Saturday, July 30, 2016

Arnold Schwarzenegger Day: Terminator 2: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Although Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) from director Jonathan Mostow is not widely considered as successful a film as either of its Cameron-helmed Terminator predecessors, its reputation has improved somewhat in the last few years, perhaps owing to the lousy quality of the follow-up, Terminator Salvation (2009), or perhaps because its own virtues have become more evident with the passage of time.

And the movie does possesses virtues.

Mostow -- a talent who directed one of my favorite action/horror films of the 1990s, Breakdown (1997) -- stages several delirious action scenes in T3, particularly one incredible demolition-derby involving a truck and several police cars.

But more importantly, perhaps, Terminator 3 plays cannily against our ingrained belief as experienced movie viewers that big-budget Hollywood movie franchises tend towards -- if not entropy -- then status quo.

In other words, we go into this third movie with the (cynical?) belief that no meaningful change will occur in the chronology.

Terminators will come. Terminators will fall. Humanity will survive. Judgment Day will be prevented.

Of course, such an assumption proves absolutely wrong here, but in a sense, viewers are “tricked” into believing it, along with lead characters John Connor (Nick Stahl) and Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), right up until the very last minutes of the film. 

Thus, the movie’s ending comes up as a genuine surprise, even though, in a sense, it should be perfectly predictable. Accordingly, T3 boasts the courage of its convictions, and functions not as merely as another “terminators stalking in the past” story, but as a turning point for the entire franchise.  I have always felt that this approach grants the film a level of artistic integrity that you don’t always find in a second sequel, and which deserves some praise.

And what an ending the movie depicts! Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines ends in a blaze of glory as Judgment Day arrives and nothing can be done to stop it. The twilight of human dominance over the Earth is, paradoxically, beautiful, and lyrically visualized. You get a lump in your throat watching it, and can’t quite believe your eyes.

Uniquely, this denouement also offers the movie series a new thematic approach to understanding “fate,” which has proven one of the key elements of the franchise.  If previous entries lived by the motto “no fate what you make,” Terminator 3 makes one consider the not entirely pleasant idea that some destinies are simply meant to be and cannot be changed. You may be able to delay or forestall those destinies, but what was meant to be…will be.

Also on the positive side of the ledger, Kristanna Loken is highly-effective as the T-X, an upgraded Terminator model who can over-power and co-opt other machines, transforming them into allies.  This Terminatrix can also sample DNA through “taste” and even inflate her cleavage so as to distract leering male police officers.

Never in the film does one feel that Loken is outmatched by Schwarzenegger’s intimidating physical presence, or that he is destined to emerge triumphant from their physical confrontations.  Contrarily, Loken -- like the lithe, youthful Patrick before her -- proves that physical size isn’t a necessity when crafting a sense of menace.

If T3 disappoints in any specific regard, it involves the second act, which doesn’t live up to the promise of the first or the surprises of the third.

Although it is nice to see Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen) again, the interlude at a cemetery -- with police and a shoot-out -- feels like a bit of a time-waster given everything else happening in the story, including the activation of Skynet, the discovery of Kate Brewster’s importance in the scheme of things, and the countdown to Judgment Day.

Also, the absence of Sarah Connor in this story doesn’t quite feel right, though it is clear that Brewster -- who reminds John of his mother -- is being groomed as the next tough female role model in the series.

So Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is not another Cameron-level entry. Yet for what it is, a solid action film with a brilliant ending, it is pretty damned good.  T3’s final moments are haunting, beautiful, and surprising, and carry the film over the finish line with a degree of shock and awe.  The apocalypse at the end of the film juices the climax, and the franchise itself, and should have provided a grand opening for the most courageous, most inventive Terminator yet made.

Of course, that didn’t happen…

“The life you knew -- all the stuff you take for granted – it’s not going to last.”

It has been years since John Connor, his Terminator protecto, and Sarah Connor prevented the 1997 onset of Judgment Day. 

Since then, Sarah has died of cancer, and John (Nick Stahl) has lived off the grid as a nomad. He lurks in the shadows, and fears that the future is, as yet, “unwritten.”

And then, one day in 2003, the war against the machines unexpectedly resumes.

Skynet sends back in time a T-X or Terminatrix (Lokken) to kill Connor’s top lieutenants, including his future-wife, Kate Brewster (Danes).

Fortunately, a T-850 Terminator (Schwarzenegger) has also traveled back in time to stop her. But his mission this time is not to obey Connor’s orders, but Kate’s.

A confused Kate plays catch-up, even as Connor tellers her about the birth of Skynet and the future war with Terminators. Unfortunately, the T-850 has more bad news. The military – and Kate’s father – will activate Skynet today, in response to a virus scuttling the Internet and online communications. Judgment Day comes at 6:00 pm.

Connor, Kate and the T-850 attempt to stop Judgment Day, seeking to destroy the Skynet mainframe.  But it won’t be easy…

“I feel the weight of the world bearing down on me.”

In every end, there is the seed of a new beginning.

