Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: it took 10 long years of nobody anywhere giving much of a shit one way or the other, but now Men in Black 3 exists. And to the surprise of most of us, it actually turns out to be something other than a worthless waste of time. Alas, not all years-later sequels are so lucky.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day was, in 1991 and for many years thereafter, the highest grossing R-rated film ever, an award-winning cultural touchstone that represents a high-water mark for a certain kind of commercial action filmmaking. And not least of the reasons why is that director and co-writer James Cameron gave it such a profound sense of finality, not resolving his story in anyway - the opposite of it, in fact - but resolving the emotions and themes with such grandeur and passion that no future Terminator picture could possibly do anything but degrade itself and its wonderful forebears. Hell, there are two separate endings for T2, completely incompatible with one another, of wildly differing quality, and both of them offer no basis for future sequels: the worse one by telling us in momentum-crushing detail how very much it is the case that nothing else bad ever happened in that movie universe, the better one by insisting with grave intent that the future being absolutely unknowable and plastic, there's no point in wondering what "really" happens after that closing moment, because any future is as likely as another and all that matters is plugging through the day-to-day. Neither path leaves an opening: one is absolutely certain and one is absolutely ambiguous, and trying to smuggle a sequel in there would be so obviously, inherently dumb, violating everything that T2 claims about destiny and fate simply by existing.
To the credit of everybody involved, it too the best part of a decade before they finally figured out how to make a third movie happen regardless, and it wasn't until July, 2003, one day shy of twelve years after T2 was released, that Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines perpetrated itself all over the world's movie screens. It took a lot of people a lot of false starts to get to that point, but the final team that ended up succeeding - according to a bastardly new definition of "success", anyway - included director Jonathan Mostow, whose big film prior to 2003 was the dismal submarine picture U-571, and the writing team of John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris, whose very next project was the legendarily unendurable Catwoman. But hey, in 1984, James Cameron had only ever made Piranha II: The Spawning, and he still managed to do pretty much all right by the first Terminator. But Jonathan Mostow, I am afraid, is no James Cameron.
T3 lets us know very much from the beginning how anxious it is to piss off anyone who holds T2 in any sort of regard: the first words, spoken in narration over a black screen, directly refutes the message of the last speech of the previous film, and the second shot references and reverses the last image, mirroring T2's famous road at night rushing towards us with a shot of a road rolling away from us. It's pretty impressive that both the narration and the visuals are explicitly "reversing" the end of Judgment Day; impressive, and very, very dumb.
But, to the plot: in the summer of 2004, 23-year-old John Connor (Nick Stahl) - who, if we are going to be real bitches about series continuity, should actually be 20, but this is the internet, and that's not the sort of thing we like to make an issue about here - is living as a desperate, homeless drifter, trying to live as far off the grid as he possibly can; for as we know, or at least, as we have absolutely no reason not to know, John has been hunted since before he was even born by assassin robots from the future, where he is the leader of the human resistance against the evil artificial intelligence Skynet and its machine army. At this time, John is in southern California, and because there has to be a movie, two of those terminator robots have just come back in time: one is in the form of a beautiful blonde woman, and is of the model line designated T-X (Kristanna Loken) - sadly, yes, we are meant to make the jump to "terminatrix", because after the magnificent female character that was Sarah Connor in Cameron's films, women are reduced to being props and eye candy in T3, like in every other damn American tentpole movie - and a much less advanced T-800 model (Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his last pre-government starring role); the T-X has come to kill Connor and his future associates, while the T-800, as was the case last time, has been reprogrammed by the reistance and sent to protect Connor and Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), a junior high classmate who has become, in the future, one of the most important members of his inner circle.
It's sort of exactly the same thing as T2: a shiny new terminator model that can shape shift is the villain, the lumbering, unstoppable Schwarzenegger bot is the only thing that can stop it, and Connor and a female companion begin by running like scared animals and end by trying to stop the coming of Judgment Day, the moment that Skynet becomes active and makes the evil and self-aware decision to wipe out humankind. Not as good, of course; not even vaguely as good, though the gaunt, terror-wracked John Connor played by Stahl is at least not the insufferable quipping kid from the last movie. Stahl does not, mind you, do a good job - of the four leads, he is the least interesting, I'd say, and this is desperately unfortunate because he has by a significant margin the most screentime. But he doesn't make me die inside, and that is more than Eddie Furlong could claim.
