Here's a thought which, as a wise old woman once said, will really bake your noodle. Jonathan Mostow's Terminator sequel isn't a sequel at all. Nope. Like James Cameron's own T2, it's a prequel. Yes, T3 might take place 22 years after the end of the first movie, with John Connor (Nick Stahl) now scrambling for the world's survival while deadly Terminatrix the T-X (Kristanna Loken) seeks his annihilation. But, technically, it all happens before the start of The Terminator, in which Duh Machines of Duh Future sent back the original Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to off John's mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton, absent from Episode Three).
Does not compute? Oh, fair enough. Try this for a theory, then. Terminator 3 ain't a sequel or a prequel. It's a remake. You have two Terminators - - one state-of-the-art, the other "obsolete", as Arnie puts it. You have two protagonists: one savvy to their destiny and prepped for survival, the other wide-eyed, terrified and forced to re-evaluate their life (in this case, Claire Danes' vet, who's dragged along for the ride). You have a plot structured around a series of balls-out chase sequences, big explosions and brutal, 'bot-on-'bot smash-ups, punctuated by desert-set scenes of the main characters pondering their doom. And at one point, our heroes ignore the advice of their Arnie-shaped protector to ride back into danger for the benefit of a parent. Sound familiar?
The similarities to T2: Judgment Day run deeper than that but there's no denying they provide a strong comfort factor for the audience. You can't ignore the shiver of anticipation that accompanies the Oak's reappearance in those trademark leathers and you can't help but punch the air with glee as the Arniebot piledrives into his electrorival for the first time.
Jonathan Mostow has always exhibited a knack for knowing what an audience wants from an action thriller - and then delivering it by the shovelful. In this sense, at least, he's a worthy successor to Cameron as head of the T-franchise. Take the crane-rig chase scene, in which Loken's femmebot smashes Schwarzy through buildings and oncoming traffic while simultaneously closing in on Connor using nanotechnologically controlled cop cars. It easily matches Matrix Reloaded's longer freeway sequence simply by feeling more real. And the Arnie/Loken toilet smackdown is visceral stuff, even though we know they're both machines. Schwarzenegger flies through cubicle walls, Loken has her head smashed through urinals, porcelain flies, water sprays and the audience winces and whoops.
But these are merely standout moments in an otherwise join-the-dots movie. The T-X is a decent enough invention and Loken summons up the requisite amount of steely menace, but she's far less impressive or efficient than her predecessor, the liquid-metal T-1000. She may be able to fire electrical blasts by turning her arm into a dildo-like contraption, but why did her creators bother going back to that old endoskeleton structure if it's so flawed? And as for the introduction of the modern-day Terminators, we have one word for you: Daleks. Cough.
The human element doesn't fare a lot better. Nick Stahl's John Connor is initially intriguing: a dropout who lives "off the grid" in case any other automatons are shunted his way. But he quickly descends into a whining weakling. Claire Danes does her best as the token gutsy female but, despite being told by John that she reminds him of his mum, she's more Sarah Connor in T1 than T2. Which means she spends the first half either screeching or blubbing.
And the big man himself? Well, it's good to see Arn back in black. But at times you have to wonder if he's trying too hard to parody his former incarnations. A vein of humour is always a good thing in a summer smash-banger, especially as Matrix and Hulk lacked it. But sometimes Arnie's more comic relief than fierce protector, and the self-mockery very nearly sucks the moody, apocalyptic atmosphere away completely.
A bold climax offers some rectification, although it does arrive rather quickly and you might be wondering exactly how T3 was the "most expensive movie ever greenlit". We reckon most of the budget was spent on CG-ing out Mr S' wrinkles. After all, it is a prequel. Remake. Whatever.
Fun actioning from Mostow and Arnie, with enough in there to give the franchise a new spark of life. Just don't expect it to rewire the summer-blockbuster machine.