Considering that it lacks James Cameron, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong and Brad Fiedel, I find “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003) to be a pretty darn good – if inferior – follow-up to the first two classic films. Other moviegoers (including the We Hate Movies podcasters, who recently posted a “T3” episode) are less forgiving of this three-quel, which is directed by Jonathan Mostow from a script by John Brancato, Michael Ferris and Tedi Sarafian.
“T3” is most well-known for the “Planet of the Apes”-esque twist in the final act where we learn Sergeant Brewster was not sending John and Kate to Skynet’s central computer, but rather to safety. As the T-850 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) says earlier in the film, “Judgment Day is inevitable.” Still, on the first viewing, this was a surprisingly fatalistic twist that returned to the theme of the first movie and set up the fourth movie, while also forcing John Connor to complete his hero’s journey. Almost suicidal mere moments before, he takes the microphone and acknowledges he’s in charge.
The early part of the film is nothing to sneeze at, although some viewers had trouble getting past Sarah’s absence and John’s reversion to a somewhat whiny attitude a la the early part of “T2.” The film has fun with the saga’s tropes (the T-850 procures clothes at a male strip club) and continues the second film’s sense of humor and penchant for one-liners (“Talk to the hand”), even if it does eschew transitional scenes to keep the action moving. The middle part of the movie delivers an almost hilariously entertaining chase scene where the T-X – driving a crane truck — drags the T-850, dangling from the end of the crane, through several cement buildings. The final act almost does it one better with a head-to-head showdown where the robots smash up a bathroom. The T-850 smashes a urinal over the T-X’s head at one point.
Helped along by the earnest performances by Nick Stahl (who even delivers exposition with gusto) as John and Claire Danes as Kate Brewster, “T3” ends with a powerful voiceover atop a beautiful piece of music by Marco Beltrami. “T3” isn’t a masterpiece like the first two, but I think it’s a worthy continuation.
CHARACTERS AND ACTORS
John Connor: Nick Stahl takes the baton from Edward Furlong, who apparently wasn’t strongly considered for the role due to his issues with alcohol at the time. Stahl is a better actor, and he resembles Furlong enough that it works. We didn’t know at the time, of course, that the continuous recasting of John would get out of hand in the years ahead. I believe Stahl is the only actor to play both Present Day John and Future John, and I wouldn’t have minded Stahl sticking with this role for more yarns. At the film’s beginning, John wants nothing to do with his destiny; by the end, he’s forced to embrace it. John is 23 in this movie (see the “Continuity and Contradictions” section for how this is possible). In the future timeline that the time travelers emerge from, John is killed on July 4, 2032 by the T-850.
Sarah Connor: She dies of cancer off screen between films in 1997. Linda Hamilton apparently was not interested in reprising her role based on early “T3” scripts. While it would’ve been better if Sarah had died on screen in a dramatic moment, it fits with the Joseph Campbell hero’s journey that John should lose his mentor at this point and be forced to go it alone.
Kyle Reese: He’s not in this movie, nor is he mentioned, but we can assume he’s John’s dad in this timeline just like any other.
Kate Brewster: Played by Claire Danes, Kate will go on to be John’s wife and second-in-command in the Resistance. Through the T-850’s exposition and bonus scenes in the novelization by David Hagberg (p. 211), we learn that Kate reprogrammed this T-850 in 2032 and sent it back through time. While Kate is antagonistic toward John early in the film (which makes sense, as she thinks he and a musclebound Austrian have kidnapped her), it turns out she actually remembers him affectionately as her first kiss in Mike Kripke’s basement when they were in junior high, at age 13 in 1994.
General Robert Brewster: Kate’s dad, he’s the bigwig at Edwards Air Force Base. The Air Force has contracted with Cyber Research Systems (CRS) to launch Skynet. He presses the Y (for yes) button that gives Skynet self-awareness, then realizes he has opened Pandora’s Box and – with his dying breath — sends John and Kate to the safety of the Crystal Peak fallout shelter.
