This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
In the dawning days of science fiction, there was a chasm between the concept-oriented authors and those who churned out space opera. John W. Campbell Jr.'s Astounding Science Fiction, later renamed Analog to make the point clear, was the home of the brainy stuff. Bug-eyed monsters chased heroines in aluminum brassieres on the covers of Amazing, Imagination and Thrilling Wonder Stories. The first two Terminator movies, especially the second, belonged to Campbell's tradition of S-F ideas. They played elegantly with the paradoxes of time travel, in films where the action scenes were necessary to the convoluted plot. There was actual poignancy in the dilemma of John Connor, responsible for a world that did not even yet exist. The robot Terminator, reprogrammed by Connor, provided an opportunity to exploit Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.
But that was an age ago, in 1991. "T-2" was there at the birth of computer-generated special effects, and achieved remarkable visuals, especially in the plastic nature of the Terminator played by Robert Patrick, who was made of an infinitely changeable substance that could reconstitute itself from droplets. Now we are in the latter days of CGI, when the process is used not to augment action scenes, but essentially to create them. And every week brings a new blockbuster and its $50 million-plus gross, so that audiences don't so much eagerly anticipate the latest extravaganza as walk in with a show-me attitude.
"Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" is made in the spirit of these slick new action thrillers, and abandons its own tradition to provide wall-to-wall action in what is essentially one long chase and fight, punctuated by comic, campy or simplistic dialogue. This is not your older brother's Terminator. It's in the tradition of Thrilling Wonder Stories ; "T2" descended from Campbell's Analog. The time-based paradoxes are used arbitrarily and sometimes confusingly, and lead to an enormous question at the end: How, if that is what happens, are the computer-based machines of the near future created? Perhaps because the plot is thinner and more superficial, the characters don't have the same impact, either. Nick Stahl plays John Connor, savior of mankind, in the role created by the edgier, more troubled Edward Furlong. Stahl seems more like a hero than a victim of fate, and although he tells us at the outset he lives "off the grid" and feels "the weight of the future bearing down on me," he seems more like an all-purpose action figure than a man who really (like Furlong) feels trapped by an impenetrable destiny.
Early in the film, he meets a veterinarian named Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), and after they find they're on the same hit list from the killers of the future, they team up to fight back and save the planet. They are pursued by a new-model Terminator named T-X, sometimes called the Terminatrix, and played by the ice-eyed Kristanna Loken. I know these characters are supposed to be black-faced and impassive, but somehow Robert Patrick's evil Terminator was ominous and threatening, and Loken's model is more like the mannequin who keeps on coming; significantly, she first appears in the present after materializing in a Beverly Hills shop window. The movie doesn't lavish on her the astonishing shape-shifting qualities of her predecessor.