Movie Night With Urbaniak: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

“I’m now beginning to understand your appreciation of the genius of Schwarzenegger’s performance in Terminator 2.” —

, mid-way through Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is the perfect expression of commerce trying, and failing, to overtake artistry. The makers of Terminator 3 felt that if they hit enough “Terminator-related plot points,” presented in a new, interesting way and with a large enough budget, they would have another Terminator movie. But let’s not delude ourselves: Terminator 3 is the work of skilled, talented professionals and Terminator 2 is the work of a great artist.

Let’s start with the first act. The Terminator and T2 are both sterling examples of first-act construction: two strangers from the future show up and pursue the protagonist for different reasons and we don’t have the slightest clue as to who anyone is or what’s going on until the act break. In Terminator 3 the first act is bogged down with a ridiculous amount of exposition: it’s laboriously explained who everyone is, what they do for a living, who they’re related to, and why they’ll be important to the plot later on. Watch all three movies back to back as we have and the structural differences become shockingly clear. The Terminator and T2 have first acts that are surprising, shocking, thrilling and exceptional in their leanness and narrative thrift; Terminator 3 has a first act that seems very much of a piece with any generic action movie released in the past 25 years. Everything is spelled out and the story is tortured into an absurd shape in order to accommodate the demands of an uninteresting plot. John Connor is living “off the grid,” and just happens to wander into an animal hospital in the middle of the night, and the animal hospital just happens to be run by Kate Brewster, who just happens to be called in that night because of a lady with a sick cat, and also just happens to be both a one-time girlfriend of John Connor and the daughter of the US Army guy who will be responsible for activating Skynet and thus ending the world. To get all this crap across, we need scenes of Kate pricing wedding gifts with her douchebag fiancee, John breaking into an animal hospital to take pills for some reason, Kate calling her Army Guy dad in his Secret Headquarter Place, Army Guy Dad having bullshit discussions with his generic support staff about a Mysterious Computer Glitch, John threatening Kate with a paintball gun and then getting locked in a cage, and on and on and on.

(The animal hospital is destroyed and the woman with the sick cat is killed. We never hear what happens to the cat — there’s a mistake that never would have happened in a James Cameron movie.)

Now then: the action sequences.

Here is a cardinal rule of drama as I understand it: action arises from the desires of the story’s characters. “Action” may here be described as anything from a guy getting up from a table to fetch a beer from the refrigerator to two robots from the future duking it out in an abandoned steel plant.

When The Phantom Menace came out, George Lucas acknowledged that the Pod Race sequence was an homage to the immortal Chariot Race sequence in Ben-Hur. This is a perfect example of a writer-director misunderstanding the use of action.

The Chariot Race in Ben-Hur is, indeed, one of the most thrilling and technically sophisticated action sequences ever shot, but the reason it thrills in the context of Ben-Hur is because everything in the narrative up to that point has been building toward that chariot race. The first act of Ben-Hur is the story of two boyhood friends, one Roman and one Jewish, who love each other dearly but who are forced to become bitter enemies via the vagaries of law and race and heartless destiny. For over an hour we watch their relationship grow and be torn asunder, watch resentments grow and regrets harbored, a lifetime of loss and suffering unfolding before us, the narrative tension being screwed up into nail-biting levels. These two characters love each other and hate each other, and this chariot race is going to settle their differences for all time — it’s a life and death struggle we are heavily invested in, which is why each spill and crash in the famous Chariot Race sequence has thrust and devastating impact.

The Pod Race sequence in The Phantom Menace, on the other hand, occurs because the Jedi’s spacecraft needs a spare part. We care nothing about the Jedi’s spacecraft, we don’t believe that the spare part is important, we barely care about the Jedi’s problems at all, we don’t believe that this Pod Race scheme is the most likely plan for getting the spare part, none of it means anything. The race itself is an exhilarating exercise in staging, editing and special effects, but it has absolutely zero narrative impact.

