My Favourite Arnie Movie – Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

With Arnold Schwarzenegger returning to the big screen in The Last Stand, the Flickering Myth writing team look back at their favourite Arnie movies. Last up is Simon Columb with 2003′s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines…

It’s not my favourite in fairness – but it is underrated. I don’t claim it is anywhere near as good as a Jim Cameron movie, but it sure as hell isn’t G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra. At the time of release, I remember thinking “Wow, Clare Danes does star in the big films still”. Prior to this, everyone was pleased to have the duo of films that preceded – but, in the year of the trilogies (American Pie 3, The Matrix: Revolutions, The Lord Of The Rings: The Return of the King…), it seemed the perfect time to release the third Terminator movie. James Cameron hinted at a possible script for T3 many times in the nineties before he divorced Linda Hamilton for Titanic, but with or without Cameron, the studios were never going to say no to this franchise. The door was left open. An interesting note from Wikipedia:

“The studios had long wanted to make a sequel to the Terminator films. However, they were unsure whether Arnold Schwarzenegger would appear in it. Schwarzenegger initially refused to star in Terminator 3 because Cameron, who created the character and helmed the first two films, would not be directing the third instalment.  Schwarzenegger tried to persuade Cameron to produce the third film. Cameron declined, however, as he felt that he had already finished telling the story upon the conclusion of T2. But feeling that the Terminator character was as much Schwarzenegger’s as it was his own, he advised Schwarzenegger to just do the third film and ask for “nothing less than $30 million.” 

So, with 20% of the profits going directly to Arnie – alongside a little over $29m – the stage was set.

There are many good elements to this film – it truly is a shame that it didn’t fall into place. The late-teenager John Connor (Nick Stahl) has been ‘off the radar’ since Terminator 2: Judgement Day. He has virtually deleted his existence from all the records that tracked him. It is fate that brings him back to Katherine Brewster (Clare Danes). Turns out, Brewster and Connor had relations at a mutual friends party – the day after, he met The Terminator. This development goes hand in hand with a clear, conscious connection to the previous instalments – and we see nods throughout: Arnie arriving with the fire-in-the-background silhouette; the LA setting; the dusty Nevada desert. He is back.

Many disliked Prometheus as it attempted to ‘explain’ the existence of the alien. The same frustration could be applied to Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Choosing to go into the history of an iconic character is a double-edged sword; on the one hand it spoils the mystery behind a character, but on the other hand, we have a great starting point of research (How did the Terminator develop? Who was responsible for the machine itself?). In The Terminator, no explanation was given – the terminator is sent to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and she had to kill the terminator to survive – and she does. Terminator 2: Judgement Day expands on the universe: Sarah Connor now needs to stop the accelerated-development of the artificial-intelligence to stop the nuclear war which will break out in 1997 – and she does, and this is averted. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines reveals that the development of A.I. continues and that Judgement Day has not been averted at all (!!!). But, instead of a small case of ‘kill one guy and everyone is knocked out’ scenario, John Connor has to face SkyNet itself to stop the nuclear attack… while the Terminator reveals that his full objective is only to protect John and Kate from the fall out. Obviously, by going into SkyNet and seeing their machines we also witness the birth of the machines – and the first Terminators. Something, deep down, I think we all wanted to see.

As with all the films, we needed a villain too. In skin-tight leather we see the new Terminator – with weaponry that fires out of her hand and mind-control of all machines. This whole ‘step-up’, pulled directly from the Robert Patrick Terminator of T2, is clear. And, as if to pay homage further to the prior sequel, we see an updated truck chase and attack on John Connor as the terminator protects him. It’s bigger and brasher but I think the huge scale of this is a little too much – as if the budget simply went a little too far. But it is in the final act where it all falls apart…

Everyone remembers The Terminator and, to some extent, we want to see the Terminator in destroy-mode – rather than protect-mode. The finale though, is a cheap attempt at making this possible as he glitches and switches between kill/protect John Connor. To the point that we see multiple helicopter explosions. Wholly unnecessary helicopter explosions. One helicopter crashing down as a smaller, leaner helicopter additionally crashes down into the previous helicopter. And, just in case we weren’t satisfied, we have a Terminator-on-Terminator fight. As Kate and John run away.

I don’t think the film is perfect – far from it. But there are many plus points. Nick Stahl holds his own as Connor – more mature than Edward Furlong, he has attitude and fits what we all believe John Connor would become. The look and tone of the film, including specific sequences, have great parallels to the previous films so it sits well in the canon that is the “Terminator Franchise”. But it’s got little depth – maybe it argues how you must ‘accept your fate’? As we know, that is how it closes – everything seems redundant by the final reel. Judgement Day comes and goes – and this ultimately negates the previous film too. Let’s be honest – it is simply great to see Arnie as the Terminator, in a world we know and love, one last time. If we look deep into our hearts, the quasi-cameo in Terminator: Salvation doesn’t count.

Simon Columb

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