Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines marched us all to our doom

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The Verge is a place where you can consider the future. So are movies. In Yesterday’s Future, we revisit a movie about the future and consider the things it tells us about today, tomorrow, and yesterday.

The movie: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, directed by Jonathan Mostow

The future: The Terminator movies are, with the exception of Terminator Salvation, more about fighting the future than living in it. What glimpses of it we get are usually bleak: human civilization is leveled, reduced to rubble by the rogue artificial intelligence Skynet, which seizes control of the world’s nuclear stockpile to use in a pre-emptive attack on its biggest threat: humanity.

A funny quirk of this film and the one preceding it is that while they are mostly set in “the present,” they do not take place in the year the movies were released. 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day is set in a version of 1995 that’s mostly meant to feel contemporary. Similarly, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is set 10 years after that movie, a present-day 2005 virtually indistinguishable from the 2003 the movie was released in. (Except, of course, the killer robots the government is secretly working on.)

That’s the point of these movies: we are always working towards our doom. Terminator 3 hammers this point harder than most. Arguably the darkest film in the franchise, Rise of the Machines is about what happens after we avert our pending doom, and the answer is that things don’t get much better.

At the start of Terminator 3, John Connor (Nick Stahl) is not relieved at having stopped the T-1000 that was sent to kill him in 1995, nor is he at peace with knowing the nuclear apocalypse predicted for 1997 has not happened. Instead, he’s a burnout wrestling with the trauma that comes with a lifetime of being prepared for a war that never comes. That is, until it does, in the form of a new Terminator, the T-X (Kristanna Loken). With no knowledge of Connor’s whereabouts, Skynet has sent the T-X back in time to kill all of future Connor’s lieutenants on the eve of its activation. John Connor’s survival doesn’t avert disaster — it just postpones it.

“Judgment Day is inevitable,” the eponymous Terminator played by Arnold Schwarzenegger tells Connor when he arrives, sent from the future to protect him and his future wife Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) from the T-X. And, despite their best efforts to shut down Skynet, the machine masquerading as a man is proven right. The movie’s ending is mean and definitive: John and Kate, locked in a bunker, as nuclear missiles criss-cross the globe. The future leader of the human resistance isn’t meant to stop Judgment Day, but survive it.

The past: The road to a third Terminator film was long and troubled — a combination of rights disputes, scheduling, and budget conflicts made what seemed like a no-brainer drag on throughout the ‘90s. By the time the film arrived, over a decade later, it no longer had writer/director James Cameron involved, and star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career was in a strange lull following the delayed release of his terrorist-hunting flop Collateral Damage. For two years at the turn of the century, there were no blockbuster movies lead by one of the biggest stars of the previous decade. Soon, he’d garner headlines not for movies, but his unlikely and successful gubernatorial campaign, which began shortly after Terminator 3’s release.

In the minds of many, Rise of the Machines was defined by what it lacked: not only Cameron, but every other Terminator star besides Schwarzenegger. No Linda Hamilton, who declined to return and so was killed off-screen. Nor did Edward Furlong, the young actor who played John Connor in T2, return — cast but then replaced by the studio due to substance abuse problems. There’s also the matter of the decade in between installments — a decade in which Terminator 2 was one of the most influential and cited films in history. How do you follow that?

The answer is simple: you don’t. Nathan Rabin, writing for The A.V. Club, argued that Rise of the Machines is exactly what the original Terminator was: “ an overachieving low-budget B-movie that became an instant classic. T3, while far from a classic, is an overachieving, mercenary sequel that’s short on thrills, but surprisingly long on laughs and surprises.”

Less charitable readings of the film would say much the same thing, but not in such warm terms. A. O. Scott in The New York Times called it “loud, dumb and obvious”. Most folks likely walked out of the theater somewhere in the middle, like EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum, acknowledging the movie as inessential, but still a good time — especially when compared to that summer’s other big blockbuster, Ang Lee’s Hulk.

The present: Ultimately, it’s Terminator 3’s pitch-black ending that makes it worth highlighting now, in 2020. Rise of the Machines isn’t really interested in treading new ground — none of the sequels, with the exception of 2019’s genuinely good Terminator: Dark Fate really care to explore things that James Cameron did not in his first two films — but the futility of its story takes on new meaning in the modern cinematic landscape.

The world ends in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines because it has to; without a nuclear holocaust, there is no Terminator franchise, nothing to build a sequel around. The thinness of its fictional mythos is reflected in its signature catchphrases: there is nothing lyrical about the phrase, “I’ll be back.” It’s only notable because Schwarzenegger said it, and that he said it into a culture that equally idolized and mocked his foreignness for decades. And yet, it’s a vital part of the Terminator formula. In Rise of the Machines, Arnold tweaks it: she’ll be back. In other movies like Dark Fate, it’s Sarah Conner who says it. And, like the robot that somehow ages the way a man does, we stretch an already-thin layer of flesh and blood over the machinery of franchise cinema, and puzzle over how odd it looks and behaves.

You can get a lot of mileage out of existential dread. Despite there being few new ideas in any given Terminator movie, only one, Salvation, is a slog to watch. Perhaps it is a byproduct of narcissism; in the world of the Terminator movies, we have to keep pushing, have to keep innovating in order to take a bigger slice of the world, to exercise more control over it, to ultimately be the architects of our own extinction. Rise of the Machines inadvertently argues that this is the point: while we ostensibly watch them to see humanity prevail, they are movies where we cheer for the end of the world.

At the time this is being written, two would-be blockbusters — The New Mutants and Tenet — are opening in theaters that, given the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the United States, should not be opening. And yet, the public is being urged by theater chains and actors to go back to the cinema, to do something that could harm them, just to keep the Hollywood machine going. Because keeping that alive will always be more important than any one person.

Judgment Day is inevitable indeed.

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