WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
As the 2003 summer movie season drew to a close, I was somewhat puzzled that Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines didn't generate more excitement during its theatrical run. Helmed by experienced action director Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown, U-571), T3 is a way-above-average summer spectacle that triumphantly confirms the Terminator saga as one of the most satisfying in science-fiction cinema. I concede that the early trailers for the film didn't inspire the average moviegoer (including myself) with confidence. But fortunately, T3 crashed through the low expectations engineered by its trailer and really delivered.
I remember sitting in the theater, just waiting for T3 to suck. I was sure that moment would arrive at some point—that sighing moment of sagging hope—and my head would drop, and I would repeatedly wince, and I would let the movie stagger toward its end credits. But that moment never came. In fact, the more T3 unspooled before me, the more I found myself excited by its action spectacle, its true characters, and its relentless and inevitable crash course toward its conclusion. And what a conclusion! This is a movie with guts, and largely because of that, it's one of my favorites of the year.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines gets right down to business. In present-day Los Angeles, John Connor (Nick Stahl, replacing T2's Edward Furlong)—the previously established last hope of future humanity—is leading a life of uncertainty and despair, caught between an absurd destiny and a cold reality. Soon enough, his world is turned upside-down by the simultaneous arrivals of two Terminator cyborgs from a ghastly machine-ruled future: the old reliable T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), just like the one that young John bonded with in T2, and a top-of-the-line model TX (Kristanna Loken), a bodaciously hot babe-bot killing machine who seems one cyborg generation above Robert Patrick's T-1000 model in T2. As Connor is thrown headlong into his destiny, he meets up abruptly with animal-doc Katherine Brewster (Claire Danes), who is linked with John's destiny and whose military father—in a coincidence that proves almost too hard to swallow—could be the man responsible for the ultimate and inevitable rise of the machines. T3 is a long series of action sequences leading to a military base where all three films will come to an extremely satisfying, slam-bang conclusion, which includes—among many other delights—a fantastically brutal knock-down slugfest between two single-minded Terminators. Suffice it to say, I can't remember being this satisfied with the ending of a major Hollywood film since, perhaps, David Fincher's Seven, or as Mostow says in his commentary, the original Planet of the Apes.
But there's more to T3 than its action sequences. I enjoyed the streamlined sense of narrative that the director brings to the franchise. Look at Mostow's Breakdown, and you can see the no-nonsense trajectory of T3's forward momentum. I also genuinely enjoyed the sense of humor that Mostow and his writers have brought to these proceedings. There's a sense of poke-in-the-ribs glee to this film that recalls the previous installments but never goes too far. For example, the scene in which the T-800 finds his leather outfit is a riff on a similar scene in T2, but this time it's played for knowing laughs, and we think, Okay, this movie wants to have some fun. (If I'm bringing up the specter of T2 a lot, that's because T3 echoes that film not only in its mythology but also in its structure. But that's part of the fun!) The greatest compliment I can pay T3 is that its creators have bowed to the spirit of The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day and, even with a surprising degree of humor, have produced a sequel that can stand proudly alongside its predecessors.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Warner presents Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is an absolutely pristine anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 2.35:1 theatrical presentation. More than any recent film that I can think of, this is a truly filmlike presentation that boasts no obvious evidence of artificial sharpening or enhancing. If you really search for it, you might notice the slightest ringing on some hard edges, but it's quite minimal. The result is an image of startling clarity and depth.
The film's color palette—a warm change away from the steely blues of James Cameron's world—translates effortlessly to the smaller screen, boasting fiery reds and autumnal oranges and, in general, a more earthy feel. Colors never bleed, and blacks are rock solid. Flesh tones are particularly striking, looking warm and alive.
I have almost nothing to complain about with this image. We've gotten to the point where the most impressive DVD transfers are besting the theatrical experience, and that is definitely the case here. Given the choice to watch this film for free at our local high-end multiplex or down in my basement home-theater, I'd choose the home experience.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The DVD offers only one English audio choice, but it's a doozy. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track—advertised as Dolby Digital 5.1 Audio for Maximum Home Impact—is so absorbing and impactful that I have no doubt it will become your demo soundtrack of choice. I must say, I'm a huge fan of this recent trend among DVD producers to create a special audio mix maximized for the home-theater experience. The other, most recent example is The Lion King. These two recent DVDs have shown off my theater's sound system in new ear-opening ways.
