You may figure that "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" has no right to exist. "I won't be back" was the stance of James Cameron, the visionary director of the first two "Terminator" movies, as well as stars Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong.
"Terminator 3" amounts to the tearing open of an old wound. John Connor (Nick Stahl, replacing Furlong) is now a young man who shouldn't have mortal fears now that mechanical assassins of the future are no longer being ordered to terminate him.
Yet now that his mother has died of leukemia (that's what happens when an actress jettisons a franchise), John is an anxious drifter convinced that his future remains apocalyptic. If he were wrong, there'd be no movie.
The fact that he's right, surprisingly, turns out to be a good thing, not for the humans in "Terminator 3" but for those who will watch it.
Previous movies aside, "Terminator 3" is a taut, exciting science-fiction thriller that pumps up our adrenaline without forgetting to engage our heads.
Directed by Jonathan Mostow, who also injected much tension and atmosphere into the submarine thriller "U-571," the new movie plays a game of one-upmanship with its predecessor and succeeds more often than you'd expect.
"Terminator 3" repeats many of the "T-2" good Terminator/bad Terminator dynamics, with Arnold Schwarzenegger "back" as yet another version of his original stone-faced, sunglasses-wearing Terminator, sent from the future on a mission involving John Connor. As in "T-2," the protective Schwarzenegger Terminator is less technologically advanced than the evil Terminator upgrade threatening John and the fate of humankind - why the good guys of the future keep employing obsolete models is anyone's guess.
The new, ruthless "Terminatrix," or simply T-X, is an impressive piece of work. Played by Kristanna Loken with the blond-on-porcelain magnetism and steely glare of Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct," T-X boasts the morphing abilities of her "T-2" predecessor, can turn her arms into firearms and, most important, can control other machines telepathically (or whatever the robot equivalent is).
So when the Terminator, John and his high school acquaintance-turned-veterinarian Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) flee T-X in her van, T-X adds a fleet of unmanned police cars to the pursuit. That chase is the movie's true show stopper, an eruption of glorious mayhem that's far more thrilling than the videogame-like highway chase of "The Matrix Reloaded."
This havoc feels more real, has more of a how'd-they-do-that quality, as T-X commandeers a huge truck with a fly-away crane that takes out lampposts, cars and anything else in its path. The high point comes when the Terminator is hanging at the end of that crane, and T-X is running it through office buildings to dislodge him.
Such a sequence is what summer blockbusters do best; it's undeniably exciting, provided you let go of any impulse to condemn mass destruction as entertainment.
At least this isn't mindless destruction. Aside from the occasional Terminator-adapts-to-pop-culture humor, Mostow and screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris ("The Game") maintain a somber tone as they take the saga's science-fiction elements seriously. Their explanation for this story's continuation is reasonably plausible, touching on larger questions about whether fate and judgment day truly can be averted.
The movie also plays as a more palpable cautionary tale about humans' ceding control to machines than "The Matrix Reloaded," which tells what "Terminator 3" shows. Here Skynet, the highly sophisticated network of machines developed by the U.S. military, has yet to go online - and thus to become self-aware and destructive.
But when an insidious computer virus threatens the nation's defense systems, top government officials want to use Skynet to combat it, even though its architect, Kate's father, Robert Brewster (David Andrews), fears that it isn't ready. The movie becomes a race against time as John and Kate try to warn her father that activating Skynet indeed will start the clock ticking toward doomsday.
Schwarzenegger's recent career suggests that he has outgrown action movies (or vice versa), but he retains his appeal as the iconic Terminator. He's in a comfortable groove here, intoning orders or adapting to the cultural landscape in a knowing deadpan. (He puts a new spin on "Talk to the hand.") Stahl, the doomed son of "In the Bedroom," makes you quickly forget about Furlong, making John a ragged, desperate figure who instinctively knows why he's running. Danes brings her usual combination of warmth and intelligence to Kate.
This pair has a history together, as well as a future, and the actors play off each other well. But their romance barely progresses; it's all sparks, no fire.
Likewise, "Terminator 3" never achieves the grandeur, emotional or otherwise, of "Terminator 2." Despite its large-scale set pieces, it ultimately feels small, unfinished, and not just because it clocks in about a half hour shorter than its predecessor.
It leaves you with an anti-climactic action scene and a conclusion that cries out for "Terminator 4" - although after the next "Matrix" and "Star Wars" entries, I'm not sure who will be craving another man-vs.-machine war film. Besides, who knows whether California would give Schwarzenegger time off from his gubernatorial duties to film it?
Yet even in its frustrating finale, there's a grim poetry. "Terminator 3" could have turned massive profits as an empty, explosive thrill ride, so credit Mostow and company with not taking the blast of least resistance. Against all odds this "Terminator" deserves to be welcomed back.
"Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines"
Directed by Jonathan Mostow; written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris; photographed by Don Burgess; edited by Neil Travis, Nicolas de Toth; production designed by Jeff Mann; music by Marco Beltrami; produced by Mario F. Kassar, Andrew G. Vajna, Joel B. Michaels, Hal Lieberman, Colin Wilson. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Tuesday. Running time: 1:49. MPAA rating: R (strong sci-fi violence and action, language, brief nudity).
John Connor.....Nick Stahl
Kate Brewster.....Claire Danes
Robert Brewster.....David Andrews
Scott Petersen.....Mark Famiglietti