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Friday 4 July 2003

"Desire Is Irrelevant":
A Review of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Jonathan Mostow
Written by John Brancato, Michael Ferris and Tedi Sarafian.
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Claire Danes, and Kristanna Loken

Those who sit through the interminable credits of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines may notice that visual effects are credited to an organization named "Giant Killer Robots". Clearly, as the subtitle suggests, machines are the focus of attention here. Still, the film provides frothy entertainment with disturbing subtexts, though it is interesting only as an intensification of its distinguished predecessors, not an original work of art.

The leading performers are actors pretending to be robots, thus given the enviable task of deliberately acting badly. The hero is the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the good robot; the villain is T-X (Kristanna Loken), the bad robot. They keep striving to kill each other using their own abilities and any other machines available to serve as weapons. Their battles are usually ingenious variations of the tried-and-true car chase scene, bringing in remote-controlled police cars (to completely eliminate the distraction of human participation) as well as a motorcycle, fire truck, crane, hearse, and helicopters, all employed to achieve as much property destruction as inhumanly possible. The human beings — chiefly, future savior of humanity John Connor (Nick Stahl) and ally Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) — are the McGuffins, devices to keep the plot in motion, as T-X's ongoing efforts to kill them keep bringing the Terminator back to fight another round in order to rescue them.

As evidence of the humans' essential unimportance, there is a scene late in the film when the robots have apparently been destroyed, leaving John and Kate to save humanity all by themselves. And this is profoundly disappointing to the audience; they aren't interested in these people, and the notion of prolonging the film after the noble death of its true hero seems to violate generic conventions. Needless to say, the robots return from the dead yet again, and in the end, what the humans achieve or don't achieve doesn't matter at all. The fact that neither the nervous Stahl nor the demure Danes seems credible as a courageous leader of humanity's coming struggle against the robots also doesn't matter; this film only requires actors who can appear persuasively weak in contrast to the strong robots who command the audience's attention. Indeed, given that the human characters are so peripheral to the enjoyment provided by the film, one might ask: why include them at all? Aren't their slow-moving scenes of character development simply depriving us of more metallicized slugfests? However, most people aren't yet ready to admit that they can be suitably entertained by a big screen version of Robot Wars, and hence must be occasionally reassured by the pretense that the film is really about human beings who merit their attention.

There are intriguing comparisons to make to another film about robots, Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. The dominant color in that film was a cool, contemplative blue. The characteristic color of Terminator 3 is an exciting bright red — T-X's red leather jumpsuit, the blood she tastes to test for DNA, the red-tinted vision and glowing red eye of the Terminator, the fire truck and flashing lights of police cars, the red envelope containing secret codes, and so on. Characters in A.I. constantly stare at their reflections, or are seen as reflections, in mirrors or glass surfaces, emphasizing the film's concerns with how one defines personal identity and what it means to be truly human. Characters in Terminator 3 are constantly destroying glass surfaces: the Terminator emerges into the present walking on broken glass, John smashes a glass medicine chest to steal drugs, T-X breaks car windows to get at her victims, the Terminator walks through a stained glass window to escape capture, and it later smashes a window to get at a large cylinder to use as a weapon. The only time anyone looks in a mirror is when T-X glances at one while searching for the Terminator in a restroom. Nobody in this film cares about the true nature of humanity; nobody has any interest in pondering their own images or wondering who they really are. Instead, they must quickly shatter their own reflections and get on with the business of winning the next battle.

This aura of grim determination is characteristic of the subgenre of science fiction that the Terminator films represent: survivalist fiction, stories about humanity's brave struggles to re-establish a free society after a nuclear holocaust destroys our repressive technological civilization. In this respect, the films do offer themselves as dubious commentaries on the human condition. They depart from the pattern of survivalist fiction in two ways. First, instead of the usual suspects — gangs of homicidal marauders and loathsome mutants — the surviving humans of the Terminator films are fighting relentless robots. Second, the saga of their successful effort to save humanity is kept off-screen, except for occasional glimpses, while stories center on attempts to alter its outcome by going into the past. The robots send a Terminator to kill the leader of the resistance before he is born or at a young age; the rebels send a human or reprogrammed robot back to protect him. But these visitors bring both the attitude and sensibility of survivalist fiction into our contemporary society. Civilization as we know it is effete, fragile, destined to be fittingly swept away in a coming holocaust; and in the nightmarish landscape that will follow, those who are tough enough to remain alive will necessarily subordinate civilized values to the overriding goal of survival at all costs. This is the message of all the Terminator films, delivered with special vehemence in this latest installment.

