Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is, as he famously promised (and we never doubted), back. But the cyborg assassin-from-the-future is no longer quite the lean, mean avatar of punk fashion he was in 1984’s Terminator. Almost 20 years on, Ah-noldt looks as chunky and stolid as, well, a future governor of California. Who said the future wasn’t going to be scary?

Never mind, though. The Terminator character was getting so beloved he was bound to start looking a little puffy. In Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), he was cleverly transformed from a mechanized hit man into a futuristic guardian angel. Now, in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, though supposedly a different model of himself, he’s still T2′s gruffly lovable killing machine–a very badass good guy.

The main difference this time is the absence of originating writer-director James Cameron, whose name I didn’t see anywhere in the credits. I have no idea why Cameron decided to relinquish his celebrated franchise after two films, but educated guesses might include 1) he felt like he’d done everything he could with the basic idea, and 2) after his Titanic became the most successful film in history, he figured that cranking out sequels was beneath him.

Cameron as director has been replaced by Jonathan Mostow, whose Breakdown and U-571 are two of the smartest, most expertly crafted action films of recent years. Given his track record, I expected a bit more than Mostow delivers here. T3 is by no means hackwork–and one can understand that he might have been intimidated–but it’s still a few noticeable notches beneath the firecracker ingenuity displayed by Cameron, especially in the first film.

I retain an uncommon fondness and esteem for The Terminator. If memory serves, it and George Miller’s The Road Warrior (1981), are the only big, cartoony sci-fi movies that have appeared on my annual 10-best lists in the past quarter-century. Those films belong to a group of dark, “dystopian” sci-fi films–others included Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1981)–that arrived between the vaporous revival of sci-fi by Star Wars in 1977, and the new commercial orthodoxy of “event” cartoon/fantasy/sci-fi movies inaugurated by Tim Burton’s Batman 12 years later. (A degenerate line that of course continues with recent crap like Spider-Man, X-Men and The Hulk).

The Terminator and Road Warrior were not great films because they combined apocalyptic themes with a post-Sex Pistols visual sense, although some credulous souls naturally made the mistake of thinking that; thus did the success of two films (and a few others) breed a new counter-orthodoxy that boringly assumed “dark” equaled “intelligent.” In fact, these films were good because they offered brilliantly original fusions of visual style and philosophical speculation. Both were notably more playful and genuinely witty than the films that followed the trails they blazed, including their own sequels.

In the tradition of the best sci-fi, The Terminator served up imaginative inquiry on two topics–the nature of time and individual destiny, and the relationship of man and machine. Regarding the first, it dramatized a claim advanced by esoteric thought far predating modernity: that the present is determined not by the past but by the future. Regarding the second, it speculated that humanity would soon fight a terrible, devastating war against the intelligent machines it has created.

In the first Terminator, Schwarzenegger–picture Sid Vicious on steroids–is a robotic killer sent by the machines of the future to kill the mother of the savior who will lead humankind’s battle against its mechanical spawn. Schwarzenegger fails, and she gives birth. In T2, Arnold is a robot sent to save the teenage savior, whose name is John Connor, from other killers dispatched from the future. The kid survives; his protector doesn’t.

As T3 opens, it’s a decade later and 20-something John Connor (note the initials) is enduring his time in the wilderness, living “off the grid” by doing odd jobs and roaming the country on a motorcycle. His destiny reclaims him, though, after a sleek blonde Terminatrix (Kristanna Loken) surfaces in Beverly Hills and begins killing his erstwhile high school classmates, who will be his future disciples (those who survive will, anyway). The Terminatrix also sets her sights on a veterinarian named Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), whose destiny, we gradually learn, is to help Connor (now played by Nick Stahl) assure humanity’s survival beyond a nuclear war that will shortly be unleashed on planet Earth.

The Terminatrix, however, has an opposite number. That’s right: Arnold is back, this time as another model of the protective robot seen in T2. Only, the term robot is no longer politically correct. He prefers “cybernetic organism.” And this cybernetic organism freely admits that, compared to the Terminatrix, he’s virtually obsolete.

The mock-gallant Terminator of yore would dispatch people with a gruff “hasta la vista, baby,” a sign of the irreverent good humor that between T1 and T2 devolved somewhat from wit to shtick. T3 possesses no shortage of the same kind of laughs. But it also leaves you wondering if the Terminator franchise, like Arnold’s latest incarnation, is itself not tending toward obsolescence.

Ironically, this is not because its motivating ideas are outdated. On the contrary, they are more pertinent than ever. When I saw The Terminator I was still writing reviews on an electric typewriter; my first computer belonged to the sci-fi future. When I saw T2 I was still years away from encountering the Internet. A week before seeing the new film, I finally broke down and bought a cell phone, an event that several of my friends regard as a sure sign of the Apocalypse.

As Arnold himself sagely notes in the movie’s press notes, “With the way technology has been advancing over the last few years, everyone understands the fear that one day machines will take over and the reality that they can be smarter, stronger and ultimately replace human beings.”

T3 producer Andrew Vajna adds, “We’re all depending more and more on computers for everything from running our electricity to our automobiles. The more we entrust machines to do everything, the greater the chance we have of losing control. What happens if they start thinking? What happens if they turn on us?”

Techno-optimists like Ray Kurzweil (author of The Age of Spiritual Machines) would presumably dismiss such worries as delusional, and see films like the Terminator series as the scary stories we tell ourselves to exorcise unreasonable fears brought on by the arrival of new technologies. Myself, I take the opposite view. I see a technological apocalypse as such an unfortunate likelihood as to constitute the primary subject for art and human thought in the coming decades.

Even so, while T3, with its eminently reasonable Doomsday scenario (the machines of the future use the Internet to fire off all the nuclear weapons that we have foolishly allowed to remain on the planet) does honor the great cautionary tradition of speculative sci-fi, it also struck me as far less compelling and clarifying than its predecessors.

Why? No doubt, that has something to do with Cameron’s absence, and with the way that series like this tend to get stuck in the formulas they devise, formulas that increasingly rely on familiar laughs, special-effects gimmickry and outlandish action sequences (T3 overdoses on car chases–hardly the most cutting edge of visual distractions). Indeed, such movies (see also the Matrix series) ultimately founder on an inescapable paradox: While wishing for the victory of humanity over technology, they themselves grow increasingly mechanical and soulless.

Yet there’s also the sense that we’ve become oddly inured to the idea of a technological Doomsday, so much so that one must wonder: Are these nightmarish stories–tales told us by machines, in places called movie theaters–not lulling away from an engagement with the dangers they putatively warn against? Is that part of the impending Doomsday? EndBlock