Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines: Arnold Returns to Form

But something more important is missing.

If I'd known that in the 21st century I'd be comparing James Cameron to Ernst Lubitsch, I would've begged for a cyborg to travel back to 1984 and put me out of my future misery. But here I am, walking out of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (which opens Wednesday, July 2, at the Meridian and other theaters), impressed with the mechanistic efficiency of director Jonathan Mostow, who took over the franchise after Cameron renounced it. Yet despite my satisfaction in seeing many large objects blow up real good, I find myself yearning for the Cameron Touch. Because we live in a movie world transformed by the Cameron Fist, we tend to forget about his Touch. The first Terminator gave us Schwarzenegger the zeitgeist star, muscular Republicanism in the flesh (wrapped, like all Republicans, around a cold, indestructible metallic skeleton), and Cameron the auteur of the titanic techno-epic (a bent that culminated in Titanic). But The Terminator's impact depended on the emotional transformation of star Linda Hamilton from incredulous Everygal to Mother of Future Rebel Leader John Connorthe collision of her human ordinariness with Arnold's sci-fi inhumanity. In 1991, T2 was then the costliest film in history; like Titanic, which topped it, T2's payoff was not mere brute action thrills but a humanizing story: Connor (Edward Furlong) bonding with his cyborg surrogate dad, teaching him slang, and retraining Arnold to stop killing people and maim them instead, like a compassionate conservative should. Admittedly, T2's main attraction was the then-startling new technology of the liquid-metal ("mimetic poly-alloy") skin of Robert Patrick's tougher-than-Arnold Terminator T-1000. Still, Cameron handled machines and effects with a kind of delicate awareness of their emotional meaning. Without his Touch, his films would've been stripped of their eerie, hypnotic allure. DIRECTOR MOSTOW has a Fist akin to Cameron's, but no discernible sense of Touch, which would've helped humanize T3's perfunctory, alloy-metal plot. Hamilton's character is dead (since she refused to reprise the role). Her son (In the Bedroom's Nick Stahl) is now hiding out from Terminators, living "off the grid" like an Idaho tax rebel. John happens to run into Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), a girl he once made out with in elementary school, the very night a mammata-mimetic poly-alloy known as the "Terminatrix" (played by the humanoid Kristanna Loken) arrives from the future to kill them both. Then Arnold's old-school Terminator beams down to save John and Kate. Mostow devotes most of the first bit of T3 to a playful chase scene in which the Terminatrix pursues John and Kate in the biggest trucks that ever trashed a quarter-mile set. It's mildly pleasant to see a 100-ton crane snap phone poles like toothpicks, and it's moderately clever that the Terminatrix can telepathically pilot extra cars besides the one she's driving. But the chase goes on too long to sustain its suspenseit's like Mostow needs to prove his Cameron-level action-movie chops. Also, the Terminatrix is far too dull a mechanical doll. By contrast, Species' Natasha Henstridge packed way more icy menace into some of the same murderous stunts. Loken makes you yearn for the comparatively Olivier-esque depths of Robert Patrick, who gave T2's melty-metal killer a genuinely mercurial dynamism. Though much of T3's action does boast a certain quicksilver grace, any shot Loken touches turns to lead. Where's Cameron when you need him? BUT YOU WANT to know whether Arnold's Terminator character is really back. Yes and no. He looks the part, and he makes his entrance naked, proving his pecs still defy gravity and do not fall like hanged men. His lines have a familiar sardonic ring; but as Paul McCartney said of a Beatles reunion, "You can't reheat a souffl鮢 And you can't reheat a Terminator twicewhen Arnold says, inevitably, "I'm back," the famous catchphrase falls flat. Don't get me wrong: He's handy to have around in an action flick, and his performance is just fine. But his character has no interesting new wrinkles: He's like Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, back by popular demand but prosaic, shorn of greatness. People keep laughing at Arnold's lines, but there's no spontaneity in performer or audience. And when he's dangling from the Terminatrix's rampaging truck crane, one thinks of Jiminy Cricket clinging to Pinocchio's nose. Meanwhile, Stahl is a terrific actor, but all he gets to do here is mope around with raccoon eyes until it's time for another chase scene. Danes' talent is appallingly squandered on a worthless role. Fianc頡nd father get predictably snuffed to propel the plot, and Danes' tears are wasted over the loss of characters still more superfluous than Kate. If you expect absolutely nothing but action scenes, you'll probably love T3. It even looks interesting from time to time. Explosions reflect prettily in Arnold's signature shades. Better still, when the Terminatrix melts so perilously that you fear she may not be able to reconstitute herself, her face does this cool, weird, ghostly rotting/growling thing. The big danger in a big action movie is the invulnerability of its protagonistssomething you never felt about Hamilton (or even Arnold in T2, who was pummeled way past his warranty). We miss the Cameron Touch: the mortal fear that drenched Aliens (his greatest movie) and the pathos that sank Titanic (where Leo dies for a song). At the end of T3, you just feel Mostow's Fist has pounded out another greedhead sequel. tappelo@seattleweekly.com

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