Sarah Connor, the protagonist of the first two films, has died of leukaemia, leaving behind her son John (Nick Stahl), now in his twenties, who is not quite able to believe his mother's predictions that he will become the last hope of human survival in a war waged against machines, following an overwhelming thermonuclear strike. 'It hasn't happened, no bombs fell, computers didn't take control', he says in voiceover, as, interestingly, we see him help clear up the site of Ground Zero in New York. But then, fate conspires that he should run into Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), and on the same night two Terminators arrive from the future - the new model T-X (Kristana Loken), sent to eliminate John along with his future lieutenants (including Kate), and an older T-101 (Schwarzenegger), sent to protect John and Kate at all costs.
From here on in, if you have seen 'Terminator 2: Judgement Day' then you already pretty much know the score. As in that film, there's a fast-paced chase sequence involving cars, a motorbike and a truck, there's an absurd confrontation between Schwarzenegger and the police involving thousands of bullets but no body count, and there is a climactic duel between Schwarzenegger and the upgraded Terminator. Again there is an abundance of clumsy dialogue exploring the differences and similarities between man and machine. Again there is the heavy-handed New Testament imagery, with John Connor (note those initials) having to shoulder the burden of all humankind in preparation for the holocaust known as Judgement Day.
What is new, however, is a shift in gender politics - and by that I mean a shift backwards. Whereas the first and second films trace Sarah Connor's conversion into a tough, independent single mother, fighting to save both her son and the human race against decidedly male cyborgs, here her son's future leadership is threatened by a female robot, and a computer supervirus referred to by one character as 'Pandora's box'. T-X is made to embody many of the characteristics of (post)modern woman - she is single, independent, clever, powerful, adaptable, and uses her female assets to get the better of men (literally adjusting the size of her cleavage at will) - and so, in this deeply conservative film, she is presented as a fundamental danger to the natural order of humanity.
Schwarzenegger's cyborg, on the other hand, is a throwback to 'traditional' masculine values. In an early scene where he selects his clothes, he rejects women's clothing as 'inappropriate', instead taking a male stripper's black overcoat (as 'Macho Man' plays on the soundtrack). It is only natural that the more flexible T-X (who happily disguises herself as a man when it suits her) should have rendered Schwarzenegger's model 'obsolete' - but this film aims to have its audience cheer on as Arnie ultimately vanquishes this wayward female.
'Terminator 3' leaves us with a world where John will become leader and male hegemony will be restored - and while there is still room in this new world for a powerful woman like Kate (who John says reminds him of his mother), she will be redefined as John Connor's wife, and will always be only second in command.
Which goes to prove that just because terminators are constructed, they are not always reconstructed.