It’s a controversial opinion, so I’ll go ahead and state it up front: Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines is in a lot of completely unironic ways my favorite Terminator film. I admire the low-budget grit and iconic presence of the original Terminator and the ground-breaking special effects and action sequences in Terminator 2, but there’s a self-importance to those films that I find off-putting. I think there are interesting philosophical ideas in both those movies that can be engaged with, but I’ve always found the melding of the examination of paradoxes and free will and human self-determination with a story about time-travelling genocidal robot assassins to be an almost textbook exercise in bathos.
I realize that this makes me sound like a bit of an old man, but hopefully by now you know that I’m as big a sci-fi nerd as anyone else. I think that SF and speculative fiction cinema, when done well, can be more observant regarding culture and modern-day society and more engagingly philosophical than many a self-professed “artistic” film, while also retaining the ability to entertain a wide array of audiences. In just the past decade, look to District 9, Children Of Men, or Minority Report as examples of films that seek to make statements about the way we live while couching their messages in genre entertainment, with films like The Matrix mixing even more outlandish philosophical arguments with cutting-edge gunplay.
It’s difficult to place James Cameron at the upper echelon of this populist-philosophical spectrum, though. I like Cameron’s films, almost without exception, and he’s undeniably one of the most proficient and technically capable directors around, able to roadmap special effects techniques years in advance and using them to aid in storytelling. When he’s backed up with solid acting, his human relationships can be touching, or even compelling (I’m thinking chiefly of Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in The Abyss here). But there’s always a bit of strain behind the presentation of his ideas, a bit of inelegance, as if we were watching a very bright high school-er struggle to make A Statement without the language needed to properly frame an argument. There’s a bit too much of the black and white in his films, pure good vs. implacable evil (witness Avatar), something that makes them enjoyable on a surface level but resistant to deeper interpretation.
There is a kernal of something interesting in the Terminator films; mankind has struggled with the notion of destiny and free will probably since the moment our brains were capable of conceiving a deity. Is there a God? If so, is he omnipotent? If so, doesn’t he know precisely what will happen in our lives? If so, are we even capable of making real choices? Do our actions matter at all? If God can see everything, are we pre-destined for Heaven or Hell? Cameron’s slightly brilliant idea was to reframe these ideas within the context of a war with killer robots, Skynet effectively being a vengeful God (even if it was a God we created for ourselves), come to wipe the Earth clean, not with a flood but with nuclear bombs and skeletal hunter-killers.
Of course, the major difference between Cameron’s universe and classical theodical discourse is that, in the end, mankind can fight back against the robots, can somehow escape their destiny, to not wind up on the losing end of a genocide. As Sarah Connor sums it up: “The future's not set. There's no fate but what we make for ourselves.” It is a message of hopefulness, of determination, of the peculiar persistance of mankind to survive in the face of almost overwhelming odds. It’s simplistic, sure, but inspiring in a completely mild way.
So, of course, Terminator 3 decided to basically say “Nope! Sorry! Everyone’s gonna die no matter what you pesky humans do.” The path T3 took to the big screen was a byzantine one, with the rights to the franchise passing through multiple hands and studios; James Cameron had apparently long before announced the film, but as he long ago had sold the rights to the story for the famous sum of a single dollar (in exchange for being allowed to direct the first film), he refused to come back to the franchise, and thus we were left with Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines, directed by Jonathan Mostow.
I feel bad for admitting this, but one of the reasons I enjoy T3 so much is that it allows me to enjoy a bit of schadenfreude: I can’t imagine what James Cameron must’ve thought as he watched the film for the first time. Its ending is an almost perfect middle finger to the philosophy that Cameron espoused in his films: the struggle of John Connor is pointless, in the end, because Judgment Day is inevitable. This is, of course, a complete reversal of everything that Cameron had written and theorized in his original film and its sequel. I bear Cameron no ill will, but T3 might be the single most expensive film ever made that points to the ideas of a single man and says “You’re wrong!” And there is something to be enjoyed there, unless, I suppose, you believe sincerely in Cameron’s philosophy.
To me, though, again, Cameron’s ideals of fighting fate has always been a bit of a simplistic one, especially in comparison to the philosophers that have chased that particular rabbit around the track for two millennia. It’s the kind of thing you’d see plastered on a bumper sticker on a Volkswagen Bug, or on a placard at an anti-Skynet protest in Berkeley, so the idea of this 180-degree shift in tone struck me as being particularly hilarious in terms of repudiating the entire philosophy of the films that came before it. That would change were I in Cameron’s shoes, of course; I would be livid to the point of rage. (Reportedly Cameron said he thought the movie was “great,” but I can only imagine that that word was uttered through clenched teeth.)
I take no special pleasure in needling Cameron; I just find the entire situation to be fascinating. In the end, though, Terminator 3 might’ve been necessary for the long-term health of the franchise; a slavish devotion to the notion of judgment day delays would’ve seen John Connor fighting against ever more powerful Terminators in each movie, finding the specific piece of technology that Skynet needs to come into existance, blowing it up, then fading away off the grid and lying low until the whole cycle starts again. You could make a basic kind of cyclical series on that idea, with Connor as some kind of low-tech James Bond or a recurring messiah figure, but I can’t imagine that it’d be very exciting after a while. T3’s ending was fantastically bold for a $200 million film: how many summer action blockbusters conclude with the extermination of 99% of the human race?
What’s more, T3’s tone felt much more applicable to the material, for me, than did Terminator or T2. Again, time-travelling genocidal robot assassins. That is a concept that is fucking ridiculous on the face of it, and while T2 had a bit of understated humor to it, T3 surprised me by wringing a surprising amount of laughs out of the audience, as well as living up to the action legacy of the series with some genuinely impressive setpieces. I like Nick Stahl better than any of the other on-screen John Connors, Claire Danes did a great job considering she got the role after the film started filming, and Arnold showed an appreciable sense of humor in poking fun at himself and the role he made famous in Terminator and T2. I mean, have you seen this goddamn deleted scene?
Don’t get me wrong; I can see why people would dislike Terminator 3. For me, I’ve never held the previous films in such high regard that T3’s somewhat sacrilegious take on its source material was all that offensive; instead, I just found it to be somewhat amusing, and as such I could appreciate T3 as a big, dumb popcorn movie. Maybe I’d like the previous films a little bit more if they had loosened up in the same way. (And if Ed Furlong could somehow be edited out of T2.)
I’m crazy, aren’t I? I’m sure we have plenty of Terminator die-hards in the Screened audience, so I’m curious to see what you make of all this. Is Terminator 3 the worst in the Terminator franchise? The best? A horrible insult to what Cameron created, or a poke at the self-seriousness of his ideas? Let us know in the comments!