One of the Greatest Sci-Fi Films Ever Was Followed by a Lackluster Sequel
It's hard to follow greatness.
James Cameron may not be the most elegant filmmaker, but his films have an assured grace that elevates them above their many inferior imitators. That’s been the case ever since 1984’s The Terminator, in which Cameron delivered a rough-and-ready sci-fi horror action film that felt simultaneously refreshing and befitting of the era it was born in. Throughout his career, Cameron has made films that don’t reinvent the wheel so much as operate so smoothly they remind us why we have wheels in the first place.
That’s not as easy as it sounds, which is why so many filmmakers have tried and failed to follow in Cameron’s footsteps. More often than not, their movies only lack Cameron’s muscular, grandiose approach to action filmmaking, and the oft-forgotten heart that lifts his characters out of their archetypal shells. That’s certainly the case with 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, a blockbuster sequel that comes up devastatingly short of the filmmaking and storytelling highs of its two iconic predecessors.
20 years later, Terminator 3 no longer holds the title for the worst entry in the franchise, but it will forever mark when the series started to go off the rails. Rise of the Machines feels like the genesis of all the flaws that have since plagued the Cameron-created franchise.
Directed by Jonathan Mostow, Terminator: Rise of the Machines starts well enough. The film’s opening apocalyptic images are stylish, and the narration by Nick Stahl’s older John Connor sets it up to be an effective continuation of 1991’s T2: Judgement Day. The veneer quickly begins to wear off, however, once it introduces its villain, a female-designed Terminator known as the T-X (Kristanna Loken), then uses Loken’s good looks as an excuse to make a cringey sci-fi boob joke.
Rise of the Machines follows its villain on its mission to kill the younger versions of its future enemies, only to inevitably cross paths with a T-850 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) that’s been sent back in time to prevent the death of Stahl’s John Connor. In other words, the film follows the same basic formula as T2, which only makes its numerous shortcomings more apparent. Rise of the Machines feels like a lesser, cheaper version of the films that came before it.
That’s not to say that the movie’s visual effects aren’t impressive, or even that all of its action sequences are unwatchable. There’s just a sheen of cheapness that covers Rise of the Machines. Not only does it look worse than The Terminator and Judgment Day, but it lacks the memorably prickly characterizations that helped those two films stand out. Stahl’s John Connor is, for instance, a far-blander version of the punk kid that Edward Furlong brought to life in T2.
The absence of Linda Hamilton’s self-trained, paranoid Sarah Connor only drags Rise of the Machines down further into mediocrity. Without the emotional intensity that Furlong and Hamilton brought to T2, Rise of the Machines is left with a cast of boring, poorly drawn characters. Claire Danes, as John Connor’s future wife Kate Brewster, seems completely lost throughout T3, and given how little emotional material she’s provided, it’s not hard to see why.
One of the greatest achievements of Cameron’s first two Terminator movies is how they deliver action sequences that are riveting and essential. In both The Terminator and Judgement Day, Cameron’s set pieces feel organically tied to the plots at hand and the emotions of those involved. Rise of the Machines doesn’t pull off the same trick. Many of its action sequences seem perfunctory, which just makes the film itself feel all the more inconsequential. Unfortunately, most of the Terminator films that followed Rise of the Machines repeated and amplified its mistakes.
That the sequels have been worse doesn’t make Terminator 3 any less difficult to watch. On the contrary, it’s impossible to look back at the blockbuster without being overwhelmed by a sense of extreme disappointment. To watch it is to see a previously sterling franchise slowly but surely begin to rust right before your eyes.