Correction to This Article
A July 2 review of "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" misstated its rating. The film is rated R.

Bang-Up 'Terminator'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2003

"Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" is a $150 million wreck-creational vehicle.

At one point, an evil Terminator drives a 50-ton crane through downtown Los Angeles about 75 miles an hour, attempting to squash a pickup in which flees the father of the future, John Connor. Chasing them is a virtuous Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course) in a firetruck (of course). Soon enough, the rules of the road break down -- that is, the elemental distinction between street and not-street -- and the gigantic machines careen through structures on the left and right, destroying all in their path, tossing Prizms and Neons aside like so many candy wrappers. Wait, it gets wreckier.

The director, Jonathan Mostow, contrives to dangle Schwarzenegger from the crane hook, which -- as the crane is no longer moored -- is rotating wildly like a dreidel of destruction, taking out buildings left and right, so that the Ahnuld-man is surfing through concrete as he is whipped along. It's a fabulous destroy-o-rama, a lollapalooza of smashing and shattering . . . and this is in the first 15 minutes!

Is there a story behind all the carnage? Well, looking for one is rather like hunting daffodils on the dirt floor of a demolition derby arena as monster trucks grind each other to fragments and the stench of diesel, 10W40 and testosterone befogs your glasses and inflames your nasal passages. But yes, I believe that at certain moments in all the fun, a story may be identified. Too bad it's not a new one.

A cyborg is sent back to the past (which is our present -- that is, now) from the grave new world in which the machines, after a bloody rebellion, are about to be defeated by mankind resurgent. The cyborg's mission is to eliminate the young man who is fated to become the older man who becomes leader of the victorious human forces, before he can become, uh, the leader of the victorious human forces. But from that same grave new world, the humans send a captured, reprogrammed, older Terminator back to act as the boy's protector.

The mild wrinkle that justifies the vehicle-reduction program and the subsequent decibel-increase campaign is that the new bad Terminator is a chick. You may read into that all the latent male castration anxiety at the triumph of the New Woman you want; I suspect that the filmmakers made this choice because they thought it was pretty cool, and didn't think too much more about it.

Supermodel Kristanna Loken embodies this creature in her fleshly appearances, but just as often she's played by Pixels Nos. 8.5 through 13.1 billion, as when she melts like a Popsicle, splatters like a mud pie, atomizes like a cherry bomb or turns her left hand into a Black & Decker No. 4 wide-band power saw. So symmetrical is the human Loken's face, and so utterly empty of emotion, that she might have been designed by a machine for all the difference it would have made.

As for Arnold . . . well, strictly speaking, a film critic is not required. By now he has ascended to the level of pure icon. He is simply there in all his magnificent Arnoldness, grim of jaw, knobby of cheekbone, intense of glare, Wienerschnitzely of accent and pneumatic of pectoral. Mostow has some fun with him, and he's a good enough sport to play along.

For example, in his introduction, he is, as in the too-serious "Terminator 2," enjoined to enter a rowdy bar naked in order to acquire a wardrobe. But where "2" used the scene to unleash some head-crushing violence, Mostow puts his fellow into the middle of ladies' night, and all the gals go bonkers when the nude incredible bulk walks in. He then proceeds to the stage -- the girls are throwing tens and twenties and I'll bet a coupla fifties and hundreds at him -- and removes the leather jeans from a Chippendale dancer, who, by the way, makes the mistake of calling him "honey." It's about as subtle as an outhouse, but it's pretty funny.

Indeed, that's much of the spirit of the film. You can feel Mostow and his writers, John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris and Tedi Serafian, looting the previous two films, paying homage to lines and images, making jokes off them -- "She'll be back," Arnold says of his female opponent -- all pleasant grace notes amid the general campaign of destruction. (I think the Russian army lost fewer vehicles in World War II than Mostow does in this film.) Those occasional flashes of wit and sentiment are to be treasured.

Where the film loses energy -- if you notice, and you probably won't -- is in its evocation of a younger generation of Terminator targets. In the far superior original, the target was John Connor's mother, Sarah, played by Linda Hamilton, which set up a vibration of romantic sacrifice with good guy/protector Michael Biehn; in the far inferior "2," John Connor, at about 15, was portrayed by Edward Furlong, an unconventional choice for his body languor and unusual (but appealing) line readings and ironic humor. Though his subsequent career faltered, he was quite charismatic. Now, John, at about 25, is played by Nick Stahl. And although that's not a disaster, Stahl certainly seems generic: handsome, spiky-headed youngster, lacking any particular texture or charisma.

He's teamed with Claire Danes, who, although an accomplished actress, is underused as the generic Girl. She plays one Kate Brewster, who (it helpfully turns out) is fated to become his wife and co-captain in the post-apocalyptic world. Worse still, this bland little romance is connected to the larger story in a narrative convenience difficult to accept. It further turns out her father (David Andrews) is the Air Force general in charge of the secret computer project that is preparing the way for the war between humans and machines.

As a director, Mostow hasn't the talent for expressive action that the series auteur, James Cameron, did. Cameron was a genius at finding new lines of action so that the whole movie felt astonishing and fresh. The sequel was overblown, but it still exhibited Cameron's genius for unusual movement dynamics. Mostow takes the approach of a Russian general who clears minefields by marching through them; he doesn't focus on individual grace or make the battles personal, emotional and frightening. He almost never finds ways of isolating his figures in their athletic beauty; he never makes their moves distinctive; he can't find that one killer detail to make the action sequences linger in the imagination, all Cameron hallmarks. Instead, he lets everything go full bore all the time, so the result is the spectacle of endless destruction, amusing but not emotionally meaningful. By the end of the movie, everything has been trashed, and I do mean everything.

Still, what you feel from "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" might be called the good faith of its makers. They've tried hard to honor the spirit of the franchise, not exploit it, and take it to a new level and a surprising destination. They've also kept it mercifully short. If it's not the classic piece of sinew and gristle that "The Terminator" was, it's at least a solidly professional attempt and a pretty good summer movie in the bargain.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for extreme but never sadistic violence.

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