Thus, amidst its colorful mayhem and one-liners, Terminator 3 preaches that ends justify means. It's all right to drive at dangerous speeds, fire machine guns at crowds, and cause billions of dollars of property damage if what you are doing is sufficiently important. Here, all you need to do is to posit the death of humanity as the alternative to whatever action you propose, and anything goes. A special contempt is displayed for the most domesticated arena of modern society, suburbia: the film opens with a nuclear bomb hitting a pleasant neighborhood, and one spectacular scene has the Terminator madly driving across the lawns of suburban homes, crushing everything in its path. In the way it runs over a yellow ball and sends a multicolored playhouse flying into the sky, there might even be a subtle message about contemporary child-rearing: We're bringing up children that are too soft, children that can only play house; we must train them to shoot guns and throw grenades as essential preparation for the brutal world to come. And as in preceding films, a foregrounded theme is the transformation of gentle innocents into driven assassins. At first, both John and Kate show their tender sides: John has a motorcycle accident because he cannot bring himself to hit a deer in the road, and Kate gets up at 4:30 a.m. to treat a sick cat. But by the end of the film, John is building bombs, Kate fires a machine gun at a flying robot, and their prissy worries about animal rights are a thing of the past.

Survivalist fiction once envisioned the devastated future as a man's world, since only men were thought to possess the ruggedness, physical strength, and fighting skills needed to lead and protect bands of survivors against ruthless opponents and harsh conditions. Yet more recent stories embrace women as equal partners in the enterprise of rescuing humanity, as long as they are as strong and as lethal as men. This odd permutation of feminism also surfaces in Terminator 3. Most obviously, the bad robot determined to destroy the Terminator and the humans is a woman, said to be faster, stronger, and more intelligent than her male counterpart. It is also striking that the Terminator enters a traditional bastion of male chauvinism — a country-and-western bar — only to find that it is "Ladies Night," filled with assertive women eager to admire male strippers; and the first-generation Terminators that start killing people at the end of the film resemble big-bellied pregnant women.

More significantly, while earlier films valorized John as the sole savior of humanity, Terminator 3 provides him with a wife, Kate, who is almost as important, serving as his comrade-in-arms and second-in-command; and after he is killed, she becomes the leader of the resistance. Further, when she sends the Terminator into the past to protect John and her younger self, she programs it to obey Kate, placing her instead of John in control of events in the film's closing scenes. Critic Gary Kern has analyzed how Terminator 2: Judgment Day shifted the focus of the series from adults to children, putting the ten-year-old John in control of the Terminator and having him make the decisions that bring a successful outcome. In Terminator 3, there is in the emergence of Kate a shift from Kid Power to Girl Power. (It is not surprising that Hollywood would think of empowering little boys before it thought of empowering women.) Still, this belated argument that women can achieve full equality with men by making themselves into even better killing machines than men is unlikely to enthrall feminists.

Terminator 3 is a relatively brief film; one imagines it was severely edited to emphasize the action, giving audiences few moments to stop and think about what is going on. There are occasional portentous comments about Fate and Destiny and the like, derived from earlier films, which are intoned solemnly and then completely forgotten. Fleeting glimpses of the American flag suggest a halfhearted effort, as in Independence Day, to link our hero's mindless battles to a crusade for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. There are visual references to previous science fiction films: when Kate runs frantically through a graveyard in daylight, it recalls the opening of Night of the Living Dead; the slender probe that extends from T-X's hand to perform evil deeds reminds one of the more benign healing digit of Spielberg's E.T.; and in the film's final scenes, when T-X is reduced to a metallically monstrous appearance, she is distinctly reminiscent of the Alien, another avatar of destructive feminine force.

Based on responses to previous reviews, some science fiction fans think that a review isn't complete if it fails to discuss the film's lapses in scientific and narrative logic. As explained elsewhere, I regard such priorities as a misunderstanding of genres: films like Terminator 3 are more analogous to amusement-park rides and video games than to human dramas, and egregious idiocies remain embedded in their plots not because filmmakers are unable to notice and correct them, but because they believe, correctly, that they have no effect on their films' popularity. Therefore, I choose not to dwell on questions like these: If the Terminator was programmed to obey Kate's commands, why does he bruskly ignore her concerns for most of the film? If the T-X can run at great speeds, as she demonstrates in one scene, why does she spend the rest of the film walking sedately toward her targets, giving them ample time to escape or prepare a counterattack? Why on Earth would a facility devoted to computer research require a gigantic particle accelerator on the premises, especially one that doubles as a secret passageway to a runway? I can play the game, but I am not interested in playing it.

Perhaps the most revealing moment in Terminator 3 comes when the Terminator cuts open his chest and reveals that he has no heart, only mechanical parts and a spent fuel cell that must be removed before it explodes. Yet the film proves that serviceable entertainment doesn't need to have a heart, only a few rough-hewn ideas and a large budget for special effects. This may not be the sort of film I always desire to see, but the Terminator has an answer for that: "Desire is irrelevant. I am a machine." One wonders if resistance is futile.

Gary Westfahl is the author, editor, or co-editor of twelve books about science fiction and fantasy, most recently Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy and Unearthly Visions: Approaches to Science Fiction and Fantasy Art. He writes a bimonthly column for the science fiction magazine Interzone, and is the 2003 recipient of the Pilgrim Award for lifetime contributions to SF and fantasy scholarship.

Previous film reviews by Gary Westfahl:

Minority Report
The Time Machine
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

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