Dr. Silberman: Other than Schwarzenegger, Earl Boen is the only actor to return from the previous films. Still working as a therapist and having convinced himself that he imagined the events in “T2,” Silberman briefly counsels Kate before seeing the Terminator and running away. In the Malibu comics, Silberman is institutionalized, and in the S.M. Stirling books, he is an ally of Sarah.
Tony Flickinger: Given a name only in the novelization (p. 51), this man is the Cyber Research Systems tech genius behind Skynet, the heir to the works of Miles Dyson and all the other pseudo-Dysons throughout “Terminator” lore.
T-850: Played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the T-850 is the next iteration of the T-800, featuring a stronger endoskeleton, two fuel cells (which explode when unstable) in his chest, and the ability to use psychological tactics to manipulate human behavior. I had it in my head that T-850s show aging, whereas T-800s do not. However, “Genisys” shows that both models show aging. Unlike in “Genisys,” where Arnold says he’s “old, not obsolete,” he believes he’s obsolete in “T3.” The 101 (Arnold) model of T-800s and T-850s are patterned after a U.S. Marine named Sergeant Candy (p. 246). Schwarzenegger plays this role, with a dubbed over Southern accent, in a deleted scene on the “T3” DVD. In the Stirling novels, the 101 model is based on an intelligence agent named Dieter von Rossbach.
T-X: Also called the Terminatrix in the book and promotional materials (but not in the film), the T-X is a significant step up in technology from the T-1000. It boasts a liquid metal skin over an endoskeleton; can analyze blood samples; can make plasma guns, flamethrowers and saws out of its arms; can control other machines either through direct or remote interface; and can expand its boobs to distract cops. Kristanna Loken plays the T-X coldly, similar to Robert Patrick’s approach with the T-1000. Whereas the T-1000 adopted the look of a cop as its default visage, the T-X comes through the time bubble looking like Loken. The T-X’s goal is to kill John and a couple dozen of his lieutenants. She’s the first female Terminator in the films, although there had been several in the comics and novels before this.
T1s: These ground robots with tank treads and dual machine guns are developed by CRS in 2004. Strictly speaking, they aren’t Terminators, but they are arguably an ancestor.
Endoskeletons: We see these classic models in the opening future scenes, as is tradition with these films.
T-800s and T-1000s: In the novelization, there’s a junkyard of these obsolete models outside Skynet’s Colorado headquarters (p. 20). Skynet has scrapped them, making way for the T-X.
CONTINUITY AND CONTRADICTIONS
“Terminator 3” takes place in 2004, 10 years after the events of “T2.” But John tells us in the opening voiceover that he was 13 during the events of “T2.” All previous materials established that he was 9 or 10 during that movie. The real-world reason for the discrepancy – according to IMDB’s Q&A section on “T3” — is that the filmmakers felt John looked 13 in “T2” so they retconned him to be 13. While it might’ve made more sense to set “T3” in about 2007 and leave the past movies as they are, the filmmakers didn’t take that route so we have to deal with it.
The in-universe explanation for the contradiction is that this is a different timeline where the events of “T1” take place in 1980 or ’81, with Sarah at age 20 or 21 at that time. Indeed, her tombstone reads 1959-1997, so that fits. The fact that it’s a different timeline could also explain why John looks different. Despite being a different timeline, the broad strokes follow from the previous films, so “T3” at least works as a spiritual and thematic sequel.
Hagberg’s novelization gives us another small but significant clue that this is a new timeline. Cyberdyne went bankrupt and became CRS in 1993 (p. 152). So it seems the 1994 attack on Cyberdyne in this timeline was actually an attack on CRS, even though John says “Cyberdyne” at one point.
The novelization opens with the traditional Resistance attack on Skynet’s Colorado HQ (it’s called Navajo Mountain here). In both the book and film, we see some of these scenes via John dreaming. He raises the U.S. flag to signal the Resistance’s traditional 2029 victory (p. 27), although the fact that the war continues makes it clear this is not the ultimate “smashing the defense grid” victory. The war also continues beyond 2029 in several other novels and comics, going all the way back to the Now Comics.
