After the massively popular Terminator 2 was released in 1991, the series stalled out for several years. A troubled production cycle, largely in part due to the bankruptcy of Carolco Pictures (developer of the previous film), which slowed the film's progress down. Eventually, the rights to the film were purchased from Carolco's co-founders, and a new director was brought in for the third installment once James Cameron walked away. Have you ever heard of Jonathan Mostow? Probably not, unless you're familiar with the handful of projects that he had worked on prior to Terminator 3. Before Rise of the Machines, Mostow's career was nothing to write home about. As a matter of fact, Terminator 3 remains Mostow's largest directorial project, at least in terms of budget ($167.3 - $187.3 million). But we really shouldn't hold that against him. After all, the first Terminator film was Cameron's first big project, and we all know how that turned out. So, how does the first non-Cameron film in the franchise hold up? Let's take a look.
The film opens with a short exposition by John Connor (played by Nick Stahl) as he relates the events of the previous two films. Although Judgment Day has been averted, John now lives off the grid as a drifter, and is still very uneasy about the future. Meanwhile in Beverly Hills, an electrical anomaly produces a new terminator (Kristanna Loken), who quickly kills off a bewildered civilian and takes her clothes and car. Rather than set off directly after John, she sets her sights on several unknown people, who (as we learn later) become some of John's lieutenants in the future. We are then introduced to Kate Brewster, a veterinary clerk, whose father happens to work as a Lieutenant General in the Air Force. Her father, Robert Brewster, is currently dealing with a super virus of sorts, and is considering the use of an AI to address it.
Later on, John breaks into Kate's veterinary clinic at night to steal some painkillers following a motorcycle accident. Another terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) emerges from an electrical disturbance in the desert before he enters a bar and steals some clothes from a male dancer, along with a truck. Kate returns to her clinic and confronts John for breaking in before tricking him and pushing him into a large dog cage. Kate apparently has known John in the past, but before she can get any real answers from him, the T-X attacks the clinic in pursuit of Kate. As Kate evades the terminator, the T-X discovers that John is also there. Eventually, Arnold intervenes before the T-X can kill either of them and he locks Kate in the back of a truck and John drives off with her. Arnold remains behind and fights the T-X, but the T-X temporarily wins and pursues the others in a large crane truck. Following a hectic car chase, Arnold catches up, helps crash the crane truck, and the three escape from the T-X.
"I'm not the droid you're looking for."
Once they are safe, John asks Arnold if he remembers anything about helping him in the past. He explains that he is a different terminator that shares the same likeness as the one from the previous film, as they were the same model. Kate is understandably furious at them for basically kidnapping them, but Arnold refuses to release her, stating that Judgment Day was delayed but not prevented, and that Kate must be protected. He also explains that the T-X is a more advanced terminator that can control other machines and is specially designed to eliminate other terminators. After being hurt in his fight with the T-X, he discards one of his damaged fuel cells, which explodes violently. As they stop at a gas station, we see that the register and TV signals are out, due to the ongoing super virus. The clerk sees Kate being kidnapped and calls the police as they leave. Arnold and John try to talk to Kate but she doesn't believe their story. At the same time, the T-X murders Kate's fiancee, impersonates him, and travels with the cops to investigate her kidnapping.
Arnold and the others arrive at a cemetery, where they uncover a cache of weapons left behind by the now deceased Sarah (she was cremated elsewhere). The police arrive and capture Kate as she attempts to flee, and they open fire on Arnold as he leaves with John stowed away in the coffin. The two escape, with Arnold stating to a very confused John that Kate must be protected, as she is his future wife. Kate runs into her “fiancee”, but Arnold intercepts her before she can kill Kate. After another car chase, they escape from the T-X and arrive at a campground. Kate is distraught upon learning that her fiancee is dead, and Arnold states that her father is on the T-X's kill list. Despite Arnold's objections, they leave to warn her father before he can launch Skynet, which is supposed to occur later that same day.
