dialogue, and a story with more holes than Swiss cheese. But something unexpected happened upon the arrival of Arnold as Terminator. I found myself enamored with the characters, the story, and the action. Kudos to the screenwriting team of John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris, and Tedi Sarafian for piecing together a storyline that logically fills the gap between films, does not bog down in the time paradox, and keeps things moving at a frenetic pace. It took guts to make this film without James Cameron. And it took even more guts to make this entry darker than its predecessors.

Darker, you ask? Well, John Connor has taken up hallucinogens, Sarah Connor has died of leukemia, Kate Brewster’s fiancé is chain sawed, and there's more. Yet all of this is unpredictably bittersweet. Perhaps I had such low expectations for this film that I was relieved when the story flowed, the characters had histories and futures that made sense, and the special effects were sizzling. The only drawback I found was that it had a tendency to borrow from previous material. The Terminator walks into a bar naked, steals some black leather and sunglasses, and finds a motorcycle. The T-X arrives minutes earlier and does some of the same. “Nice gun” (as opposed to “Nice bike” in T2) she says to a traffic cop before terminating him. There are the usual car chases, explosions, gun battles, etc. But I didn’t mind. These were some of the things that attracted me to the first films. Even better, the clichés are minimal, as Arnold’s Terminator is a different machine all together with no recollection of any relationship with John Connor.

My one cavil is that Loken, though not bad, lacks the mystery and evilness that Robert Patrick brought to the T2. Her character’s qualities seemed less of an improvement and more of the same – the liquid metal, arms turning into weapons, bullets being absorbed, etc.

Terminator 3 is not better than the previous films in the series, but it does hold its own. With dazzling special effects, a simple story, and a return to form by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the film is easily the most interesting and entertaining action flick of the summer. Furthermore, I applaud the filmmakers for taking the risk of creating something dark and adventurous. It puts a unique spin on a great science fiction franchise. And lastly, the key to any successful franchise is to leave the door wide open at the end for another installment. I can only hope that the success of this film will keep Arnold away from public office, all the while telling his legions of fans: “I’ll be back.”

©2003 Mark Sells