One of the worst things a sequel can do is change the tone. The Star Wars prequels and The Matrix: Reloaded made the switch from campy, B-movie fun to stuffy, self-important snoozefests. Sure, there were some great action scenes, but after being hammered over the head with long periods of stilted dialogue and dwindling plot, it's hard to feel them. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines carries over the campy, fun tone of its predecessors. It has its problems that keep it from being great like The Terminator or T2: Judgment Day, but in a time when most science fiction/action movies try to be overly profound Shakespearian dramas, it's still an entertaining popcorn flick.
What's surprising about T3 is that its story doesn't feel tacked on like Jurassic Park 3 or Godfather III. Rather, it works to resolve the paradox left at the end of T2: After blowing up Skynet, John Connor, Sarah Connor, and Ah-nuld supposedly prevent Judgment Day from happening. Judgment Day is the day the computer program Skynet becomes self-aware, launching nuclear weapons on mankind that results in a war between man and machine. However, if Judgment Day doesn't take place, then, in the first Terminator movie, how could John Connor send Kyle Reese back in time to knock up Sarah? John Connor would never be born.
T3 serves to link all the 'free will' ramifications of T2 with the predestination that led up to it. It's a stark change in philosophy that will have some fanboys crucifying themselves over their laptops. But really, this paradox has always existed and had to be resolved somehow. In T3 we find out Judgment Day wasn't prevented-it was postponed. In a last ditch effort to screw over the humans, the machines have sent back the highly advanced TX (hot, leather-clad Kristanna Loken) to murder John Connor's lieutenants when they were still children. The humans send the obsolete T-800 (55-year old Arnold Schwarzenegger) to head her off. Both stumble upon twenty-something John Connor (played perfectly by scrappy, dog-eared Nick Stahl) who has just met Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), his so-called future wife. The heroes discover its Judgment Day; car chases and explosions ensue.
Though nothing could be cooler than the liquid-metal T-1000 in T2, the TX is surprisingly full of great ideas. She has a liquid metal exoskeleton, an arsenal of weapons that seem straight out of Doom or Halo, and the unique ability to control all machines around her. There's an incredible car chase involving a fire truck, a crane, and the TX manipulating other cars on the highway that actually compares to the motorcycle/semi chase in T2, and even to the "Hey look, we can do slow motion!" car chase in Matrix: Reloaded. In fact, the only real problem is that the TX may be trying to do too much--just the ability to manipulate other machines would have made for an interesting villain. Combined with her other abilities, it doesn't feel like there's adequate film time to show all her different strategies.
As for Ah-nuld, it's great to see him again, but T3's corny dialogue and cheesy humor might turn some viewers off, but I would kindly remind them that the Terminator movies have always had corny dialogue and cheesy humor. There's nothing particularly high-brow about Ah-nuld choosing "Fuck you, asshole!" from a list of agitated retorts or reciting squeaky-voiced John Connor's early 90's lingo. Still, the problem is that T3's humor often devolves into self-parody. When Arnold enters a gay bar or tells a flustered convenience store clerk to "Talk to the hand", it feels like a bad Saturday Night Live sketch. Moreover, since self-parody invites the viewer to laugh at the film instead of with it, a deadly serious scene following the self-parody loses some of its desired effect. The filmmakers hit the right tone in T3, but if the moments of self-parody were any denser, it would take away from the movie.
The glaring loss of Linda Hamilton and director James Cameron is initially hard to cope with. There are moments when new characters are introduced and you start to wonder why you should care and fondly remember a buff, sweaty Hamilton doing pull-ups. Though the story is pretty much the same-three narrative threads (good terminator, bad terminator, target) converging into one-it just doesn't flow as simply or as smoothly as Cameron's work. It's little problems like these-overly powerful villain, self-parody humor, clunky storytelling- that prevent T3 from making the leap from "good" to "great." But as it is, it's a worthy sequel because it matches the campy feel of its predecessors and actually contributes to the overall story. If you want to see a fun, action-packed movie, go see T3. If you want to see something symbolic and thought provoking, go hang yourself. It's summer, damnit.