In the post-millennia sea of overblown action epics with inflated running times, the third installment in the Terminator franchise is a lean, mean breath of action, defying most low expectations and proving that you don't have to be James Cameron to know what makes this successful and entertaining series tick. What T3 does effectively is bring back the mix of highly intense action, character-driven humor, and technological wizardry that the big screen had been lacking for more than a decade since Terminator 2: Judgment Day. There's a direct understanding of the series core dynamics, and once things kick in, there's no doubt that you're back in Terminator-land. Arnold Schwarzenegger eases back into the role effortlessly, bringing an understanding to the lovable cyborg that goes beyond simple line delivery and stoic screen presence. Joining him are Nick Stahl and Claire Danes, new faces to the Terminator films that bring fresh energy to the work, especially Stahl's wearied approach to John Conner. Danes is an unlikely choice, but made a suitable (if not just too "known") substitute when her role was recast when the first actress was deemed "too young" during filming. It's not too easy to follow up Robert Patrick's steely-eyed breakout performance either, but Kristanna Loken's deadly TX Terminator manages to put her own villainous stamp on the series -- easily holding her own against Schwarzenegger's iconic screen presence.
More than anything, what drives this film is the man behind the lens, Jonathan Mostow, the director of such effective smaller thrillers as Breakdown and U-571. This being his big-time proving ground, Mostow pulls off the once-deemed impossible feat and cranks out a Terminator flick that embraces audience's popcorn sensibilities without any of the personal flash or style upon which some of his bigger, more-expensive peers thrive. It doesn't hurt that he also surrounded himself with the same visionaries behind the series' highly evolved special effects work, namely Stan Winston and Industrial Light and Magic. With unprecedented practical robotic effects mixed with top-of-the-line (at the time) CG work, the big screen magicians deliver some truly show-stopping moments that are pure movie-making magic. Score-wise, the classic theme and its composer Brad Fidel are indeed sorely missed. There's nothing in Marco Beltrami's work that matches the urgency of Fidel, even if the filmmakers knew exactly when and where to use it. Naturally, many other criticisms have been levelled against the film -- some valid and some not, though all come down to a matter of personal taste when it comes down to it. Even considering most of the arguments, Rise of the Machines still proves its worth thanks to its ingenious ending that leaves John Conner in the exact place that his character needs to be left in the series -- something that this entry desperately needed to prove its inclusion. Schwarzenegger did come "back" for this one, and audiences everywhere should thank him for it.