Surprise! Despite being almost entirely one relentless chase scene, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is pretty darn good.
Linda Hamilton and James Cameron, star and director of Terminator and Terminator 2, are no longer associated with the franchise, but Arnold Schwarzenegger is, and really, that's all that matters. When he utters, “I'll be back” - and he does, but not as often as you might think - the adrenaline is flowing with such force that cheers are spontaneous.
Three things help this long-awaited sequel maintain its momentum. One is that it has been a dozen years since the previous sequel, so unless you're one of those Terminator junkies who watches the DVD once a month, memories of the previous films have had a chance to dim. Two is that Schwarzenegger isn't afraid to poke fun at himself and his character. And the third is that the movie is short, just under two hours.
For those few moviegoers who managed to avoid the previous Terminator movies, the premise is basically this: In the first movie, after a nuclear holocaust, the world is ruled by computers and machines that have become self-aware and are trying to destroy all humans. But there is human resistance, led by a man named John Connor. A cyborg (Schwarzenegger) is sent from the future to kill Connor's mother, Sara, (Hamilton) before she becomes pregnant. It fails, and Connor is born. The machines try again in the second movie, sending a new and improved Terminator after Connor, now a wild street kid, and Sara, who is in a mental hospital. But close on its heels is the old Terminator, who was repaired and reprogrammed by the adult John Connor sometime in the future and sent back to protect the young John Connor and his mother.
There are paradoxes all over the place here, not the least of which is that Connor is alive in the future, so this mission must be futile.
However, the moviemakers simply ignore them and substitute plenty of action and solid characters for problems with physics and time/space relationships.
That their decision was the right one was acknowledged last month by the American Film Institute, which put Schwarzenegger's Terminator character on both its top villains and top heroes lists.
Writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris (The Net, Steven Spielberg's The Others) feel no need to tamper with success and pretty much recycle the story from Terminator 2.
Oh, they move it forward a decade and lose Hamilton's character, but at its most basic, the tale revolves around two humans and two Terminators and some truly cool special effects.
For Terminator 3, Connor is a young adult (Nick Stahl). The holocaust that his mother had fought to avert has never come to pass and the world seems to be safe, but Connor feels no sense of security.
He suffers from nightmares that he fears will become horribly real, so he lives “off the grid,” no home, no credit cards, no medical history, no account with eBay or amazon.com.
Connor is right to be afraid, for the machines of the future have come up with their most deadly killing machine to date, the T-X, which takes the form of a beautiful woman (Kristanna Loken), but is very nearly indestructible.
Connor is the primary target of the T-X, but this time there is a secondary mission: to kill all of the young people who will become Connor's most trusted lieutenants. One of these is Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), a veterinarian.
T-X finds both Connor and Kate, but before it can carry out its mission, another Terminator (Schwarzenegger) shows up with another agenda.
Of course it sounds familiar.
Director Jonathan Mostow (U-571, Breakdown) and writers Brancato and Ferris don't just pay close attention to T3's predecessors, they embrace them. They embellish scenes and themes from the other movies rather than creating their own, and they count on familiarity to move the story forward without too much need to explain things.
The weakest element of Terminator 3 is Stahl. It's not that the actor is bad or even mediocre, it's that Edward Furlong put an almost indelible imprint on the character in Terminator 2, and Stahl doesn't put enough edge in his portrayal to make us believe Connor will become a determined, wily resistance leader.
On the other hand, both Terminators are plenty scary and believable and the movie boasts one of the most spectacular chase scenes ever, involving enough cars, fire trucks, and construction vehicles to keep fans of speed and mayhem happy for weeks.
Is Terminator 3 a great movie? No. Even with everything that's going on, the lack of logic is apparent.
But it's plenty good enough to hope that the Terminator will indeed be back.