The Resistance raises the American flag to signify its 2029 victory. We learn later on through exposition that John had teamed up with U.S. military remnants to form the Resistance, thus explaining the use of the flag. The Now Comics, the Dark Horse 1984 saga (namely “Hunters and Killers”) and the Russell Blackford novels promoted the idea of a U.S. Resistance that works loosely with fellow groups in other parts of the world (i.e. “the Cuban Resistance,” “the Russian Resistance” and “the European Resistance”). In the Stirling novels, some of the U.S. military back Skynet and some join the Resistance. In some stories – including “T3” – the U.S. military builds the weapons Skynet will later use; in others, all of the machines are built by Skynet after it becomes self-aware. In might’ve been interesting to see endoskeletons with U.S. flags on their chasses in some stories, but the saga has shied away from that; humans are able to reclaim the iconography of the American flag if they so desire in most “Terminator” lore.
We only see T-1s and small Hunter-Killers at CRS in 2004, whereas T-600s and T-800s are still in the design phase (p. 207). But in the timeline the T-850 is sent back from, T-800s predate Judgment Day (p. 146). In the original timeline described by Kyle in “T1,” T-800s are fairly new in 2029. In the Dark Horse 1984 saga, they first come off the assembly line in 2009. “T3” gives us the earliest invention of Terminators of any timeline up to this point.
John having dreams of the future calls to mind Kyle having dreams of another timeline in “Genisys.” In the novelization, Kate also sees the future (p. 288).
The T-X uses a remote link to other machines to control them; the chase scene features several cop cars chasing John without drivers. This calls to mind Stirling’s “Future War,” where Skynet remote-controls newer vehicles as an opening salvo in the war. Whereas Stirling explains this thoroughly, “T3” does not.
Skynet’s ability to defeat a chess master (p. 205) is a pivotal moment in its development. “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” features a more detailed arc along these lines.
In “T3,” there is no central computer for Skynet, nor does it ever personify itself. It is simply out there in the remote digital cloud, as with “Genisys.” This makes it tough to fight, although apparently it becomes centralized enough in 2029 that the Resistance scores a victory that’s worth raising a flag.
TIMELINES AND TIME TRAVEL
As with all “Terminator” movies up to this point, the action begins with an evil Terminator and a good protector emerging in the Los Angeles area, having journeyed from the future. There’s a little less explanation each time: Kyle explains it in detail to Sarah in “T1,” then we get a simple voiceover in “T2,” but “T3” eschews even a voiceover. We just understand that because it’s a “Terminator” movie, it’ll start with a couple of naked people or cyborgs popping up in time bubbles.
Hagberg’s novelization explains the future side of the story, though. In 2029 at the the Navajo Mountain “continuum transporter” (Hagberg’s word for what is usually dubbed “time-displacement equipment”), Skynet sends back the T-X to 2004 to kill a couple dozen of John’s lieutenants, and John too if possible, although it doesn’t expect to find him (p. 56). In 2032, John is killed by a T-850 (so I guess Skynet hadn’t scrapped all the old models), Kate reprograms it and sends it back to 2004 (p. 211). Kate uses a continuum transporter located at the “CRS Main Research Center and Control Annex” near Los Angeles. The T-850 emerges in the Mojave Desert shortly after the T-X emerges in an L.A. shopping district.
Because the T-850 goes from L.A. to the desert, and because the T-X goes from Colorado to L.A., we can infer that neither of these continuum transporters are locked to a point in space. The TDEs in “All My Future’s Past” were, but the saga has strayed from that idea since then. “Genisys” is the latest yarn where a TDE can be programmed for both a date and a location.
Since the T-X enters its continuum transporter three years before the T-850 does, we can also infer that there is a timeline out there where the T-X succeeds in its mission in 2004.
Skynet becomes self-aware and launches the J-Day nuclear bombs all on the same (unspecified) day in “T3.” The time and date of the launching of the bombs matches precisely with what the T-850 knows from its own timeline. In the timeline outlined by the T-800 in “T2,” there was a 25-day gap in August 1997 between self-awareness and J-Day. In “T3,” it seems Skynet has been doing a lot of its learning before it is given total control of the military. It’s implied that Skynet creates its own “virus” in order to inspire the military to hand over total control so it can eliminate the virus.