The T-X infiltrates the Air Force base and hacks into several prototype attack robots. Robert Brewster is initially uncertain about using Skynet against this ever-spreading virus but reluctantly agrees to do so. Shortly thereafter, the systems are in chaos and the T-X wounds Robert as John and the others arrive. Arnold fights off the T-X and the other attack robots as Robert, Kate, and John find several access codes in his office. He tells them to use the codes at Crystal Peak before apologizing for Skynet and then dying in front of them. Meanwhile, the T-X temporarily bests and reprograms Arnold and then pursues John and Kate before she is magnetized and stopped by a particle accelerator. After Arnold confronts and struggles to hold himself back from killing John, he deactivates himself as John and Kate escape.
"Kate, this isn't like the commercial at all! Vault-Tec lied to us!"
Arnold reboots his system and Kate and John arrive at Crystal Peak. As they attempt to enter through a code-locked blast door, the T-X arrives, shortly followed by Arnold. After partly opening, the blast door begins to close, and Arnold props it open for John and Kate. The T-X nearly captures John as he crawls under the door, but Arnold intervenes, gives John room to escape, and uses another damaged fuel cell to destroy the T-X and himself. In the unmanned Crystal Peak base, John and Kate are confused to find that the technology is several decades old, and don't understand how they can stop Skynet from there. It quickly dawns on them that they were sent there by Robert merely to survive. Within the fallout shelter, they hear several distress calls on the radio coming in from several other people. The film closes with John responding that he's in charge as Judgment Day unfolds outside.
Much like the motorcycle chase from Terminator 2, this sequence is easily one of the more memorable parts of the film. In theory, it could have been just a rehash of the aforementioned motorcycle chase, but it adds a bit of a twist to the chase, with the T-X remotely controlling several other cars as she pursues John and Kate, which really adds to the excitement. This is arguably the T-X's best scene, showcasing just how ruthless and powerful she can be, causing an absolutely ridiculous amount of destruction along the way. The way in which Arnold fights against her and ultimately crashes her truck is also pretty entertaining as well. While it may not be as iconic as the previous film's chase, this is definitely an enjoyable scene.
The Rise of Skynet:
In the first two movies, we are shown on several occasions what Judgment Day will look like... or rather, we are shown the aftermath of the nuclear war. We finally get a chance to see this war as it begins (perhaps ironically in a film not entitled “Judgment Day”). The moments leading up to Skynet's activation are just filled with tension and uncertainty. There is a definite sense of fear and eeriness in the air as Lt. General Brewster weighs the decision in front of him. It's obvious that he has serious reservations about what he's about to do, and is only doing so because he genuinely believes that it's the right thing to do. The chaos that unfolds almost immediately after Skynet's activation just makes the situation all the more grim.
The Fallout Shelter:
In an otherwise average movie, this scene stands out as one of my favorites. It's handled very well, with the characters slowly coming to the realization that they are unable to actually stop Skynet at this point. John becomes visibly frustrated and overwhelmed as it dawns on him that Judgment Day isn't just unfolding all around him, but also that there's nothing he can do to prevent or delay it anymore. We are given a satisfying introduction to the war against the machines, with a sense of fear and isolation gripping the scene. John's initial hesitancy but ultimate willingness to lead mankind is a solid way to end the film.
John has changed quite a bit since we last saw him in Terminator 2. At this point in his life, he has mostly cut himself off from society and he's burdened with the knowledge of a war that he cannot really stop. He also lives more independently than before, and can hold his own in a fight most of the time. In that regard, he takes after his mother quite a bit, who suffers from many of the same problems. However, he is still very different in that he's not nearly as cold or ruthless as Sarah was in her darker moments, and for the most part he's quite stable. This leads to a character that has shown a fair amount of growth, but one that is not nearly as complex as his mother.
At risk of sounding too critical, this lack of depth is further shown with his relation to Arnold. Whereas before he developed something of a father and son relationship with the machine, here it really doesn't develop that much. At most, it's a friendship, but not much comes of it. The machine doesn't really learn much about humanity, and John doesn't mature all that much or see Arnold as a kind of father figure. I suppose that a revisit of the father and son relationship isn't necessary at this point, given that John has grown up and can live on his own relatively easily, but the lack of a strong emotional bond between the two characters is sorely missed after it was handled so well in the previous film.
