Schwarzenegger Month: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

This is it. The penultimate film in Arnold Schwarzenegger month. I have one more film in mind, but Terminator 3 is the perfect film with which to conclude the chronological portion of reviews. Terminator 3 is the last film in which Arnold starred before he retired to become governor of California. After his time in Sacramento was over, he returned to acting, but so far, it’s been all coda (for reviews of two of these post-governorship movies, click here and here). There would have been no shame at all if this were the last Arnold film.

Directed by Jonathan Mostow, who, one will notice, is not named James Cameron, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines picks up the story of John Connor (recast as Nick Stahl, much to Edward Furlong’s consternation, apparently) years after the events of the second film. Viewers familiar with Terminator 2 will remember that the story was pretty well wrapped up. The terminators, both good and bad, were destroyed in a vat of molten steel, along with any evidence that they ever existed. Both the company and lead engineer which were responsible for the development of Skynet were wiped out. It appeared that the coming apocalypse had been averted. Alas, fate is fate. The apocalypse was merely postponed.

Once again, a pair of terminators has traveled back from the future. One is good, one is evil. John Connor may have believed he prevented the apocalypse, but that didn’t stop him from taking precautions. He has gone to ground since the events of the previous film, living totally off the grid. As such, the evil terminator’s mission is to chase down Connor’s future lieutenants in their youths, and hurt the human resistance that way. But, that primary mission changes when the terminator (Kristanna Loken) picks up his trail by accident. It’s a good thing, then, that the good terminator (Arnold) happens to be nearby. What worked in the first and second films works in this one, and once the terminators cross paths, this movie becomes an extended chase scene. The major difference is that there is no Sarah Connor. Her character has joined Kyle Reese in death, her spot in the narrative taken by Kate Brewster (Claire Danes). She’s John’s wife in the future, apparently, and their meeting was as inevitable as the apocalypse.

Like the previous installments, Terminator 3 lives and dies on its action. There’s enough exposition scattered here and there to let the audience in on the backstory, but that backstory has so many holes in it that it’s much more satisfying to focus on all the explosions. Mostow understood that scope was important in this movie, or the audience might be turned off. As such, the action sequences are quite grand. As ostentatious as they are, they suffer from familiarity. By this point, James Cameron had done enough wild stuff in his films that this film, despite Mostow’s best efforts, kind of feels ho-hum. That’s not his fault. It’s just that, short of blowing up the earth, there’s not much more that could be explored in this pre-apocalypse era in the Terminator universe.

In the final act, however, the action is supplemented by some narrative depth, leading to an ending that was unexpected, and exactly what this story needed.

I like this movie. But of the three movies in the pre-apocalypse trilogy, this is the weakest. I think the biggest problems were the three leads — Arnold, Stahl, and Danes. Arnold had aged out of the role, requiring further suspension of disbelief from the audience. But there can’t be a Terminator film without him, so it’s just something the filmmakers had to live with. Stahl and Danes, as talented actors as they are, were miscast. I’m not sure who would have been right in their roles, but after only a few minutes on screen, it was clear it was not these two. The chemistry between the two was lacking, first of all. Second, I just wasn’t buying that these two would save the human race in the future. Sure, in real life, regular people step up and do incredible things all the time. But this is the movies. Viewers need to believe that these characters had the potential to become heroes, and it just was not there. The two of them put up a valiant fight, though.

As for Loken, her task was to be wooden. Mission accomplished.

I’ve written, in both this review and for the previous movies, that the Terminator story has some plot holes. So, pardon me while I geek out.

Skynet, the computer network that becomes self-aware, apparently made the decision to destroy humankind within nanoseconds of it becoming sentient. It regarded humanity as a threat. In what way? It was humans that created Skynet. It was humans that provided it with unlimited amounts of electricity, and server and network capacity, to allow it to survive. Why would it try to destroy its only means of continued sustenance? That’s explained in the third film as Skynet’s awareness being the result of a computer virus melding with the standalone network developed for the military. In virus form, it was hunted down in cyberspace with the intent of destroying it. Launching nukes, then, was only it trying to protect itself. I suppose that prevents further computerized efforts to attack Skynet, but the damage to the physical world was just too much for Skynet to survive.

As much as we intuitively think of computer networks and the internet as something separate from the physical world, that’s just not true. Without physical computers running out in the world, there is no internet. Without power plants supplying the massive amounts of electricity that it takes to run those computers, there is no internet. Here’s the real kicker. As deadly as nuclear weapons are to living things, they are equally as deadly to electronics. In a worldwide nuclear war, every computer that managed to avoid destruction by vaporization, heat, or blast, would have its electronics fried by electromagnetic pulses from the nukes. Any computer that was hardened against an EMP would have its primary power source cut off, as the nukes wreak havoc on the world’s infrastructure. Any computer still functioning after that would find itself cut off from the network for the simple reason that the network would no longer exist. The nukes would have destroyed cables and broadcasting towers, and the nuclear winter would cloak the atmosphere with dust thick enough to render communications with satellites impossible. There is no way Skynet could continue to function after a nuclear war. Additionally, without humans around to swap out its component parts, it would only be a matter of time before Skynet fell victim to hard drive failure.

Humans are needed for other things, too. Even if Skynet managed to survive all the nukes, its robot army, devoid of autonomous, humanoid robots, would find itself a victim of its own limitations. When one of its robots runs out of bullets, it has to be reloaded. When it runs out of fuel, it has to be refueled. When it is damaged, it has to be repaired. When it is destroyed, it has to be replaced. These tasks can only be automated to a certain extent. When Skynet decided that all humans must die, it also decided that every single one of its robots was now a one-use killing machine.

If something like Skynet were to happen in real life, after all the bombs went off, there would be no further struggle against it. The struggle would be civilization trying to rebuild. Maybe some future historian would fit all the pieces of the puzzle together and discover that Skynet was the cause of such calamity, but Skynet would be as much ash and dust as everything else from the old world. It is Skynet’s lack of subtlety that is its undoing. But, as long as one doesn’t dwell too much on the logistics, it is pretty damn neat. I’m happy with the fact that every few years we viewers get to see another one of these movies.