James Cameron, regardless of any flaws you’d care to assign to him as a director, understands action like few other directors ever have, and all one has to do is compare either of the two truck chases in T2 with the massive truck-chase sequence in Terminator 3. Cameron directs his action with great intelligence, muscle, logic and heart — the characters’ desires conflict and give rise to the action, which flows naturally and with what I can only call humanity. You know where everything is in a Cameron action sequence, they have a sweep and inevitability to them and a sense of escalating stakes, not just escalating effects. You feel every crash, explosion and bullet wound because the action means something. The truck chase in Terminator 3 has been designed, staged and shot with great skill and imagination, but its effects come from nowhere, signify nothing and are there simply because they sounded cool in the story meeting. (“And you know what would be great? In the middle of the chase, what if the crane on the back of the giant truck turned sideways? And then a whole bunch of cars would go flying up in the air, and then, get this, it takes out a whole building!”) The makers of Terminator 3, like so many filmmakers before them, labor under the mistaken impression that audiences flock to movie theaters in order to experience production values.

(The action sequences in the Bourne movies are other stellar examples of action filmmaking. Because let’s face it, under normal circumstances, if someone attacks you with a knife in your apartment, that is, hopefully, a pretty big event in your day. The directors of the Bourne movies understand the startling impact of the simplest action beats — they ground them in a physical reality so specific that it feels like the bad guy is punching you instead of Bourne. They prove that, if you know what you’re doing, you can get more thrills out of a knife, a magazine and a toaster as you can with a flying robot and an army of commandos.)

The fight scene in the bathroom where the Terminator and the TX hit each other with sinks and toilets works quite well, has a logic and impact that the other sequences do not.

(Let me add here that I am a big fan of Jonathan Mostow’s earlier work, especially Breakdown, which climaxes with a wonderful car chase.)

Elsewhere, the script of Terminator 3 is glib and anecdotal when it needs to be epic and primal. The themes and conflicts introduced in the first two movies (fate, destiny, motherhood, fatherhood, manhood, so forth) are here expanded to “romantic love,” an attempt that leads only to lame comedy and unconvincing lovers.

Kristen Loken, who plays the Girl Terminator, plays her Evil Robot from the Future with smugness and and self-conscious sexiness, prompting the quote from Urbaniak at the top of the page. Schwarzenegger is okay in this movie, but he scowls a lot and his timing is off — he’s perfect in T2 but this script, while it has its moments, doesn’t serve his character well.

Even Schwarzenegger’s makeup is off in this movie — when his skin is burned away, it reveals what is supposed to be the metal skeleton beneath, but the “metal skeleton beneath” is obviously a latex appliance stuck to the actor’s jaw — it doesn’t move as the actor speaks, as it would if it were exposed jaw-bone, it just remains glued to the side of his face.

This observation prompted me to tell Urbaniak the one nice thing I have to say about Batman and Robin: surely one of the worst movies ever made, it nevertheless features an outstanding makeup job on Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, a dense, subtle frosting of blues and silvers, believable and evocative, topped off with silvery contact lenses that really help sell the character, as long as he’s not wearing his ridiculous Tin Man outfit.

(Discussion of Batman and Robin prompted Urbaniak to direct me to this, which I now direct you to.)

When Urbaniak and I watched Terminator 2 the other night, I had seen the movie at least ten times and it had never occurred to me before that the steel plant at the end of the movie was a set. But of course it is, the whole thing must be a set. In contrast, the Big Shiny Army Base that Army Dad works at looks absolutely like a set and like nothing else. You’d never guess for a moment that anyone ever worked in any of the offices or industrial settings of Big Shiny Army Base, another example of how Cameron wants us to believe that his fantastical characters are real and in genuine peril, while the makers of Terminator 3 wish to constantly remind us of how much money they spent on this thing.  Throughout the movie, you can feel the filmmakers working not from a script but a checklist — truck chase, check, gun cache, check, Dr. Silverman, check, sunglasses gag, check, redneck bar, check, end of the world, double check.  Mid-way through the third act, Urbaniak wondered aloud when someone would get around to calling the Girl Terminator a “bitch” before destroying her.  The movie obliged less than three minutes later.

