Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, Kristanna Loken. Directed by Jonathan Mostow. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French). Two discs. 109 minutes. 2003. Warner Home Video 27723. R. $29.95.

Picture ***1/2
Sound ****
Film ***1/2

When approached a few years ago about directing a second sequel to The Terminator, director James Cameron is reported to have said, "Terminator 3? Without me." Well, here we are, 12 years after the 1991 release of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the 1000-pound canary of the franchise, watching Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. And James Cameron's name and influence are nowhere in sight.

That could have been disastrous, since Cameron was so closely identified with the earlier films. But it isn't. Director Jonathan Mostow may lack Cameron's deft touch with this material, but he brings his own unique sensibility to it. If the film doesn't exactly seem fresh, it's still highly entertaining. And it brings back Arnold Schwarzenegger in what may well be his last big action-hero film role, as he stops battling killer machines and starts battling killer state budgets.

The basic plot slavishly follows in the tracks of T2. Arnold's good Terminator, a cybernetic organism or android (the same model as in T2, only a new sample—remember, that one didn't survive T2), fights to protect a now-adult, future-hero John Connor (Nick Stahl). It seems that yet another relentless cybernetic being has been sent back in time to assassinate Connor; this time, the emotionless, evil assassination machine is an advanced TX design. This one is female, or at least is designed to look like one (Kristanna Loken): the TX's gender serves no discernible story purpose other than the ogle factor, gender being an irrelevant concept in the android universe—unless they're planning on making little androids the old-fashioned way, without power tools and soldering irons.

The hook here is that Judgment Day—the machine-triggered, ultimate nuclear holocaust—was not averted in T2, only postponed. As the characters battle to again reverse Judgment Day's seeming inevitability, T3 works its way up to a surprising third act, and in the process becomes more significant than most action epics with little on their minds apart from the next explosion or machine-gun battle.

All of this is helped immensely by the performances. Schwarzenegger was, of course, born to play this role. And in Nick Stahl and Claire Danes, Mostow has found two performers who can actually act and, in the process, make you really care about them. (Did anyone actually empathize with Edward Furlong's obnoxious, delinquent teenage Connor in T2?)

The video transfer is excellent, though just a little softer than the best we've seen in bright scenes, and a little grainier in the darkest. But the color is fine, there's no obvious edge enhancement, and the shadow detail in the film's many dark scenes is solid.

The audio is spectacular. The surrounds are highly active (a bit too active at times—some of the soundtrack music is routed into them), the effects explosive without tearing your head off even at high levels, and the dialog and music are smooth and clean. But most of all, I noticed the bass. It's not so unusual on the sound effects—though it's as robust as in any recent action film. What really grabbed me was some very deep, low-level bass thrumming along in much of the underscore, adding immensely to the film's mood. If your subwoofer is up to it, you're certain to hear more very low bass from this DVD than you heard in even the best-equipped theater.

The two-disc package is loaded with extras. Disc 1 has two commentary tracks, the first by director Mostow alone, the second with Mostow and cast members Schwarzenegger, Stahl, Danes, and Loken. Disc 2 includes new footage, a gag reel, featurettes showing how a number of the visual effects were created (a minor annoyance here: the lack of a "Play All" option), a "Making of" feature first produced for HBO, and more. My only real beef is one that I could level at any number of special-features discs: a crazy mix of aspect ratios. Here, the extras' menu screens are anamorphic, but the features themselves are either 4:3 or non-anamorphic letterbox. This forces owners of widescreen sets to either constantly change aspect ratios or keep their sets in wide zoom mode and deal with loopy-looking, cropped-off menus. Why haven't the folks who master these multi-disc editions figured this out yet?

But nit-picking aside, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines earns a strong recommendation—both as a film and as a boxed set.—TJN