There are few action directors who can measure up to James Cameron. Whether filming terrorists in modern day America, robots from the future come to destroy the earth or alien nightmares in outer space, James Cameron is capable of unleashing all his resources to produce a massive and unequaled spectacle that is nevertheless grounded in a kind of steel and dirt reality. Any director today can blow 200 million dollars on special effects to produce a low of digitized noise and computer graphic fury. What James Cameron can do is give the material weight, no matter how absurd it might seem. His heroes suffer, his machines take up space and as ridiculous as the plot might see, the whole thing lives in the moment and somehow above it all manages to matter.
Replacing James Cameron is a little like pinch hitting for Babe Ruth. It’s not for the faint of heart or the weak. You may not be able to equal James Cameron but you can either play to your own strengths or if you lack them, do your best to follow up what he did. And in a way that’s what Jonathan Mostow did on Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines, creating what was billed as the world’s most expensive indie movie. Jonathan Mostow’s previous filmmaking experience had been limited. Aside from some B-Movies his cinematic efforts had consisted of Breakdown, a generally ignored movie starring Kurt Russell fighting some truckers in what seemed to be a merger of Steven Spielberg’s Duel and an Alfred Hitchcock pastiche. Then Mostow had done U-571 a well intentioned but ignored Dreamworks movie, aside from the outraged British viewers irritated by its revision of WW2 history. Nothing had really prepared Jonathan Mostow for tackling a sequel to what had been one of America’s biggest action movies and T3 showed that all too well.
The first two Terminator movies had pretty clear plots. They were essentially stories of survival in which the protagonist and his or her armed protector fled from an invincible killing machine while in the process coming to a realization of the nature of their destiny and their fate as well as the entire future hanging in the balance. The Terminator movies were films that very much lived in the moment the way frightened people do as they run from one obstacle to another with hardly any time to breathe. The action scenes were the relentless hammer blows that sent them frantically scrambling for survival.
Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines under Jonathan Mostow resulted in a project that demonstrated that he was very much aware of the action scenes but not of the context. The action scenes in Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines are calculated set pieces that stand out the way a drum solo stands out. The action scenes are where Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines stands out and shows off but they lack the panache and flair of James Cameron’s work. There is a calculated showiness to them when there really is very little to show off. Instead Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines is filled with action scenes that are vastly inferior in quality and ambition to anything in Terminator 2.
Yet the biggest apple in the worm, the most fundamental and devastating error that crippled Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines could be expressed simply enough as the casting of the lead role in Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines. If Linda Hamilton had served as the lead in Terminator and Arnold Schwartznegger as the lead in Terminator 2, it fell to Nick Stahl to serve as the lead in T3 and that proved to be a grave mistake.
Edward Furlong had brought a core brashness and energy to his role in Terminator 2. Nick Stahl brought indecisiveness and blandness to the same part. You might have imagined the sort of leader Edward Furlong’s character might have grown into but the only kind of man you could see Nick Stahl’s John Connor becoming was a mediocrity. Nick Stahl’s John Connor in T3 Rise of the Machines was a drifter, unfocused and uncaring. The flesh was weak and also unwilling.
Where John Connor was meant to be a loner, John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris decided that the best way to go was to get him a girlfriend. Enter Claire Danes as Kate Brewster, the daughter of a general and animal lover, who is meant to be a young Linda Hamilton with John Connor becoming his father thus closing a circle with the original Terminator movie. Unfortunately neither of them are up to the task. Claire Danes is no Linda Hamilton. Claire Danes would have worked in a movie about 19th century romance or 20th century schoolgirl angst but Terminator Rise of the Machines is neither. Instead she merely drifts along, lacking a presence and lacking any real drive or energy. With John Connor and Kate Brewster both weak characters, the remaining burden has to be shouldered by the Terminator himself.
When Arnold Schwartznegger returned to Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines he was setting a model that Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis would follow with Rocky, Rambo and Die Hard sequels. And like them the first thing audiences would notice in the sequel was that the action stars in question were simply too old. If in the first two Terminator movies, Arnold Schwartznegger strides through like an unstoppable killing machines, in Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines, he staggers and wears an undeniable weariness. He is no longer a killing machine. The novelty of the Terminator turned rescuer is gone and replaced now with a familiar character forced to shepherd two kids through the end of history.
As his opponent, the screenwriters and producers dug up a gimmick that had been tried with the first Terminator adaptation, Terminator The Burning Earth. A hot female Terminator. The gimmick does not go very far. The problem is there is simply no real way to top the T1000 as an unstoppable force, capable of impersonating anyone, entering any space and impossible to kill. By contrast the T-X is simply a female Terminator who seems sleeker but vastly inferior to the T1000 and generally underwhelming.
Stir all these elements together and the result is underwhelming mediocrity and that is exactly what Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines was. Mediocre. Only in its final minutes as the world ends does the movie suddenly come alive.