John is still a pretty good protagonist, however. We see that he is indeed a vulnerable individual who hasn't fully stepped into his role as the future hero of mankind. It's clear that he has been struggling to get through life, and that the psychological burden of saving humanity is weighing down on him. We see him go from being a drifter to ultimately taking charge at the end of the film, with a fair amount of development along the way. Is this instance, John is neither a highlight nor a shortcoming of the film. Nick Stahl turns in a respectable performance, even if it fails to deliver the same punch as that of Edward Furlong's.
It's a bit harder to talk about Kate as a character, partly due to the fact that she's a total newcomer to the series. Prior to now, she had no interaction with any of the characters, nor any kind of setup or foreshadowing. In Terminator 1, the plot basically revolves around John Connor, even though he isn't seen (although we do see that Sarah is visibly pregnant with him at the end). On the other hand, Kate largely comes out of the blue, and it's a tad bit jarring for her to suddenly be given such importance despite the lack of a setup. Even so, it's not a huge flaw or anything like that. If she weren't in the movie at all, then it'd be harder for John and Arnold to reach Lt. General Brewster, which wouldn't allow them to get the codes for Crystal Peak, and so on and so on.
Now, if I were to compare her to anyone else, I suppose that she walks the line between the Sarah Connor that we see in Terminator 1, and the Sarah that we see in Terminator 2. That is to say, Kate is a bit more independent than Sarah is at first, and noticeably less terrified by the murderous robot that's chasing them down. For example, in one early scene, she confronts John for stealing from the clinic that she works at, and threatens to call the police. John, who is adamant about staying off the grid, threatens her with a gun. Barely missing a beat, Kate tricks and outmaneuvers him, pushing him into a cage, knowing that he was holding nothing more than a paintball gun. We establish early on that she's reasonably capable and not totally helpless. Throughout the film, she has only a handful of action sequences of her own, but I believe it's safe to assume that she would be more capable of looking after herself than Sarah would at first. Conversely, she doesn't have the raw determination or survival skills that Sarah has developed by Terminator 2, so as I said, she's somewhere in the middle.
If there's anything significantly flawed surrounding her character, it's that the romance she has with John is somewhat unconvincing (though that's more of a writing problem and less of a direct issue with the character herself). At the beginning of the movie, we are shown that she is happily engaged to another man, and later on, he is murdered by the T-X. Naturally, she's very distraught over this, but it's mostly swept under the rug as the movie goes on, and he isn't really brought up that much afterwards. Part of this is likely because of the whole “impending apocalypse” thing being more on her mind. However, I should point out that the entire movie takes place over the course of maybe 1 or 2 days, and her (visible) grieving doesn't last very long. Can that happen in real life? I suppose so. But by the end the movie, she's holding John's hand in the fallout shelter. On the one hand, that's necessary to show the audience that yes, they are in fact going to be together, but the rushed nature of their romance is pretty unconvincing. I believe it would've been better to have written the fiancee out entirely, though I suppose that's easier said than done. Regardless, Kate is an alright character who doesn't ruin the film or anything like that.
Hooo boy. Of all the characters in this film, Arnold (in my estimation) was hit the hardest. In the previous two movies, Arnold was more or less at the center of the entire conflict. In Terminator 1, that's a given, because he's the primary (really the only) villain. He's the nigh-unstoppable, inhuman force that pursues our heroes without mercy. Without him, the film wouldn't be able to exist. In Terminator 2, he performs a firm about-face, where he becomes a hero that not only helps drive the plot along, but also helps inject it with a certain amount of emotion, as I explained in my previous review. In that movie, John is pretty much the protagonist, as he fits the mold better than Arnold. He's far more vulnerable, he's naive, and he is largely incapable of influencing the events of the plot on his own. Arnold is more of a supporting protagonist, but he does that job very well. The bond he forms with John, and to a lesser extent, the tenuous respect he earns from Sarah, form the backbone of the movie's characterization. His presence is critical, not only for the basic “stop the bad guy” purpose, but also for the emotional aspects of the film. Without him, the film would (mostly) lack a heart.
