They’re Back


“The future has not been written . . . ” the young narrator solemnly muses at the beginning of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. That’s true enough—although in the pre-sold universe of summer entertainment, the box-office brawn of this Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle is as close to a given as the laws of gravity.

If it’s Terminator time, there must be a Republican president running for re-election. Appearing unheralded on the eve of the 1984 election, the original Arnold Schwarzenegger robot opera, directed by then unknown James Cameron and featuring the most compelling Frankenstein monster in 50 years, provided a dystopian alternative to the Reaganite “new morning.” Released as Bush I girded his loins in the summer of the New World Order 1991, Cameron’s vastly inflated, post-Desert Storm T2: Judgment Day resurrected the president’s fitness adviser as a kinder, gentler killer cyborg. (T2 was for a time the most expensive movie ever made; Cameron modestly described it as “the first action movie advocating world peace.”)

There are no term limits on sequels, and now, as the Bush II juggernaut gets ready to roll, der Arnold—once hailed by Time as “the most potent symbol” of Hollywood’s “worldwide dominance”—returns to save the world, or at least the designated world-savior, the now grown John Connor (Nick Stahl). Soreheads will note that this JC becomes humanity’s leader either by mistake or through a strategic deception—but so what? Cameron, meanwhile, has bequeathed the franchise to director Jonathan Mostow, author of the submarine thriller U-571 and evidently a man with far less baggage. Where Judgment Day exhibited the profligate sprawl of a military operation, the leaner, less grandiose Rise of the Machines has the feel of a single Hummer careening through an earthquake in downtown Burbank.

Dispatched once more on a mission from the future, the latest model of the Arnold android materializes in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Born naked and flexing into this world, he makes his now traditional foray to an unsuspecting human watering hole; in short order he denudes a snippy male stripper of his fetishistic glad rags to re-create his own ultra-butch image. Somewhat less paternal here than he was in T2, Schwarzenegger is in fine, which is to say humorously ponderous, form. His refurbished terminator remains an unsocialized machine—if not without a certain professional pride. Referred to disparagingly as a “robot,” he’s quick to correct: “I’m a cybernetic organism.”

The first two Terminator movies projected a sort of muscle feminism in the person of Nautilized Linda Hamilton’s warrior women. But this time around, despite Claire Danes’s intermittent facility with a variety of guns, there’s an undercurrent of chick bashing. Arnold’s antagonist, the ultra-sophisticated T-X (Kristanna Loken), is a robo-babe with a tailored leather jumpsuit and a bionic arm. Her default setting on permanent hissy fit, this svelte femmebot has an irresistible habit of cocking her head and glaring with impersonal curiosity at the victim she’s about to vaporize. What’s more, she can fry Arnold’s circuits.

Back in the mid ’80s, Terminator inspired an impressive degree of academic discourse—thanks to its tough-girl heroine, the convoluted, bizarrely oedipal time-traveling premise that had John Connor being fathered by his future best friend, and Arnold’s then new-minted status as Hollywood’s reigning action superstar, the blockbuster personified. As befits a third outing, Rise of the Machines offers little that is novel. All temporal mind-bending and kinky genealogy are subsumed in the comforting notion that our world is about to come under the malign control of a single, giant, self-aware computer program. Indeed, the program probably wrote the movie, which could be most efficiently described as a quasi videogame featuring a pair of unkillable antagonists.

The opening joust’s mega-bumper-car ride makes for nearly as impressive a carnival of destruction as the great freeway battle in The Matrix Reloaded. The fighting, however, is much more hands-on. Responding to Mostow’s directorial joystick, the endlessly regenerating Terminator and Terminatrix alternately lift and slam, shove and hurl, toss and pound, crush and heave each other, in a clanky ballet mécanique that could easily be reimagined as terminal foreplay.

Action chucklebait complete with nuclear holocaust, Terminator 3 seems an apt project for a movie star who, for a decade or more, has been tempting the electorate with the prospect of his running for political office and is even now calculating the odds on terminating Governor Gray Davis. But Arnold is not the only cartoon character contemplating such a career change. Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde—sequel to the hit fish-out-of-water comedy of two summers back—finds the vivacious, voluble Elle Woods and her wardrobe relocated from Harvard Yard to Washington, D.C.

Elle, who never goes anywhere without her chihuahua, Bruiser, is not just a clotheshorse but an animal rights activist, here nominally working for Sally Field’s seasoned Massachusetts congresswoman. Thus Legally Blonde 2 is a movie of many stupid pet tricks and one basic joke: As in the original, Elle’s intelligence is consistently—if understandably—underestimated. (Actually there is another, quite funny, riff that concerns Bruiser’s sexual orientation.) Unflinchingly directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, who made the independent comedy Kissing Jessica Stein, Legally Blonde 2 is one more, in this case gender-reversed, variation on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with Field in the Claude Rains role and Bob Newhart’s hotel doorman a less charming stand-in for Jean Arthur. (Talk about temporal pretzels: Witherspoon seems to be supplying the prototype for her objectless parody four years ago in Election.)

A major-league prattler, Elle governs by sacred “snap cup” and compulsively dispenses unsolicited grooming tips to the scurviest of pols even as her outfits, if not her politics, give new meaning to the term “parlor pink.” Sorority sisterhood is powerful. Elle leads a Million Dog March and addresses a joint session of Congress, warning the assorted baldies and wigs that unless her bill is passed, “This country is in for a really bad haircut.” There’s some sort of political fantasy here waiting to be parsed by Maureen Dowd. In practical terms, however, the latest Legally Blonde seems less a spoof on Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton than the game plan for Senator John Edwards, known to the Bushies as the “Breck Girl.”

It seems unlikely, but it will be amusing if Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle hangs in for another weekend to kick Terminator’s Fourth of July box-office butt. As you may already know, “butt” is the operative word for McG’s sequel to his 2000 smash refurbishing of the ’70s TV show. Angel Alex (Lucy Liu) is introduced booty-first doing a reverse somersault out of a packing crate; Angel Dylan (Drew Barrymore) is revealed to have grown up as “Helen Zass”; and Angel Natalie (Cameron Diaz) is inspired to twitch her adorable little tush at the slightest provocation, which is to say, very often.

A loud and frequently funny clown show, Full Throttle is less a grim demolition derby than a day at Coney Island, punctuated by the clatter and screams of the Cyclone. The movie has the seductively bilious colors and irresistible spun ickiness of cotton candy. (Don’t put it in your sister’s hair.) The stunts, coordinated by Yuen Wo-Ping’s kid brother Yuen Cheung-Yan, are more a matter of giddy slapstick than jaw-dropping acrobatics. No attempt is made to render the narrative logical; nor are there any references to an actual world beyond MC Hammer and MTV. Opening with a blatant homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Full Throttle plays out in a garish compost heap of pop-culture references; it’s mainly back to the ’80s, although McG also seems to be tipping his tam o’ to such congenial contemporary baroque schlock-meisters as Baz Luhrmann and even Matthew Barney.

In a marked improvement, the Angel sidekick Bosley has mutated from sour Bill Murray to avid Bernie Mac—who is never more convincing than when he rolls his eyes and mutters, “This is some boo-shi’.” (The other male stooges include ever idiotic Matt LeBlanc and puppy-like Luke Wilson, who, here assigned to Diaz, plays the same role in Legally Blonde 2.) Speaking of boy toys, Demi Moore is also on hand, eager to flaunt her frighteningly buff bod and even more scarific humorlessness. Terminatrix beware: The biggest joke in Full Throttle may be that Moore gives the impression of taking it all seriously.

Archive Highlights