The problems here are many: despite my anger at how badly the film spoils the thematic development of the first two movies, which I'd summarise as "a heroic woman convinced that the universe is essentially fatalistic finds the inner strength to prove that a sufficiently driven human can create her own future", by reverting to a plot that explicitly and repeatedly claims "nevermind, it's a fatalistic, predetermined universe after all", that's not really the worst of them. Sure, it's the reason that T3 is a terrible sequel, but there are bad sequels that still work as movies, basically. T3 doesn't even do that: it isn't a good action film, and isn't a good science fiction film, or anything else you might want to be. The first Terminator was a mercilessly tight exercise in raw momentum, neither smart nor stupid, just purely kinetic; the second is at times lumpy and overreaching, but has some of the most grandly-conceived action sequences in any major American film ever made, and revolutionary special effects that still hold up after entire generations of newer, glossier, bigger CGI have aged into embarrassment.
T3 is basically the exact opposite of all that: it attempts to be a pulsating, non-stop chase like the first film (they are, structurally, very similar) but Mostow's direction is the very opposite of merciless and kinetic: even the film's most generally successful setpiece, a car chase involving a busted old truck, several remote-controlled police cars (a detail that is rather more "oh how stupid" than "oh how cool!"), a construction crane, and a motorcycle, has long since overstayed its welcome and indulged in a few too many moments that are too stretched out, and all the hectic pace that the sequence starts with simply wears itself into oblivion. And that's the best setpiece - the ones that don't work are just so much shooting and overly busy editing and visual effects that almost, but not quite, hold together. Meanwhile, its attempts to attain the same sheer scope of T2 - hell, the very title just about promises us the apocalypse before the picture ends - run afoul of too few characters, too few locations, and frankly, no interesting ideas at all: while the earlier film is almost dizzily obsessed with the ramifications of its time travel plot, there is one and only one scene in T3 - where we learn how the T-800 was captured and sent back in time - that works on anything approaching that level, and its severely under-acted, so it's not any good, anyway.
The acting, aye... Stahl, I already mentioned, so let me just finish him off: he hits one note and only one note in the whole movie, "hunted animal", and while he does it fine, there's no real character there. And Danes, struggling to find more humanity in her role than that, isn't good enough to overcome the inherent limitations of the part: in the first movie, Linda Hamilton was able to be a person who was screaming and running, but Danes is never more than damsel who gets teary eyed when she isn't demanding to Know What's Going On.
Leaving the terminators themselves: and I'll say this much, if T3 has an unabashed bright spot, it's Kristanna Loken. This is weird, because the T-X isn't much of a part and she isn't really an actress. But still, once she is no longer required to speak words, and that happens fairly early, she is an awesome machine: she manages the nifty trick of looking desperately hungry and yet completely without emotion, like a snake; I do not think this is an accident, either, because there's a certain serpentine smoothness to all of her movements. Also - this has nothing to do with the actress at all - but the T-X is a fantastic killbot; I will be so heretical as to say, in fact, that it is better than the T-1000 from T2, or at the very least, it's more technologically comprehensible, existing as a combination of actual machinery and magic futuretech, where the T-1000, however great it is as a villain, doesn't really make a whole lot of sense as a machine. Anyway, yes, kudos to Loken: she is terrifying and she is gorgeous and she is relentless, and these are the only things that anybody involved in the film's production wanted her to be.
As for Arnold, in his temporary farewell to acting and his last waltz with the character that made him a superstar (sort of; of course, the three movies feature three different T-800s): he sucks. I'm not happy saying that. Outside of maybe Conan of Cimmeria, there is no role better suited to the exact limitations of Schwarzenegger's talents than the terminator, and he was flawlessly perfect in both of his previous outings. But in this third picture, perhaps as a means of expressing hiss dislike for the material and perhaps because he was criminally mismanaged by his director, he keeps lapsing into- I don't know what to call it. "Mugging" isn't the right word - I've seen Batman & Robin, I damn well know what it looks like when Schwarzenegger is mugging. This is more like, if you imagine the T-800 in this case learning how to behave like a human from watching '70s sitcoms: lots of bug-eyed reaction shots and self-conscious quipping, but still done as a robot would do it. It's peculiar, and hard to explain; but it sends the movie hurtling into fatal, self-parodying camp, and there is really no call whatsoever for a Terminator movie to be campy. Especially when that campiness comes from the one exact place that you would assume to be the rock 'pon which the whole movie is founded.
But no, it is not to be: and in a whirlwind of terribly-mounted action scenes and vile discontinuities with the rest of the series and unlikable protagonists and a general noisy blandness that makes the film with its exquisite pedigree virtually indistinguishable from any other R-rated action film of the '00s, it is certainly Schwarzenegger's limp, silly performance that is the most depressing part. This was never going to be better than a crappy cash-in and dumb guilty pleasure; but the one thing guaranteed to remove the pleasure and just leave the guiltiness was fucking up the T-800. Well, they did it, and as a result made one of the definitively bad sequels of all time. I admire, at least, that the film is thus able to distinguish: any hack franchise picture can be pointless and bad, but it takes a special disregard for all that makes the material unique to make one this all-out rancid.