"I'm an obsolete design."
Looking at all the factors working against it, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is a movie that has no business being any good at all. Produced 12 years after the last entry in the series, the new sequel is an obvious cash-in on a franchise that already wrapped up pretty conclusively. Original creator James Cameron had no involvement, star Linda Hamilton dropped out, and even co-star Eddie Furlong had to be replaced due to his notorious personal troubles. The only crucial element to return is Arnold Schwarzenegger, clearly desperate to relive old glories after a career downturn featuring several costly flops such as Batman & Robin, End of Days, and Collateral Damage. What's more, in the time since the last Terminator, much of the franchise's humankind-vs.-evil-machines mythology had been successfully copied and expanded upon by the popular Matrix trilogy. The man assigned to revive the series post-Matrix, Jonathan Mostow, previously directed a few competent action movies (Breakdown, U-571), but certainly hadn't done anything to establish himself as an auteur on the level of James Cameron. It really looked like there was just no way this movie could possibly work. By all accounts, it should have been a complete piece of crap. And yet, somehow, despite all odds, T3 managed to pull through and deliver a surprisingly effective return for the hulking cyborg from the future.
As we last left things, young John Connor and his mother Sarah had successfully stopped Judgment Day, the predestined nuclear holocaust in which intelligent machines would exterminate most of the human species. "The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves", was the mantra Sarah instilled in her son. We pick up more than a decade later and are told that Sarah died of cancer, having lived just long enough to see that Judgment Day didn't happen. John (currently played by Nick Stahl of Carnivale) now lives a vagabond existence, trying to stay off the grid just in case his mother was wrong. Sure enough, one quiet night in Los Angeles a ball of energy materializes on Rodeo Drive, signaling the arrival of something from the future, and hey it's a sexy girl this time! Later, a second time portal delivers a familiar Austrian bodybuilder. Following the same formula that worked for T2, the first robot (a T-X model "Terminatrix") has been sent to hunt and assassinate John, while the second (our pal Arnie) was reprogrammed by the human resistance of the future to protect him. Much shooting, explosions, and metal-on-metal robotic destruction ensues.
Let's be very clear about this; T3 is not the masterpiece or classic that both of the previous Terminator films were. It's an unapologetic recycling of the second movie with just enough new elements and twists thrown in to keep things fresh.
The gimmick of a female Terminator sounds pretty corny but actress Kristanna Loken sells it, playing the role with a perfect blend of sex appeal and robotic menace. Her cyborg villain really doesn't bring anything innovative to the series that Robert Patrick's T-1000 hadn't accomplished the last time, but she establishes herself as an effective threat for Schwarzenegger's outdated T-800 model early on and provides sufficient motivation to propel the plot along. The movie also uses her to set up an interesting feminine dynamic. Loken fills the void of the tough female warrior role left by Linda Hamilton, which is positioned against Claire Danes as a new character in effectively the same position that Hamilton's was in the first Terminator.
Where Mostow and his screenwriters show their daring is their attempt to reverse the main themes of the second film. T2 ended on a note of hope, telling us that man sets his own destiny and won't be ruled by fate. T3 takes a much bleaker approach, insisting that Judgment Day can be postponed but not avoided. John's future is inevitable, and nothing he does can change it. That was a pretty ballsy decision that some fans objected to, but the movie works hard to convince us of its necessity.
Schwarzenegger is in great shape for 56 years-old, and I'll be damned if he doesn't look exactly the same in this movie as he did 12 years earlier. Mostow's direction is slick and efficient. His action scenes don't have the beauty and elegance of Cameron's, a trait sorely missed, but he does a perfectly fine job of wrangling the various stunts, explosions, and visual effects into a coherent and exciting package. Nothing here tops anything in the second film the way that T2 took the first Terminator to its next logical level, but in many ways it doesn't seem like it was meant to. While T2 was a hugely ambitious project, epic in scope and with the length to match, Mostow keeps T3's running time under 2 hours and structures it as a concise, unpretentious sci-fi action picture.
Sure, there are things to quibble about. The movie has several significant plot holes and violations of the franchise's established rules. The T-X robot has complex moving parts and chemicals, which the first movie explicitly told us couldn't be transported in the time portal. She also has the ability to infect other machines with a computer virus, and uses this to control a number of vehicles at once during the movie's biggest chase scene. Yet, logically, this just doesn't make any sense. Although contemporary cars use computers in their engines, driving them remains a manual mechanical process. The car's computer can't push down the gas pedal or steer. There's also a scene at the end involving an electro-magnet that only attracts certain metallic objects but not others at the convenience of the plot. Things like these are the result of sloppy screenwriting and could have easily been avoided with some extra polish.
Even so, Rise of the Machines works more often than it doesn't, which few would have expected. The movie isn't in quite the same league as its predecessors, but despite everything working against it makes for a surprisingly worthy sequel.