hit counter html code


17 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”
  1. gdh says:

    For all its flaws, I quite liked the ending of T3. I was genuinely surprised that they filmmakers had the balls to actually end the world, and the “missile launch on a clear sunny day” scene is genuinely moving. It’s telling that it took nothing less that the apocalypse to finally elicit a pang of emotional reaction, though. Up to that point in the film, I really didn’t care about anything that happened to anyone in it. Did Terminator 3 even have any characters? The actors served roughly the same expensive-set-dressing role as the effects.

  2. jbacardi says:

    I wrote a paragraph or two about this a couple of years ago (Sorry that the pic is missing, I changed image hosts back then and never got around to relinking); I thought it was absolutely awful.

    I do agree about the makeup job on Ahnold in the otherwise dire Batman and Robin

  3. schwa242 says:

    Someone I know who fancies himself a writer posted a small review of “Terminator 3” online where he talked about how amazingly incredible it was and that he was genuinely surprised by the ending of the movie but he wasn’t going to say anything more because that would give it away. So of course anyone who read that new exactly how it was going to end before seeing it. The jerk.

    I think my favorite part of the movie is when, not five minutes after her fiance dies, Kate starts giggling with puppy love towards John Conner, asking him about how he thought she was cute at some high school party. PTSD manifests itself in mysterious ways I suppose.

  4. Anonymous says:

    What you were saying about action sequences reminds me of romance novels where the same thing happens with the sex scenes. A lot of times people write them as an end in itself, like a little removable set piece, instead of as something that builds the arc of the larger story.

    I only saw T3 once, but I remember thinking it would have been nice if they had shown us at any point that John Connor might actually have it in him to be a great leader. If they had shown him demonstrating some of the skills and resources that his mother taught him, or if we had actually SEEN him start to become the man they keep telling us he’s destined be.

  5. mr_noy says:

    Batman & Robin has the distinction of being, in my opinion, the most over-designed movie of all time. I’m sorry but not every scene requires a hundred moving gobo lights. Yes, it’s a comic book movie and it need not adhere to reality but it doesn’t have to be so tacky and artless either. Sure the bikers with flourescent face paint were kind of nifty in the prior film but bringing them back seemed less like a nod to continuity and more like a case of lazy design, ironic since so many people clearly worked very, very hard to execute all of those lazy, witless designs. So many people griped about the lame story, cheesy dialogue and those superfluous nipples on the suits but the over-blown production design is what bothered me most about that film. That and the PC, demographically motivated inclusion of Batgirl who is only there so that somebody can punch Poison Ivy in the face while delivering a lecture on feminism while wearing leather hot-pants.

    I will give credit to T3 for going with the “hard” ending. I wonder how that tested with audiences. Still, how many times can you forestall the apocalypse and violate the integrity of the space-time continuum?

    • Todd says:

      So many people griped about the lame story, cheesy dialogue and those superfluous nipples on the suits but the over-blown production design is what bothered me most about that film.

      I could put up with the cheesiest dialogue and most superfluous nipples in history if the story were any damn good, but it’s not.

      Here is the villain’s plan in Batman and Robin: Freeze the world, then, once it is frozen, have it overrun by plant life. Good thinking! Plants love frozen wastelands!

      • ndgmtlcd says:

        Yes, that “chilly” evil villain seems even worse off IQ wise than the evil bowler-hatted “Goob” Yagoobian in “Meet The Robinsons”.

        But the nasty evil Skynet computer and its nasty evil machine minions didn’t seem exactly smart in T1 and T2. That’s what spoiled the two movies completely for me, even though, as you note it so well, the director saw to it that we knew exactly what the hero wanted, and drove the action with it.

