"Terminator 3" is - in my opinion - quite a different film from the prior entries in the series. The first two films, helmed by director James Cameron, were dark, weighty and ambitious mixtures of sci-fi, drama and action that offered character moments and pauses in-between the action. Although Cameron has never been the strongest with dialogue, he's remarkable at just about everything else he puts his mind to (when discussing his "Abyss" in a making of documentary, I believe he said something along the lines of, "If I couldn't make '2001' underwater, I wasn't going to make the movie.")
This picture, done without Cameron's involvement apparently, is helmed by director Jonathan Mostow, who has made a name for himself with the cult hit "Breakdown" and the underrated "U-571". "T3" is noticably a bit more "popcorn" a film than the prior ones, but if it is, it's certainly a very above-average "popcorn" flick, with a decent story, some good chacter moments and - surprisingly - quite a bit more humor than the prior films. There's also a much shorter running time (this one clocks in at about 105 minutes, but feels like less), although given the fact that everything's really been set up in the first two films, that's not much of a concern.
This time around, John Connor (Nick Stahl, replacing a reportedly troubled Edward Furlong) is living alone around LA, moving from place to place and trying to keep his identity a secret. Elsewhere, a T-X (Kristianna Loken) has appeared in a department store window in LA. Arnold, er, T-101, has also been sent back in the future. Once again, there's one looking to destroy Connor (known as the future leader in the battle against the machines, if you haven't seen the first two films) and one sent back to protect him.
There's little time before the chase begins. After an accident on his bike, John seeks shelter and medicine in an animal shelter, which is where a former classmate, Kate (Claire Danes) works. She catches him, throws him in a cage and...that's when both Terminators show up. Dragged along for the ride - but for a reason I won't give away - Kate, John and the T-101 head for the hills, trying once again - this time with much slimmer odds - to stop a nuclear catastrophe.
And the ending, well...the ending will be seen as a fitting way to end the movie by some and a complete letdown for others. I'm sure debates will be heard by everyone exiting the theater.
"T3", reportedly done on a budget of $150m, is a smartly done effects picture. The film uses a mixture of practical and digital effects (a crane chase through the streets of LA is pretty spectacular), which is more effective and involving than just pure digital (at least I think). All of the digital effects are well-done and pretty seamless. There's also less in the way of cutting than most films - Mostow and his editors allow sequences to run their course smoothly. Reliable cinematographer (and frequent collaborator of director Robert Zemeckis) Don Burgess offers clean, well-composed views of the action. Burgess, while a great talent, has never seemed to be much for flashy camera movement, and that actually works well here.
The performances are generally quite good. Arnold seems a bit more comfortable in the role and the instances where he's funny without trying/meaning to be are occasionally pretty hilarious. Stahl provides a good, straightforward performance that's involving without being showy. Danes, whose involvement in an action film raised questions (not that's she's a bad actress, but just given her career history, it seemed like an unexpected choice), actually is a surprisingly good fit. Although her character's involvement in scenes may just not have been set up as well, Loken's T-X doesn't manage to be as intimidating or scary as Robert Patrick's T-1000 in "T2".
Aspects of the film could have been improved. Although very tight - which is pleasing in this age of films that could often stand to be tighter - the film could have added a few minutes beyond its 105 to expand upon some of the themes and events. There's a few too many scenes where I wanted to yell at the characters to, I don't know, run, maybe? Brad Fiedel's musical score should have returned for the whole film. While enjoyable, much of the movie starts to feel like a set-up for the fourth picture.
Overall, I found this to simply be an enjoyable, technically very well made actioner. Those expecting "Terminator 2" will likely be disappointed; the film lacks the impact of Cameron's feature. But, on its own terms, I found it entertaining.