Sidestep of the Machines

The Terminator's back. Again.

Much like "hilarious Islamic comedy" or "sublime Affleck picture," the term "terrific second sequel" isn't bandied about too much. Name one. Took you a minute, didn't it? Don't be ashamed--there are probably support groups for fans of Smokey and the Bandit III. Generally, creative juices are drained by parte trois, which makes Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines a gamble like any other. In 1984, those pesky machines tried and failed to destroy humanity, albeit on a tight budget. Then, in 1991, they tried and failed again on a huge budget. Then 12 years of real time passed. Exactly what is left to say?

Not much, it turns out, but overall it's reasonably thrilling anyway. If you're hoping for a brilliant revisionist take on the franchise, forget it. Exactly as David Fincher did with the abysmal Alien3, director Jonathan Mostow (U-571) simply runs James Cameron's discarded toys through their expected paces while smearing them with industrial-strength doom. The difference is that Mostow serves up generous kicks en route to Armageddon. While he's obviously delusional, calling Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator "perhaps the most famous character in the history of motion pictures" (comments any, Yoda?), he loves his work and it shows, even while he's turning cartwheels to distract us from his narrative's inherently superfluous nature.

Plotwise, this sequel's almost exactly like the last one, with another advanced-model Terminator robot sent back in time from the future to kill humanity's only hope. (Why these lame-brained machines don't just go back to the frickin' Mayflower and kill humanity's-only-hope's ancestral forebears is never explained; my pencil sharpener is smarter.) Reluctantly heroic John Connor, spawn of Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn (both absent), has ceased being young Edward Furlong and has transformed into 18-year-old Nick Stahl (the murdered kid from the overrated melodrama In the Bedroom). Connor's been surviving incognito on the mean, dirty streets of L.A. and has sunk so far into depression that he actually drinks Budweiser. His mission now is to allow Schwarzenegger's reprogrammed, outmoded Terminator robot to save him so he can save humanity. Again.

See, the problem facing the 3 billion people about to be executed by the Skynet weapons grid is that an ill-tempered blonde has landed in Beverly Hills. Horrors! Is this Terminator 3 or Species III? As the lethal and ostensibly invulnerable T-X, or "Terminatrix," Kristanna Loken is meaner, stronger and faster than Robert Patrick's T-1000 from T2, and she makes one pine for good-natured robot ladies like Jamie Sommers. Those sweet days are gone, though, and although Loken's pout is decidedly silly--meaner girls await you at the mall (and they, too, want your car, and phone)--she's got one hell of an arsenal and knows how to work it.

Both Cameron's iconic and delightfully morose Terminator (created with Hulk producer Gale Anne Hurd, strongly assisted by Harlan Ellison) and its slamming sequel already boast endless logistical loopholes of time and space, yet they defy nitpicking with overall heroic purpose. (Come to think of it, has Cameron ever made a movie that wasn't about man vs. machine? Apart from the killer fish of Piranha II: The Spawning, that is--talk about a franchise ripe for part three!) Mostow's misstep here--with the help of otherwise spry writers John Brancato, Michael Ferris and Tank Girl's Tedi Sarafian--is to gut Cameron's willful philosophy and replace its innards with cheap, lazy, post-industrial nihilism. This is simply a drag, turning the movie's curt, flat third act into dead weight at the end of an otherwise clever, rollicking ride.

That said, if you have affection for this series, you'll get a great charge out of T3's first 90 minutes. The movie's basically one long chase with moments of glib tenderness thrown in between Connor and his accidental soul mate, sweetheart veterinarian Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), who, like the T-X, appears to suffer from pinkeye. ("The life you know, all the stuff you take for granted... like Visine...it's not gonna last.") We get the requisite techno-nightmares, the shattering glass, the heavy artillery, the poignant longing for parents and--bless everyone involved--a mostly engaging load of fun. It's enough to forgive the heroes for moving in sexy slow motion when danger's just around the corner.

Apart from truly terrific stunts, including a road-rager that outstrips The Matrix Reloaded, it's T3's cute touches and cunning demographic-charting that save it from pointlessness. Tellingly, Arnold is looking disturbingly like California Governor Gray Davis these days, but his dry wit's never been sharper, either when he's venting his apparent jealousy of Elton John (love those star-glasses) or deadpanning lines like, "Anguh iss moh usefo dan despaih." Beyond that, the producers ply their target audience with vicarious hooks, summoning the fears of white middle-class brats and Latino fast-food employees. Not surprisingly, pitting Schwarzenegger against Loken also stirs up gender wars, especially when he's bashing her over the head with a urinal or she's slamming him through a dozen restroom stalls. These battles bring the conflict home to us mere humans and pose the crucial question: Do androids leave the toilet seat up?

 
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