The latest Terminator movie (Dark Fate) purports to be a sequel only to the first two Terminator films; as far as it’s concerned, the movies that followed 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day never happened. Which seems like a just fate for the mostly dreadful fourth and fifth entries in the series, Terminator: Salvation (2009) and Terminator: Genisys (2015). But spare a thought for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, perhaps the bleakest franchise sequel of all time.
Jonathan Mostow’s entry arrived in theaters in the summer of 2003 not just as the most expensive film ever made (at the time), but also carrying the stigma of being a James Cameron–less sequel to a James Cameron movie (thanks to a hilariously byzantine, decade-long string of negotiations, buyouts, bankruptcies, deals and counter-deals that left the writer-director-creator sidelined). There was a slightly stale whiff to T3, thanks also to the fact that star Arnold Schwarzenegger had recently become more interested in politics than movies; later that year, he’d be elected governor of California.
Against all odds, however, director Mostow delivered something unique: a massive downer of a blockbuster that carried the premise of the series to its logical extreme and captured something profoundly disturbing in the process. The film picks up the story of John Connor (now played by Nick Stahl) about ten years after the events of T2. The long-promised “Judgment Day,” when the worldwide computer network Skynet would become sentient and launch the planet’s nuclear weapons, never happened, which means of course that John has not become the heroic leader of the human resistance in a dystopian hellscape. Instead, he lives as an impoverished drifter off the grid, working construction jobs. He’s a literal nobody — partly by design, but also because his heroic moment never arrived.
For much of its running time, T3 is a fairly pro forma sequel, albeit a rather desolate one. Late one night an injured John winds up at an animal hospital, where he’s discovered by Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), who turns out to have gone to school with him. Meanwhile, not unlike T2, two killer robots arrive from the future — one a sleek, state-of-the-art, super-evil T-X (played by the impressively stone-faced Kristanna Loken), the other an old-school musclebound T-101 (Schwarzenegger), sent once again to protect John. As is traditional, the two robots arrive in the present naked, then commandeer clothing from the first people they see. The T-X kills and robs a fashionista with a fancy sports car, while the T-101 walks into ladies’ night at a local bar and commandeers a male stripper’s leather duds.
It’s easy to understand why some considered T3 a disappointment at the time. The narrative mostly recycles the stories of the first two pictures, only without Cameron’s sense of humor or inventive plotting. (I still find it inconceivable that Mostow didn’t include a scene of the T-101’s stripper clothes accidentally ripping off during a fight. The gag was right there!) And after the more curious and touching robot of T2, it’s odd to see Schwarzenegger go back to the terse, stone-faced hunter of the first film, especially since he’s still one of the good guys — though understandable, given that we eventually find out that this T-101, before he was reprogrammed to be a good guy, actually killed John in the future. Arnold does, however, get a compellingly weird existential crisis near the end, when his good-guy CPU battles his bad-guy body and he methodically pounds a car into oblivion in robotic confusion and rage.
Mostow has always been something of a gearhead director (his breakthrough film was the psycho truck-driver thriller Breakdown), and he outfits T3 with its share of elaborate, multi-vehicle chases, as trucks and vans and automobiles and bikes and construction cranes all speed and careen and crunch in and out of one another. While none of these scenes can quite match the verve of the bike-and-truck chase of T2, they make up for it with scale and complexity. So much so that at times, the director seems happier among the machines than among the people. All throughout, John and Kate pretty much interact solely with each other and Arnold’s T-101. As a result, despite its price tag and the scale of its devastation, the movie is a curiously lonely one. It’s as if much of humanity has already died off.
That sense of solitude turns out to be in keeping with the film’s finale, which is where T3 truly comes into its own and becomes downright unforgettable. After failing to stop Skynet from going online, John and Kate head to what they’re led to believe is the malicious network’s system core, in hopes of blowing it up once and for all. There is, naturally, one final big fight to the death between the two Terminators at the entrance to the massive underground complex where presumably the core can be found. Once the killer robots have blown themselves up, however, John and Kate discover that the place where they’ve landed is not in fact the heart of Skynet but rather the central fallout shelter for the United States chain of command. They are the only ones there.
The Terminator, it turns out, has led them to this place so that they can survive the inevitable: Judgment Day. The nukes are launched. Skynet has taken over the world and is attempting to kill humanity. As the music stirs, missiles soar into the skies and massive white blasts cover the surface of the Earth. It’s all-out nuclear war, and, basically, the death of civilization. John has, like so many chosen ones before him, finally come into his own and seized his heroic moment. Unfortunately, as we’ve been promised since the very beginning of this series, it has taken the near obliteration of the human race for it to happen.
Back in 2003, we’d never quite seen anything like this before, at least not on this scale. But it was also, in its own way, in keeping with the ethos of the Terminator series. The original, essentially a gritty B movie, had been made in 1984, back when the Cold War was still raging and nuclear war felt depressingly probable. By the time T2 came out, the Iron Curtain had fallen and there was a new sense of optimism in the air, but that film is practically obsessed with humanity’s destruction. Images of war and nuclear annihilation aren’t mere grace notes in T2; they hang over it like an endless gray cloud.
In 2003, two years after September 11th, we had entered the realm of the unthinkable again. Recent events had reinforced our vulnerability. While the idea of superpower rivalry had receded, our weapons of mass destruction still hung over humanity like some kind of real-life Chekhov’s gun; it became nearly impossible to imagine a world where someone wouldn’t at some point use them again. And T3, flawed as it may have been, went there, in a way no big-budget sequel ever had before. Sci-fi action flicks take advantage of the devastated future aesthetic of dystopia, and as a result almost make the apocalypse seem kind of cool — a lawless landscape of smoke, leather, and action-movie heroics. But very few actually show us how we got there.
The first two Terminator films, to their credit, made the future look like a genuine nightmare. The third Terminator film actually made the nightmare real. Maybe that’s why everybody’s now trying so hard to pretend it never happened.