A Killer Robot Movie With a Heart

"I am an obsolete design," Arnold Schwarzenegger's T-101 says with as much melancholy as a machine can muster, but hearing the line spoken in "Terminator 3" makes you wonder if the actor had himself in mind as much as his character.

For, as a 55-year-old action hero whose most recent films include such inert efforts as "End of Days" (1999) and "Collateral Damage" (2002), Schwarzenegger might well be considering whether he's being similarly frozen out by a film industry that assumes his best fighting days are behind him. But, like that resilient mechanism, he still has enough moxie in him for at least one last hurrah before possibly heeding the siren song of public service. "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" and its story of the 101's battle to stay competitive with the newest model assassin, the sexy T-X (Kristanna Loken), fills that bill quite nicely.

An expertly paced and efficient sci-fi thrill machine, "T3" effectively marries impressive action sequences with persuasive storytelling and its star's uniquely appealing style of "No" drama -- as in no reaction, no expression, no emotion of any kind.

While "T3" would not have been made without Schwarzenegger's participation, it would not have succeeded without the ability of its less-famous director, Jonathan Mostow. Though his name lacks the marquee value of that of James Cameron, who ably directed both predecessors, Mostow's skillful work in his own previous features, "Breakdown" (1997) and "U-571" (2000) made him a shrewd choice here.

In those films as well as this, Mostow shows a gift for doing action right by not dumbing things down and by emphasizing the underlying reality of even far-fetched situations. And, unlike directors who come to action from music videos and commercials, he understands the necessity of connecting mayhem to human storytelling.

In "T3," Mostow has in effect made a big little movie, bringing the leanness and pacing of old-fashioned B pictures to an elephantine, $175-million project that has five producers and four executive producers. Unlike the original "Terminator" or the first "Matrix" (1999), this film does not break any new ground stylistically or thematically, but it also doesn't have a big head and thus avoids falling victim to the pretension that hampered this year's "Matrix" sequel, "The Matrix Reloaded."

Also, again paralleling B movies, "T3" has been given an unexpected level of darkness. An intriguing sense of malaise and dread hangs over this film, as though the creative team has thought through the implications of the original "Terminator" narrative and realized they are not necessarily happy ones.

If anyone in the audience doesn't know that story, "T3" smartly recaps it in the film's opening voice-over, in which twentysomething John Connor relates that mechanical killers from the future, terminators, have twice tried to murder him because he is fated to grow into a commander who will lead remnants of the human race to victory in a war with a deadly machine complex.

Instead of being ecstatic at the prospect of all this glory, Connor, ever the reluctant champion, has opted to hide instead. Since he knows that something awful -- the destruction of almost all humanity in a nuclear attack called Judgment Day -- has to happen before he can become a hero, he "feels the weight of the future bearing down" on him.

One of the many shrewd moves "T3" has made is casting Nick Stahl as Connor. Stahl is especially good at conveying the lost, haunted, fearful side of this young man. Connor should feel safe after defeating the machines in the previous film (when he was played by Edward Furlong), but he doesn't, instead choosing to live off the grid, without address or phone number, so the machines can't find him.

As Connor surmises, Judgment Day turns out not to have been stopped but merely postponed, and the machines have sent T-X to kill not only him but also his future lieutenants, who include old childhood friend Kate (Claire Danes).

Convincingly played (no small task) by Loken as the kind of glacial blond who would have given Alfred Hitchcock fits, T-X comes factory-equipped with quite a range of nifty powers. This forbidding Terminatrix/dominatrix can change shape at will and telepathically make other machines do her bidding.

T-101, officially a replica of "T2's" cyborg, ought to be worried, and in fact might be if machines could fret. But as brought to artificial life by Schwarzenegger in the role he was born to play, this old-style Terminator, reprogrammed by the resistance to help Connor survive, is more stoic than the Stoics and, like those old Timex watches, can take a licking and keep on ticking.

Through it all, "T3" manages to find some time for humor, engaging in bits of business like T-101's search for the perfect sunglasses. A film like this, however, lives and dies by its action and its stunts, and "T3" has at least one classic. That impressive sequence comes relatively early on, as T-X commandeers an enormous 100-ton crane and uses it and some police cars to chase down the good guys, with the T-101 hanging on and trying to gum up the works. The chase features a bravura slamming of the crane arm into a collapsing glass building that was shot by 14 cameras because it wasn't going to happen again.

Impressive as all that is, "T3's" greatest accomplishment may be the simple ability to make us worry about its characters, the way it allows us to feel that the people being chased are in actual danger. Not even $175 million ensures that that will happen. In fact, it sometimes ensures just the opposite.

"Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" is now playing in English at the America Cinema and in Russian at several local theaters. See the listings below for showtimes.