And in the end of human life that comes with Judgment Day, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines courageously closes the book on storytelling in the pre-apocalypse world, making room for a new beginning.

Pre-apocalypse storytelling has dominated the three films in the franchise and formed the very basis of the storytelling. A cyborg from the future toils in our present to end all our futures. 

Yet Rise of the Machines ends in a way that precludes further stories in this paradigm, and in the process veritably demands that the Terminator films not stagnate, but move forward, both chronologically and creatively.  It deserves some credit for this twist in the formula, even if the follow-up film, Salvation, squandered the opportunity it provided.

Terminator 3 reaches its dramatic apex in its final moments. Connor and Brewster learn that there is no Skynet mainframe to blow-up, and therefore no way to avert nuclear Armageddon. They must then stand-by as the ICBMs launch, and a new world order is forged out of fire.

This shocking conclusion is visualized in gorgeous terms. We see wide-open, mid-western American skies, farm silos…and then the contrails of ICBMs as they launch, and criss-cross the blue sky. Then we move higher, into orbit, as the contrails blossom into terrifying nuclear mushrooms.  It is weird and counter-intuitive to suggest that our destruction could be beautiful, but Terminator 3’s final moments are shocking and weirdly elegiac. 

In the last moment before the end, we pause to see how beautiful, how fragile, our world really is. Before all is lost, we see why the world, in John Connor’s words, is such a “gift,” every single day.

But also in this ending, in this turning point, one must note something else: the fulfillment of destiny. Since before John Connor was born, he was destined to be the great leader who frees the human race from the yoke of the oppressive machines, from Skynet. 

Together, he Sarah, and the T-800 believe they have averted that destiny, but the John Connor we meet at T-3’s beginning is not exactly thriving. He lives off the grid with “no phone, no address,” having “erased” all connections to society and other people.

It’s not that John wants the world to end, he doesn’t. But when it does happen, in the film’s denouement, he -- like the mushroom clouds -- can at long last blossom; can become what he was meant to be all along.  A hero.

No one wants war, no one wants destruction, but there is a difference between trying to escape destiny and facing it with courage, and that seems to be the line the film walks vis-à-vis John. He is finally put into a position where he cannot deny what is coming, and must accept it.  “There was never any stopping it,” he recognizes, at long last.

And as I wrote before, John’s journey is on a parallel track with the Terminator franchise.  It can no longer keep telling the same stories of traveling back in time and fighting the war with the machines in the past (our present).

Like John, the franchise accepts its destiny in this film, and that is, finally, to tell the rest of John’s story, to show him as the great leader we have heard so much about in the first three films. The franchise must move into the future, post-apocalyptic world now.

One may notice that Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is book-ended by nuclear mushroom clouds, one at the beginning of the film (in John’s imagination) and one at the end, in real life.

Between these two flowers of destruction, John learns to accept his destiny, and no longer tries to change it, or wriggle his way out of it. Again, this is a significant change for the saga, a repudiation of the long-standing franchise aesthetic that fate is elastic and our actions can change it.  I’m not saying that I feel one philosophy is better than the other, only that Terminator 3 provides us a shift in thinking that, again, pushes the franchise forward.  It suggests that the saga will not be one in which we can keep setting up back or destroying Judgment Day.  The inevitable shall happen, and here it does.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines also has some other notable ideas and themes that render it worth a second or third watch.  Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is one of the greatest of all female action-heroes in film history (second only, perhaps to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley). Although Connor is not present in the film, Rise of the Machines at the very least seems mindful of its legacy and responsibility to depict female characters in that kind of light. Though Sarah is (sadly) absent, T3 introduces viewers to the other woman behind this great man, John’s wife, Kate. And it also creates a female menace in the T-X that can rival Arnold in terms of raw power and screen presence. So those viewers who complain about a Sarah-less entry have a point in one sense, but are missing, in another sense, the film’s achievements in a similar regard. Female characters are not given short shrift here.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines moves at a fast, violent clip, and Arnold Schwarzenegger instantly conveys his remarkable magnetism and humor in the role that, more than any other, made him a global star. Arnold may not be a great actor, but he is a great screen presence, and he invites viewers into the world with his trademark humor and self-awareness. By playing an (emotionally-dumb) machine, Schwarzenneger is able to unexpectedly plum scenes for laughs, pathos, and even humanity.  You will want to stand-up and cheer, for instance, when the T-850 overcomes the Terminatrix’s programming and re-asserts his prime directive, to save John. 

Basically, Schwarzenegger can do no wrong in this familiar role, and he brings his best game to the film. When you couple the presence of Schwarzenegger with the third film’s new, well-expressed philosophy about fate, and the unforgettable ending, there are more than enough ingredients to declare the film an artistic success.

It would have been wonderful if those to whom Mostow passed the Terminator baton for the fourth film, had demonstrated the same level of ingenuity and creative integrity as he did in Rise of the Machines.

To misquote John Connor in T3, the first three Terminator films are a “gift” we should enjoy everyday, especially considering what comes after them.

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