A Terminator film without James Cameron at the helm (or Linda Hamilton in the cast, for that matter) seemed unthinkable, something akin to an Indiana Jones film without Steven Spielberg at the helm. But director Jonathan Mostow (U-571, Breakdown) doesn't embarrass himself or his inimitable star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. In fact, he does a sturdy enough job to suggest the franchise might limp along, with or without Schwarzenegger.
Accordingly, the filmmakers remind us in the end that there is, potentially, more story to be told in the future. As for the present, John Connor (now played by Nick Stahl of In the Bedroom) lives day to day as a tortured transient, paranoid despite the seeming assurance of the last film that the rise of the machines (and the ensuing apocalypse) had been averted. In voice over, he tells us, "I can't erase my dreams, my nightmares." In one of Mostow's finest strokes, Connor drops a beer bottle from an overpass to a culvert below, seeing it--in his mind's eye--sink to a bed of skulls (Cameron's favorite image of the machine's devastating siege on humanity).
Soon, Terminators are ripping through the space-time fabric once again: a newfangled T-X (Kristanna Loken) and an old-fashioned T-101 (Schwarzenegger). For this to happen, screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris must wrench open the door nailed shut in the last film, and they do so cleverly, though the credulity of the paradoxical timelines is stretched to its limit. Caught up in the revised timeline: Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), a woman from John's past, and Kate's father Robert (David Andrews), a military muckety-muck in charge of the ominous Skynet defense network. Skynet is, of course, the Pandora's Box destined to give rise to a tyranical artificial intelligence bent on destroying Homo sapiens.
Mostow answers T2 with a couple of elaborate, clanging car chases, the first involving a giant crane, a fire engine, and remote control. The ensuing business involving the leather-clad Schwarzenegger toting a coffin full of artillery and commandeering a hearse is Mostow's most distinctive, mordantly funny set-piece. The T-101's mission is, again, to protect John (and now Kate), but John and Kate--bickering like the love interests they are--get it into their heads to warn Mr. Brewster and avert a nuclear holocaust.
That much of Terminator 3 seems familiar is both a liability and a strength. The filmmakers are trapped into repeating many of the beats of the last film, but wisely layer those action motifs with moments which mirror the first film: Danes becomes a wide-eyed surrogate for Linda Hamilton's hardening innocent, and the T-101 is an object of menace and salvation. Stahl gives a wry spin to the part originated by Edward Furlong. Schwarzenegger still gets to drawl terse one-liners, many patterned after the catch phrases of the last two films, while his T-101 is now humorously programmed to psychoanalyze. Some of the glib references undercut the Terminator character, but que sera sera, baby.
Like the film, Loken admirably sells her premise without truly taking it to a higher level (Robert Patrick was decidely more other-worldly as the T-1000 of T2). The multitasking, Swiss-Army-armed T-X (or "Terminatrix") also serves to round off the gender roles of the series, and Mostow works hard to make her an iconic Hell's Angel to match Schwarzenegger's alpha male (one clash of the Terminators--a bathroom bust-up--is a brawling highlight).
With splashy digital effects and punchy stuntwork, the solid T3 slides along enjoyably, but doesn't have the impeccable story and visual design of the previous entry. The film ends, however, on an arrestingly evocative, forlorn note which provides a satisfying resolution--if not to the saga, at least to this chapter of the series.