The HD DVD:
Terminator 3 debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Warner Home Video. With this release, the entire Terminator franchise thus far is now available on High Definition disc. The first two movies were released on the competing Blu-ray format earlier this year.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Terminator 3 HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
The video transfer looks terrific. Aside from the curious presence of some speckles isolated to the end credits, the source elements are otherwise spotless (as they should be with a recent movie). I saw no edge enhancement ringing or other digital artifacts. The minor amount of visible film grain is well compressed and never looks noisy.
Some viewers may be disappointed that the picture is slightly soft, but that seems consistent with the film's intended photographic style. Even if it's not razor sharp like some movies on the High-Def format, the T3 transfer has a very good sense of texture and detail, evident for example in the clarity of skin pores on the actors' faces. The picture has great colors and rich black levels with plenty of shadow detail, lending the image depth and a rich, film-like appearance. At its best, the disc makes you feel like you could walk up to the screen and just step into the movie.
The Terminator 3 HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. I was hoping for a lossless Dolby TrueHD track, but there's little to complain about with the quality of what we're given.
I'm sure no one will be surprised to learn that Terminator 3 has a hyper-aggressive sound mix featuring tons of directional surround activity and gloriously deep, hammering bass. We should expect nothing less from a recent mega-budget sci-fi movie. Sound effects are all crisply recorded and cleanly reproduced. Dialogue and music are also well integrated into the mix, rarely drowned out by the cacophony of the action scenes. The overall fidelity is fine, though a truly lossless track might have offered just a bit better clarity.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - Quebecois French DD+ 5.1 or Spanish DD+ 5.1.
The disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. Most of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying clicking sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).
Missing from the DVD edition are a T3 Visual Effects Lab section consisting of a few featurettes, and the Skynet Database and Terminator Timeline text trivia notes. The VFX stuff is sorely missed, but the text pages aren't much of a loss.
- Cast & Crew Commentary - Director Jonathan Mostow and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Daines, and Kristanna Loken participate in this audio commentary via separately recorded interviews. The other participants have useful and enlightening things to say, but all anyone will remember from this track are Schwarzenegger's outrageously sexist digressions about Loken and women in general. "This scene, with the enlargement of the breasts, is fantastic", gushes the Governor of California, then continues to ramble on and on about the subject for several minutes. It's a good thing he recorded his segment of the track alone, because I think one of the women would have had to slap him if they'd been in the room.
- Director Commentary - Mostow also delivers his own separate commentary discussing his intentions for the project. He's quite enthusiastic about the movie and the track is a worthwhile listen.
- Introduction by Arnold Schwarzenegger (30 sec.) A pointless clip in which Arnie, looking rather old, explains what DVD bonus features are. Why anyone would need this is a mystery.
- HBO First Look (13 min.) Typical promotional fluff, featuring interviews and a plot synopsis designed to hype the movie.
- Storyboards (4 min.) A boring comparison of storyboards to the movie's finished scenes.
- Dressed to Kill (2 min.) A brief look at the wardrobe design.
- Sgt. Candy Scene (2 min.) A short deleted scene explaining the origin of the T-800 robot's facial features and Austrian accent. The clip is rather funny but dumb, and clearly didn't belong in the finished movie.
- Terminal Flaws (3 min.) A remarkably unfunny blooper reel.
- Toys in Action (7 min.) An extended commercial for the Terminator action figure toy line. The extraordinarily nerdy Todd McFarlane attempts to explain the hard work that goes into designing and sculpting intricate likenesses of the movie characters, and then for the last minute or so gets very defensive (seemingly from out of nowhere) about being a toy-collecting and comic book geek.
- Making of the Video Game (9 min.) An extended commercial for the tie-in video game, which looks pretty awful.
- Theatrical Trailer
- PC Game Trailer
New to the HD DVD are:
- Crew Commentary - Jonathan Mostow returns for yet another audio commentary, this time joined by screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, cinematographer Don Burgess, and production designer Jeff Mann. The track is quite technical but interesting.
- In Movie Experience - Essentially amounting to a video commentary, picture-in-picture boxes alternate between the left and right sides of the screen over the movie image. Some behind-the-scenes footage and storyboards are contained here, rarely connected directly with the scenes they're played over. Most of the feature consists of talking head interview footage of Mostow repeating things he'd said in the other audio commentaries. The IME content is rather spotty, with a number of gaps, but fortunately the disc has been authored to allow you to skip to each new piece using the Left and Right arrow buttons on the remote. I still find the IME function to be an intriguing innovation for HD DVD, but this isn't its best implementation.
No, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines isn't as good as the previous two Terminator films. However, considering all the reasons why the movie really ought to outright suck, the fact that it doesn't is quite an achievement in itself. Against all odds and good sense to the contrary, it makes for a pretty worthy extension of a series thought finished. The HD DVD edition has excellent picture and sound, plus three good commentaries and the moderately interesting In Movie Experience feature. The other supplements are junk, but the disc has more than enough good points to merit a high recommendation.
The Terminator (Blu-ray)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Blu-ray)
U-571 (HD DVD)
HD Review Index
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player