So, where does he fit into this film? Well, he's obviously not a villain, so he takes on the role that he saw in the previous movie. He's largely there to guide and protect John and Kate. Fair enough. We've seen that before, obviously, and it wouldn't necessarily be an idea that is dead on arrival. The problem is that it's handled far less effectively in Rise of the Machines. The first issue is that of John. At this point, he is still vulnerable and is by no means the battle hardened warrior that he eventually becomes, but with age, he's become a lot more independent and he's not nearly as naive as used to be. As a result, Arnold can't really fit the mold as a quasi father figure.
In theory, this wouldn't be a big problem, as they could form a more conventional friendship. Maybe John could say something to the affect of “you're the brother I never had”. But that doesn't really happen either. The bond they form is very loose and lacks a lot of depth. It merely exists as one of basic teamwork, and not much more. Part of this stems from the fact that Arnold's character is far more likely to serve as comic relief, periodically saying something purposefully designed to get a laugh from the audience. That's fine too, but it occurs too much for my taste, and I really can't think of a way in which his character changed from the beginning to the end.
Presented without comment.
The comic relief aspect would be better left to other characters who aren't trying to be super intimidating. This problem is probably most apparent in Arnold's opening scene. In my two previous reviews, I loved how they established Kyle, both Arnolds, and the T-1000. But Arnold's opening scene here was perhaps one of the biggest missteps of the film. Recall that Kyle evades cops and gets by on stealth and perhaps some luck. Evil Arnold takes down several punks, the T-1000 ambushes a cop from the shadows, and Good Arnold beats up some tough bikers. But what does Arnold do this time around? He enters a bar on ladies night, unclothed, and steals his stuff from... a harmless male dancer. It does very little to establish him a threat, and all it does is get a few laughs. It's just not an impressive way to set him up, and it sets a not-so-great tone for an R-rated action sci-fi movie. Contrast this with Terminator 2, which had its own element of lightheartedness, but it wasn't to the point where it became distracting.
Throughout the rest of the film, he does what you would expect him to do: he shrugs off bullets, he takes down a few robots, and he provides exposition. He checks off all the basic boxes of what is expected of him, but his character doesn't go above and beyond. This is why his sacrifice at the end doesn't leave a particularly large impact on me – because it's far easier to see him as just another machine, and not as the almost-human character that he was in Terminator 2. But, having said all of that, I do not dislike him in this installment. He doesn't do that much to enhance the film, but the portrayal is not one that I would label as “a disgrace to his previous roles” or anything like that. They tried to inject some more lightheartedness into his character, and it didn't work. It's as simple as that, really.
So, after two fantastic villains in a row, the bar was set pretty high for Kristanna Loken to impress as the T-X. Did she succeed? Well, she did alright, I suppose. She certainly has more in common with the T-1000, in that she is a bit more capable of blending in with a crowd, and is generally more advanced. She's reasonably clever and knows how to operate beyond mindless destruction. But while she's more advanced from a technological standpoint, the T-X doesn't deliver the same kind of dread that her predecessors did.
Arnold's opening scene in this film is a misstep, and to a lesser extent, so is the T-X's. Her establishing moment has her materializing at a women's clothing store and murdering a helpless bystander. It establishes her as a merciless killer, but there's a lack of depth to the opening that really made the other terminators so terrifying. Arnold didn't just attack a helpless individual, he attacked a small group of people that were (initially) ready to fight back. The T-1000 successfully ambushes a trained police officer, who in theory would also be capable of putting up a fight. Simply put, it would have been far better for her to take down a group people who could at least try to defend themselves, either by stealth or power. We know that she can pretty much take on an army by herself, so her initial scene understates her capabilities and doesn't do a lot to make her seem intimidating.
