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'Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines'

Flat acting levels a spectacularly animated 'Terminator 3'

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

The only thing more fearsome than a terminator is an ex-terminator, which is what Arnold Schwarzenegger is until the new, improved terminator sent to terminate him turns out to be nouvelle instead of nouveau. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do in "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" -- even if it's no way to treat a lady.

 
 
"Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines"

Rating: R, for strong sci-fi violence, language and brief nudity.

Players: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, David Andrews, Kristanna Loken.

Director: Jonathan Mostow.

Critic's call:

   
 

In "Term 1" (1984), inspired by the works of Harlan Ellison, a cyborg from the future is sent to kill a seemingly innocent Earthling. In "Term 2: Judgment Day" (1991), a kinder, gentler, reformed rather than orthodox cyborg arrives to protect the savior of humanity from a rival terminator.

Similarly in "Term 3," the blond robotic femme (Kristanna Loken) is plenty fatale. Nick Stahl plays our reluctant messiah and Claire Danes his veterinarian sidekick, drafted against their wills to thwart the diabolical designs of Skynet, a megalomaniac computer coddled by Danes' dad (David Andrews) in the Pentagon.

It opens with the horrific vision of an atom bomb as our hero-narrator delivers a long, ponderous lament concerning his past and future fears: a war between man and machines that could kill 3 billion people. But thus far, at least, no nukes have fallen and J-Day was averted -- wasn't it?

Popular misconception: Not canceled, just postponed. Rescheduled for exactly three hours from now.

"Term 1" and "Term 2" director James Cameron declined the "Term 3" assignment in favor of Jonathan Mostow ("Breakdown," "The Game," "U-571"), who fills it chock-full to brimming with the spectacular digital animation and animatronix effects we've come to expect. Breathless chase scenes feature hundreds of remote-controlled vehicles whose technology I don't remotely understand, mowing down everything in their path, from telephone poles to mausoleums.

All this absurd violence is great fun; it's what the folks pay their money for.

Ah, if only the characters, human or cyborg, were as compelling. Stahl and Danes are not wildly charismatic. And there's an unsuspenseful ho-hum predictability about villainess Loken, a kind of Wile E. Coyote who keeps getting pulverized and springing back to life. She's like one of those annoying trick birthday candles that flares up again every time you blow it out.

Nobody gets much help from screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris' sparse, dubious dialogue. ("Do something!" yells Danes to Stahl at one point.)

But if the third-Term time is not quite a charm, Arnold himself is every bit as charming as ever.

He and I, by the way, are exactly the same age (look it up) and have other similarities: We both speak German, are terrified of bikini waxing, have fab abs (he pumps iron, I aluminum) and delusions of political grandeur. The resemblance doesn't stop there, but I'm running out of space.

Schwarzenegger's dual mission here is to save humanity and the movie. He achieves the former, but the jury -- if I'm foreman -- is hung on the latter. Batting .500 is better in baseball than in blockbusters but in any case commendable, thanks less to his cyborgian superpowers than to his deadpan humor.

Asked recently about his forthcoming California career plans, Schwarzenegger replied, "A few days from now, I have one of the most difficult decisions of my life -- what to wear on the opening night of 'Terminator 3.'"


Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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