End times

The third “Terminator” movie constructs a brutal vision of the future

Niels Strandskov

But Sacco’s name will live in the hearts of the people and in their gratitude when Katzmann’s bones and yours will be dispersed by time; when your name, his name, your laws, institutions, and your false god are but a dim rememoring of a cursed past in which man was wolf to the man.”

– “Last Speech to the Court,” Bartolomeo Vanzetti

There is a vengeful pleasure we can take in every apocalypse movie, no matter how banal. As disturbing as it is to contemplate our own death and the deaths of those people we love or feel sympathetic toward, it is delicious to imagine all the lousy jerks who plague our everyday existence finally getting their due. The “Terminator” movies improve on this craving for retribution by making the apocalypse particularly intimate. Wouldn’t you just love to see the look on the boss’s face when a T-800 bursts through the door of his post-doomsday hovel and blasts him to smithereens?

“T3: The Rise of the Machines” indulges Vanzetti’s ghost with its final shots of Judgment Day unfolding. However, the two hours that lead up to this vindication do not fail to give “Terminator” fans a taste of the things they love about the franchise.

Set in the present day, “T3” takes place after the death of Linda Hamilton’s character Sarah Connor, and follows the travails of her son John Connor (played by Nick Stahl rather than Edward Furlong due to the latter’s unfitness for duty.) A new model Terminator, Kristanna Loken, has been dispatched to kill Connor, and another old T-800 has also been sent to save him. Sound familiar? It won’t be the last thing in this film that does.

Loken’s turn as the ne plus ultra of Terminators is not as ideologically toxic as it could have been. No doubt part of the decision to cast this Terminator as female comes from the box office bonus associated with the quasi-nudity that the producers are able to insert when she is sent back from the future. The filmmakers are to be commended for including only one instance of Loken using her “feminine wiles” (when she encounters a police officer in her second scene.) However, a later encounter with a victim is troubling. After killing a woman, the Terminator dips her finger into a gunshot wound and puts it to her lips to do an on-the-spot DNA analysis. Finding that the result is negative, she moves on in search of her quarry. Then however, she finds some of John Connor’s blood on a bandage. Touching her finger to her lips again, Loken gives a little orgasmic shiver as we see her heads-up-display flashing “primary target.”

This is all tied in to the ongoing homage to the series’ creator James Cameron on the part of director Jonathan Mostow. Loken’s physical presence does not have the rawness of either Hamilton in “T2” or Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens,” but nonetheless it is a Cameron-esque depiction of feminine power. Not that Cameron has ever had anything very radical to say about women and power. In contrast to Weaver and Hamilton, who find victory precisely when they deploy violence in the service of maternity, Loken is inevitably frustrated in her attempts to dominate. Victorious instead are Claire Danes as Katherine Brewster, Stahl’s love interest, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the obsolete T-800.

The Brewster character grows into her power as she moves closer to eventually becoming a wife to John Connor and a mother to his children. When the die is cast and the two future lovers are escaping the machines, Danes picks up an AK-47 and blasts a flying assassination drone apart. Stahl glances at her meaningfully and says “You remind me of my mother.” Immediately after that comparison, she paraphrases Weaver’s line “Stay away from her, you bitch!” line from the finale of “Aliens.” Effective domination for women in Cameron’s universe is always accompanied by a grudging acceptance of biological destiny.

Schwarzenegger likewise finds victory in a traditionally maternal approach. We learn that he has been reprogrammed at the direction of a future Katherine Brewster, and his behavior, with its pushiness, impatience, self-sacrifice and overwhelming protectiveness, corresponds to a caricature of motherhood. When Stahl says “You’re the closest thing to a father I’ve ever had,” he might as well complete the thought and identify the terminator as his mother as well.

So the gender politics could be better, there’s no question about that. Still, this is a Hollywood blockbuster. When we enter the multiplex, we enter into an implicit social contract to have our fantasies repackaged, sanitized and sold back to us. Though their product is often retrograde and offers little to challenge the hegemony of misogynistic aesthetics in our culture, filmmakers like Cameron deserve at least a little commendation for having the persistence to realize at least a few of their personal fetishes on screen.

The night that descends at the close of “T3” may be deracinated, but it is inescapably a nightmare, if a comforting one for the rebels and pessimists among us. The good and the bad will perish alike. All the despicable laws and authority of human society will cease to exist along with everything beautiful and good.

Of course, a la “The Poseidon Adventure,” there has to be a morning after. That’s where the delightful fantasy breaks down, since John Connor’s future resistance is hierarchical, white, heterosexual, male and apparently not much cleverer than the machines. Vanzetti’s prophecy is only half accurate. The wicked shall fall, but it seems very unlikely that they’ll ever be replaced by righteousness. If this is the best humanity can offer, perhaps it would be better to leave the planet to the cyborgs and cockroaches and see if they could make a better go of it.

Niels Strandskov welcomes comments at [email protected]