The Terminator at 55.

Reviews of the latest films.
July 1 2003 7:38 PM

The Terminator at 55

The robot-crushes-man franchise shows its age.

Not quite terminated: The big guy is back
Not quite terminated: The big guy is back

The director James Cameron might be a legendary prick, but he has a stubbornly romantic faith in the power of heroic individuals to take arms against their seemingly intractable fates. In Aliens (1986) and The Abyss (1989), people sacrifice themselves for just causes and are rousingly reborn. In Titanic (1997), the luxury liner sinks, but the love goes soaringly on. In The Terminator (1984) and its blockbuster sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), the apocalypse is forestalled against titanic odds, and the future is once more gloriously open. The Terminator saga was over after T2—convincingly over, wrapped-up. But it turns out that there is a historical inevitability stronger than Cameron or even Karl Marx could have conceived: the relentless drive to make sequels.

The director of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Warner Bros.)—the first Terminator film without James Cameron at the helm (or even in the credits)—is Jonathan Mostow, who made the preposterous but engagingly fluid B movie Breakdown (1997), along with the all-time-best sound-effects editing demonstration reel, U-571 (2000). There has been a lot of speculation about whether he can live up to Cameron's legacy—but we're not talking The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part 2 (1974) here. The original was a crackerjack New Wave B movie that turned the joke that was Arnold Schwarzenegger into a joke that the muscle-bound Austrian was suddenly in on. The sequel was basically one long chase with state-of-the-art (for 1991) computer effects. A lot of people walked out of T2 all pumped up and with their ears ringing, which you could say about a monster-truck rally. Still, there was something nice about it. At the time, its female action hero, Sarah Connor (a muscled-up Linda Hamilton), was a novelty, and its futuristic family was strangely endearing: mom, son, and lumpy-jawed Teutonic ex-terminator. 

In T3, the saga begins all over again: The latest Terminator assassin arrives naked from the future, kills someone for a wardrobe, then goes off to murder the (future) leader of the resistance against the machines. Then a protector arrives naked from the future but manages to get a wardrobe without killing anyone. The rest of the template is intact: chase, breather for exposition, bigger chase, more exposition, then a chase that just happens to lead some place with a handy hydraulic press or foundry. But T3 has a few significant variations. Hamilton—Cameron's ex—wanted nothing to do with the picture, which is co-produced by another Cameron ex, Gayle Anne Hurd. So Sarah Connor is history. Her son, John, now played by Nick Stahl, is 22 years old and a drifter. No longer destined to save the world he supposedly already saved, he's reduced to breaking into an animal hospital to steal phenobarbital. In a handy coincidence (or is it?), the vet on call, Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), turns out to be the daughter of the general in charge of Skynet, the supercomputer that sent those Terminators back from the future in the first place.

But the biggest change—apart from the finale—is that the latest model Terminator, the TX, is a fembot (Kristanna Loken) that can morph into other people, plug into machines and make them do her bidding, and use her hand like a laser cannon. Loken is a persuasive android (she can throw people around without altering her expression), but she isn't as much fun as T2's Robert Patrick, who had a sort of newly hatched blankness, with stuck-out ears that gave him the look of an especially willful 5-year-old. The joke was that Cameron had found someone smugger and blanker than Schwarzenegger. The joke here, if you can call it that, is watching Arnold bash a pretty blonde's head through a urinal to no visible effect.

The audience awaits the arrival of the big guy, and I must say: With 40-year-old Demi Moore going bod-to-bod with Cameron Diaz in a bikini in the terrible new Charlie's Angels picture, and the 55-year-old Schwarzenegger showing off his rock-hard gluteals, it's been a banner year for personal trainers and plastic surgeons. Schwarzenegger gets to total cars and deliver deadpan understatements like "We need a new vehicle," and he's constantly in search of the right pair of shades. He has an absurdist comeback in one scene: "Talk to the hand." But he's not the same lovable robot from T2. He has a different origin, a different history, and a different agenda. Has John found another surrogate dad, or is there something different about this Terminator?

Three quarters of T3 consists of the heroes being chased in cars, SUVs, fire trucks, helicopters—and what is there to say? Mostow and his team do a fine job of demolishing vehicles, trashing buildings, and blowing things up real good. Virtually indestructible machines throw each other through walls and get up and do it again—and again. The villain comes back more times than Wile E. Coyote. I found it tiresome and witless and numbingly repetitive, but action mavens won't feel cheated. And it's probably good that there isn't much dialogue since what's there is largely tin-eared. Stahl does well by John: He's wiry but depressive, overly defended but touchingly vulnerable. Danes, however, is shrill and painful to watch. She looked adorable and sexy with a touch of baby fat, but she's the latest in an endless line of young Hollywood actresses to starve herself down to the bone. Stop the madness!

Speaking of madness … T3 has a climactic plot twist that should not be revealed but can't be ignored, either. Let's just say that this is the rare sequel that both slavishly duplicates its predecessors and at the same time demolishes their philosophical underpinnings. I'm sure Cameron did quite nicely selling off the rights to his characters, but I wonder if he isn't mightily pissed off at the grotesquely opportunistic direction that the new movie takes. What does it profit a filmmaker to gain a sequel but lose the world? A few hundred million, apparently.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.