There's so much happening in this mix that your head will spin. Particularly in the film's action sequences, all speakers are alive with sound in motion. The movement of sound effects from speaker to speaker is remarkably fluid, giving the onscreen action a wonderful sense of aural kinetics. Explosions surge past you, and you can almost feel their heat. Bullets ricochet behind you, and you feel like ducking. Vehicles crash to your left, and you feel the impact like a thud against your theater wall. You feel like you're part of the action. And watch out for that subwoofer—you might think it's trying to pound its way through your floor.
But the dynamics of this sound mix don't end with the action sequences. Stereo separation across the front gives the movie a generous openness. The dialog sequences have a warmth and clarity that actually feed the emotion of small moments. And the score gently flows from all channels. This is one of the best audio tracks I've ever heard.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Warner has assembled a collection of extras that amounts to merely a pretty good peek into the making of Terminator 3. There are a couple of not-to-be-missed features, an array of mediocre items, and—unfortunately—some crap.
Primary among the extras are two audio-commentary tracks. The Commentary by Jonathan Mostow, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, and Kristanna Loken isn't quite a fabulous as it sounds. The participants were recorded separately, and because of that, much of the group-hug joy that might have characterized this track is gone. There are some lively moments, but I really missed that sense of witty camaraderie and jokey back-and-forth that you get in other group commentaries. Plus, although it's nice to hear Claire Danes (one of my favorite actresses) talk about her role, she's new to commentaries, and her comments are stumbling and awkward. She even says, "It's so hard to watch a movie and talk at the same time!" It is fun hearing the governor of California going on and on about huge breasts. Arnold also has a lot to say about the physical work he had to do to achieve the same body type he had in T2.
I enjoyed the Commentary by Jonathan Mostow a bit more. He provides a non-stop narration of behind-the-scenes minutia, covering everything from the logistics of filming a nude woman on the streets of Beverly Hills to the public reception of the film's controversial ending. I enjoyed his discussion about the difference between the T-800/John Connor relationships in T2 and T3—in T2, the T-800 is a father figure, and in T3, he's more like a drill sergeant. He also talks about his insistence that the film's CGI work be as photo realistic as possible.
The only other extras on Disc 1 are the film's Theatrical Trailer (in anamorphic widescreen) and the Video Game Trailer.
Disc 2 starts with a 30-second Introduction by Arnold Schwarzenegger. He tells you what the disc has in store for you and ends with, "I'll be back."
My hopes were high for the advertised Documentary, but in reality, it's just a 13-minute HBO promotional piece called Inside Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Nevertheless, you should give this thing a watch, because its energy is contagious and there are some behind-the-scenes peeks that are amusing. You get brief talking-head interviews with Schwarzenegger, Danes, Stahl, Mostow, Loken, Stan Winston, and producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna.
Next is the curious Sgt. Candy Scene. I'm somewhat baffled by this 2-minute oddity, which I at first thought was some kind of faux Cyberdine commercial but then thought was a deleted scene. In it, Arnold adopts a hilarious southern African American accent, and for that, it's worth watching. This scene seems to explain the origin of the T-800's Austrian accent.
Terminal Flaws: Gag Reel is a 3-minute collection of bust-ups and mistakes on the set. There are three or four good laughs, but that's about it.
T3 Visual Effects Lab is the most impressive extra on Disc 2. This feature deconstructs four of the film's signature special-effects sequences. After a 3-minute Introduction, you can click through the following four sections:
Crane Chase (8 minutes)—Glimpses of the stunt work and CGI process.
TX Transformation (8 minutes)—10 months of intricate morphing effects!
Future War (9 minutes)—Use of miniatures and forced perspective.
Crystal Peak (9 minutes)—A look at the T-800/TX battle.
Also included here is a silly interactive Create Your Own Visual Effects studio, in which you can build a few special-effects shots with various elements. It ain't as cool as it sounds.
Next is the Skynet Database, which you can access after answering a simple quiz. Inside, you can read text-format details about plot and characters in the form of Skynet archives.
The Terminator Timeline is a series of text-based screens that basically regurgitate obvious plot points from the three films. There are no epiphanies here, and this feature is definitely not as cool as I hoped it would be.
Storyboards lets you watch a 4-minute piece of finished film accompanied by the original storyboards.
Dressed to Kill is a fluffy 2-minute piece about the characters' costumes.
Toys in Action is a 6-minute commercial for Todd McFarlane's T3 toys.
Finally, you get two more commercials for the video game: the PC Game Trailer and The Making of the Video Game. All right, already!
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Although this DVD's supplements leave a little to be desired, its main attraction—the film itself—is something to savor. It's a fitting conclusion for a remarkable trilogy, and the disc's video and audio presentations are absolutely top-notch. For that, this DVD gets a high recommendation.