        T1 and T2 were fun as mindless hollywood movies go but I need believable evil machine villains (or tragic anti-heros like Pris and Roy and Zora and company) to really enjoy “action” science fiction movies. Heck, even Doris the flying hat was more credible as a villain than that stupid Skynet AI.

  6. greyaenigma says:

    The Terminator and T2 are both sterling examples of first-act construction: two strangers from the future show up and pursue the protagonist for different reasons and we don’t have the slightest clue as to who anyone is or what’s going on until the act break.

    I’m often confused about just where act breaks occur. Reviews often mention them as if they’re obvious, but they aren’t to me.

    Do you know of a good primer that would help me understand this? Or should I just read Story/cite>?

    I’ve never quite forgiven my friends for making me see Batman and Robin. But probably a different set of friends probably hasn’t forgiven me for making them watch T3 for my birthday. I’m not sure I’ve forgiven myself.

    Here is the villain’s plan in Batman and Robin: Freeze the world, then, once it is frozen, have it overrun by plant life. Good thinking! Plants love frozen wastelands!

    Maybe he was prophesying the penguin predilection.

  7. kornleaf says:

    a. you do realize that they are making a terminator tv series?

    b. i felt like in term 3 they thought, “ok, same as last time, but this time it’s a girl!”

    c. i love your comparison between phantom and ben hur. and totally agree about bourne

    • Todd says:

      a. I’ve heard that, yes.

      b. There’s nothing wrong with “the twist.” Terminator 2 has a similar twist that seems easy but actually changes everything: “Okay, same as last time, except this time the Terminator is the good guy!” The problems of Terminator 3 extend beyond the choice of “sexy girl” for the “new bad guy.”

      c. The famous chase scene in The French Connection is another excellent example of a director really understanding the use of action in narrative. It gave birth to a whole sub-genre of “70s car-chase movies” that thought that audiences went to see The French Connection because it has a bitchin’ car chase, not because it was a compelling story well-told.

      • Anonymous says:

        car chases

        No, it wasn’t because the makers of that sub-genre thought bitchen car chases were all there was to it — it’s because they actually couldn’t do anything better. That’s the difference between art and hackery. The hack knows what’s good, he just doesn’t command the resources (creative or financial) to do better. And that’s why he hates himself.

  8. Anonymous says:


    Well, this is why T2 is the only one of the bunch I’ve watched all the way through. In fact, it’s the only Schwartzenegger movie I’ve seen all the way through.

    • Todd says:

      Re: T3

      What, you’ve never seen Kindergarten Cop?

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: T3

        About 45 seconds of it, but it felt like 90. Or was that a commercial?

      • teamwak says:

        Re: T3

        Am I allowed to like Kindergarten Cop? lol *shame*

        I always thought it was similar in tone to Stakeout, another movie I like from that time. High comedy and dead seriousness, all together.

        Kindergarten Cop has a couple of pretty scary bad guys, including a psycho mother. And Arnie gets to punch a child abuser! I always thought it had a lot more depth than people gave it credit for.

        • Todd says:

          Re: T3

          I was quite surprised when I finally saw Kindergarten Cop on video — I found it very funny and rather effective. The director uses Schwarzenegger well and judiciously balances the comedy and thriller aspects. What it is not, unfortunately, is a movie for children.

          • teamwak says:

            Re: T3

            So true! So many movies are totally miss-sold to the public.

            I remember seeing the trailer to Angels in America a few years ago. I looked like a sfx blockbuster. Angels ripping roofs off, talk of the millenium, Al Pacino screaming at the camera! Looked fab!

            It couldnt have been miss-sold more! It was a drama about gay men and AIDS in the late 80’s. The fact that it is landmark drama and blew me away and I havent stopped thinking about it since, is irrelevent! 🙂