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Wednesday, July 2, 2003

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Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Running time: 110 minutes
Language: English
Opens July 12


Rating: * * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Running time: 99 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

Sequels and remakes . . . remakes and sequels: Are there any other kinds of science-fiction films out there these days?

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News photo
Arnold Schwarzenegger (top) in "Terminator 3"; and George Clooney in "Solaris"

This summer brings us "Terminator 3" -- the third but certainly not the last film in the "Terminator" series launched way back in 1984 -- and "Solaris" -- director Steven Soderbergh's remake of the 1972 Soviet film by Andrei Tarkovsky.

The "Terminator" series seemed long overdue for another chapter: "T2," which redefined blockbusters with its release in 1991, made heaps of money, which was surely reason enough for Hollywood suits to greenlight another in the series. Director James Cameron had other things on his mind, though -- namely, "Titanic" -- and perhaps he had the sense to leave well enough alone.

"T2" had pulled off a neat trick in defying expectations, with Arnold Schwarzenegger's android assassin transforming from pitiless pursuer to parental protector. The storyline seemed to have reached a neat conclusion, with the future destruction of the planet averted.

Guess again. Schwarzenegger, hungry for a hit, was eager to revisit his most celebrated role, and though Cameron declined to be involved in the project, director Jonathan Mostow -- one of Hollywood's generic popcorn directors (see "U-571") -- jumped at the bait. So once more, the evil robots of the future send a Terminator back in time to liquidate John Connor, the future leader of human resistance to the genocidal machines.

The film's big high-concept move is to make the new, deadlier "TX" model of Terminator a "Terminatrix," a relentless killing machine that looks like a lithe blonde cheerleader. (It's an idea borrowing heavily from the movie "Species," which proved that there's nothing the teen-male demographic likes better than sex and violence all wrapped up in one neat package.)

Twenty-three-year-old baby-faced Kristanna Loken plays the TX by maintaining a rigorously intense expression on her face and adopting some appropriately stiff body language, but her total failure to come off as terrifying only goes to show you, by comparison, how good Arnie is in his role. People often joke about how Schwarzenegger's overly buff physique and wooden delivery made him a natural to play a robot, but apparently it's not as easy as it seems.

As you might expect, all the best bits in the film are his: In an amusing remix of one of the series' standard sequences, Arnold's naked T-101 (yes, he looks as pumped as ever) emerges from his rip in the space-time continuum and immediately strides into a "Ladies' Night" at a redneck bar, where he approaches the leather-boy stripper on stage and says -- you guessed it -- "Take off your clothes."

The T-101's mission is to find the grown-up John Connor (Nick Stahl) and his possible partner down the road, Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), and protect them from both the TX and the impending global destruction that SkyNet -- a supersecret military artificial intelligence system controlling the nuclear arsenal -- plans to unleash on the planet.

Mostow is good at adhering to the series' routines -- Kate to T-101: "Drop dead, a**hole!" T-101: "I am unable to comply." And he certainly knows how to create some heart-pounding action, destroying what seems like an entire city block as the TX pile-drives Arnold with a massive crane.

Some of the action, however, is more disturbing: The scene where brawny Arnold takes the petite Loken and smashes her head through a urinal will surely prove to be a rewind fave of wife-beaters everywhere.

More problematic is that from beginning to end, there's a strong sense of deja vu, that "T3" is less of a story deserving its own film than a studied remix of "T2." It lacks the earlier film's elegiac, end-is-near ambience, and especially its pointed moral dilemmas. Recall, if you will, Sarah Connor being unable to become like a Terminator and kill a man in front of his wife and kids, even if his death meant saving millions. "T3" has no similar depth and remains merely a serviceable but never surprising sequel. When Arnold laments "I'm an obsolete design," he's flirting rather dangerously with the truth, as Neo and Trinity have knocked him from his former place of prominence in the public's imagination.

* * * If "T3" gives us exactly what we expect, then "Solaris" takes the opposite approach and deliberately toys with our expectations. Soderbergh -- who not only directed, but wrote, shot and edited the film as well -- starts with the classic scenario of a spaceship far from Earth where something has gone horribly wrong. He sets us up for "Alien" or "Event Horizon," only to move the film subtly into "2001: A Space Odyssey" territory.

George Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, a psychologist who receives a strange message from an old friend, Gibarian (Ulrich Takur), who is on board the spacecraft Prometheus orbiting the distant planet Solaris. The nature of the message makes us question Gibarian's sanity; officials inform Kelvin that a security team sent to investigate never reported back. Kelvin reluctantly agrees to travel alone to try and discover what's happening to the crew of the Prometheus.

After discovering some disturbingly fresh bloodstains on the ship's gleaming white surfaces, Kelvin manages to speak with the crew's two survivors, Gordon (Viola Davis) and Snow (Jeremy Davies, doing his best twitchy Crispin Glover imitation), who are definitely spooked. While the details are vague, it becomes clear that something from Solaris is interacting with the crew. Whether the intent is hostile or not remains to be seen, but as Kelvin learns during his first night on the ship, it's definitely not something you can ignore.

Am I being coy here? Well, yes, but this is unquestionably one of those films where the less you know, the better. Suffice to say, it picks up on the question raised by Cypher in the first "Matrix" movie as he dined on his virtual steak. Given the choice between a dismal reality and a succulent illusion, aren't we better off with the fantasy? Unlike "The Matrix," "Solaris" answers that question without gunplay or kung fu, instead taking us to the edge of sanity in a mind-bending psychodrama that -- despite its sci-fi setting -- will appeal to anyone who's enjoyed films like "Vertigo" or "Memento." Like those films, "Solaris" also plays with the idea of obsessive memories, the way in which our present can fall into a delusional loop of past experience.

Clooney enters the film wearing a deadened, weary look on his face; this comes off very Euro-angsty-arty at first, but we soon come to learn the reasons for his despair. Like Scotty in "Vertigo," he's haunted by the memory of a lost love, Rheya (Natascha McElhone, whose uniquely angular face is shot to look even more unreal here).

On its surface, "Solaris" is a very tranquil film, with a rippling ambient score and time-stopping shots of the spacecraft orbiting the swirling, flaring orb. It may also be the most gorgeous film Soderbergh's made yet: It's got a retro '70s sci-fi look full of silver spacesuits and sleek, white surfaces, all shot in a gunmetal blue aura. But lurking underneath is a swelling sadness and insanity, apt to erupt at any time. You can sense it in the eerie tones that lurk behind the ambient whir of generators and air-circulation systems, in Snow's twitchy gestures, and in Rheya's desperate confused gaze.

Stanislaw Lem's novel -- on which "Solaris" was based -- stressed the limitations of the human mind in comprehending nonhuman behavior, while Tarkovsky's much more ponderous and oblique film focused on morality (and his own hang-ups regarding women). Soderbergh reinvents it yet again, in essence transplanting the Orpheus myth in outer space.

While this could have made a very forgettable episode of "Star Trek," it's Soderbergh's ability to sketch out deep love and loss in some very passionate performances that makes this work. And the ending will ping around in your brain for days: Does Kelvin embrace madness, or find redemption through his faith in what he feels? I'll say no more; see it.

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