Beyond her first scene, she operates more like the T-1000, as I stated earlier. However, her methods are kind of odd. For starters, she attacks a customer at Kate's clinic before she asks her what her name is. That's very peculiar, as doing so would only make her presence more obvious. The T-1000 didn't normally kill anyone if he didn't have to. In a crowded mall, he masqueraded as a cop and calmly asked people if they had seen John. This was a smart move that drew very little attention to himself, and allowed him to operate without setting off many red flags. But it makes very little sense for the T-X to attack someone without knowing who they are. It's an unnecessary move that exists only to show how deadly she is, which should already be obvious at this point anyway.
Unfortunately, that's not the only misstep with her methods. In the cemetery scene, she appears before Kate and approaches her at a fairly normal pace while disguised as her fiancee. Kate seems to buy into it, so this is a clever idea... until the T-X drops her disguise and switches back into her default form before getting close to Kate. There's really no reason for her to do so, because it only gives her ore time to escape. Arnold shows up in time to save Kate anyway, so this instance mostly doesn't matter, but it shows a bizarre lack of strategy on her part. Still, given that she had such a high bar to clear against the T-1000 and Arnold in the original film, I'm not going to say that she's a detriment to the film. Like so many other things in the movie, she's just average, and not particularly memorable.
When I think about this film, one of the things that comes to mind is the phrase “what could have been”. There were several missed opportunities in the movie that were touched on to one degree or another, but ultimately were left mostly unexplored. For starters, we open the film with John living as a drifter. It is shown that his life is mostly a wreck at this point, and that he's just barely getting by on the edge of society. This is only a small part of the first act, however, and I really think that this could have been elaborated upon. Doing so would help build up John's character that much more, and could have perhaps shown how he has adapted to such a life. Maybe he could have acquired some survival skills or built up a network of allies who believe his warnings. Who knows?
One thing that is also fairly noticeable is that the relation between John and his mother is quite absent. Obviously, her death and complete physical absence from the film makes it more difficult to display their relationship, but recall that it was a major factor in the previous film. Sarah's almost single-minded drive to protect John, combined with her own shortcomings as an ideal mother made for an interesting dynamic. But this is not really touched upon in Rise of the Machines. We see shades of her influence on John, but their troubled and complicated relationship is hardly even mentioned throughout the film. Her training and general attitude towards John impacted him, but the film simply didn't do that much to address this. How closely does John really take after his mother? How does he feel about his mother as of now? Maybe this is more of a nitpick than anything else, but I think it could have been addressed more.
However, there is one other missed opportunity that comes to mind. Near the end of the film, Arnold gets into a fight with the T-X and loses. She subsequently hacks into him and turns him against John Connor. He struggles to spare John and ultimately has to shut himself down before he can kill him off. The scene is very interesting, but also quite short. This scene didn't have a huge impact on the plot, but the idea here could have been a really engaging plot for an entire movie, or at the very least, a subplot. While I'm sure that science fiction has already explored the idea of machines rejecting their own programming, becoming totally independent, and forming their own wants, this is something that the Terminator franchise had not yet tried in any meaningful way, and doing so could have opened up a lot of storytelling possibilities. In a movie that largely adhered to the “formula” of the previous two films, the concept of a machine throwing out its programming and developing some kind of autonomy is a fascinating idea that could have set it apart from the other two films before it.
It's hard for me to classify this film as anything other than “average”. I suppose you could look at this as the Return of the Jedi of Terminator films, both of which have their own share of problems that are magnified because of the immense success of the two films that preceded it. If you look at it on its own, Rise of the Machines is a serviceable film, and is a reasonably enjoyable action sci-fi movie in its own right. However, the film's shortcoming become more apparent when you look at it in comparison to the first two films, which is pretty much unavoidable. The bar was set very high, and for that, I can't be too critical of it for failing to reach it. So, as much as I've criticized the movie, it is not without merit. The actions sequences are solid, the film touches on a few good concepts, and it does a good job at setting up the first few moments of Judgment Day. It may not leave a huge impact on you, but it's a respectable film that I would recommend if you're merely looking for an average action film to pass the time.
[Note: None of the above pictures/screenshots are owned by me and are all property of their respective owners.]
Edited by Ben