Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)



James Cameron

Edward Furlong (John Connor), Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor), Arnold Schwarzenegger (The T-600), Robert Patrick (The T-1000), Earl Boen (Dr. Silberman), Joe Morton (Miles Dyson)

Sentient Robots

“Three billion human lives ended on August 29th, 1997. The survivors of the nuclear fire called the war Judgment Day. They lived only to face a new nightmare: the war against the machines. The computer which controlled the machines, Skynet, sent two Terminators back through time. Their mission: to destroy the leader of the human resistance, John Connor, my son. The first Terminator was programmed to strike at me in the year 1984, before John was born. It failed. The second was set to strike at John himself when he was still a child. As before, the resistance was able to send a lone warrior, a protector for John. It was just a question of which one of them would reach him first. ” – Opening Lines

Unsurprisingly, talk of a sequel to The Terminator began almost as soon as the first movie premiered.  That Cameron kid had hit it out of the park and everyone was game for another outing, but there were hurdles to jump before that could happen.  For one thing, Cameron’s idea for a sequel (actually his idea for the original) involved special effects that just weren’t able to be realized in 1985, for two the rights were in turmoil, and for three everyone had too much on their plate at the time.

In late 1990 things finally came together and a then-record-breaking budget was put together to make a sequel to a movie that was almost perfect.  Terminator 2 came out to near-universal praise and became an integral piece of the cultural zeitgeist to the point that people quote it without even realizing that they’re doing it now.  It was nominated for a slew of Oscars and remains a critically beloved film to this day.  But is it worth all the hype?  Yes!  But no.  Definitely.  Maybe.

As I detailed last time, The Terminator may have potential that isn’t unlocked but it is perfectly structured and efficient at what it does.  There’s no fat on The Terminator; no scenes that take away from the whole, no boring divergent subplots.  It is an apex predator and to try and improve on it is to throw off the precise balance which makes it so amazing.  Terminator 2 is James Cameron’s attempt to improve an apex predator.  To be fair, Terminator 2 is still a glorious beast of a movie and it doesn’t ruin the first film in any way, but it’s a whole different animal and where the first film is sleek and efficient, Terminator 2 is bloated and clumsy.

Right off the bat things feel different as the film opens with a narration by Sarah Connor detailing the events of the first movie as well as a second set of time travelers sent to kill/save her son John as a boy.  This was not hinted at, and even deemed impossible by Kyle Reese in the first movie; I have a theory on how it makes sense but I’ll get into that in the next column since I won’t have a whole lot to talk about (foreshadowing.)

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Our old pal The T-800 is back outside a biker bar.  Already things feel different, the robot still violently dispatches some guys for their clothes but he’s a lot less brutal than he was when he was taking out Bill Paxton and Brian Thompson.  He then steps outside in full biker regalia and George Thorogood’s Bad to the Bone fires up on the soundtrack to the dismay of anyone trying to take this movie seriously.  He pilfers a shotgun from the bartender and takes his cool biker shades.  In the original, The T-800 donned similar glasses for the purpose of covering the bit of endo-skeleton showing through his ruined eye-socket.  Here, he dons them because they make him look cool.  Portents of ill things to come.

Fortunately things get back on track as we meet terminator number two: The T-1000.  He’s a terminator made of a weird liquid metal that allows him to change shape and appearance, he’s effectively indestructible and capable of impersonating anyone or anything he touches (assuming it’s the same size and doesn’t feature a large number of moving parts.)  He kills a cop and takes his car, using the computer to look up John Connor’s address.

Our first meeting with John is not good.  He’s an annoying little shit, revving the throttle on his dirtbike while his foster mom tells him to clean his room.  The fact that he’s hanging out with the mouthy kid from Salute Your Shorts and listening to a radio with the volume turned too loud doesn’t help endear him to me.  His dickhead foster dad tells him to do what his mother says and he looks back over his shoulder and says “She’s not my mother, Todd” as he guns the engine and goes off to steal money from an ATM using a stolen card.  Fuck.  This.  Kid.

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Now we go to Sarah who is cooling her heels in an asylum courtesy of our old friend Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen.)  Silberman’s less of a prick now than he was in 1984 (and as a result, he isn’t funny at all) but his denial of the terminator still remains perplexing.  Sure, maybe he doesn’t believe that a robot from the future was sent back to kill her, but the fact remains that somebody tried to kill her and massacred an entire police station – that Silberman himself departed only moments before – to accomplish that task.  Obviously she’s not totally paranoid.

Sarah has changed a lot in the seven years since the first movie, she has trained to be the ultimate soldier to better help her son become the man he needs to be.  But though John is safe for now, Judgment Day still remains on the horizon and with a scant six years until it happens, Sarah is in a hurry to get back in the fray and prepare her son for what’s to come.  Visions of Judgment Day haunt her and she has become a mess as a result.  Sarah is both strong and fragile and her character is, along with the T-1000, easily the best part of the movie.  My only complaint is that her character arc is a bit of a rehash of Ripley’s from Aliens.

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Edward Furlong has become one in a never-ending conga line of punchlines concerning child actors but at twelve years old he acted his little heart out.  The whole smarmy early-90s slang spouting qualities of the character of John Connor are nails on the chalkboard of my soul, but John also acts like a real child of his age (a rarity in film to this day) and Furlong wrings a lot of very real emotions out of his performance. John is annoying but he’s also very human and I think that gets lost in peoples’ memory whenever they hate on the kid when talking about this movie.

He’s a kid dealing with trying to live up to a prophecy that has already been confirmed, with a distant mother so concerned with training him to be a resistance leader that she forgets that he’s just a kid, and a hole in his heart for a father figure which a killer robot with a child’s view of emotions and philosophy is forced to fill.  This relationship does occasionally devolve into hokum, “I know now why you cry, but it’s something I can never do” isn’t a meme for no reason, but there is something to be made of where things go.

Linda Hamilton builds on the character arc she completed in the last film by being the anti-thesis of a damsel in distress.  Gone is the lady mullet, the awful 80s clothing, the whimpering crying mess that was Sarah Connor 1.0.  Hamilton is powerful and fierce, she puts her all into the much larger character she has to work with this time.  Sarah may not be the main character anymore but she overrides the other actors onscreen with talent, charisma, and a tough-as-nails attitude that has forever earned her a place in the badass heroines hall of fame.

Robert Patrick has taken over the villain role and he’s perfect.   A counter-point to The T-800’s bulky ham-fisted methods, the T-1000 is sleek and agile, quick-witted and chameleonic, capable of behaving exactly as a normal human only reverting to the coldness of a terminator when he’s prepared to kill. But even the coldness is not without personality, the T-1000 seems to hold a grudge and even seems to be kind of petty.  When the T-800 tricks him into revealing himself as he’s impersonating John’s foster mom, it visibly angers him.  The fight between the two robots is more than just efficiency, he’s trying to hurt the T-800 (in as much as it can be hurt.)  When he catches Sarah, he tortures her to try and lure John out; he has no reason to do this since, by virtue of having touched her, he can assume her form and call John himself.  He just wants to make Sarah betray her child so she can feel the pain and guilt it would bring.

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The character is pure chaotic evil and Patrick’s steely gaze and reptilian features make him a kind of proto-Doug Jones character.  The T-1000 would be memorable even without all the cool special effects but holy shit, have you seen the special effects?  It’s disturbing how good the T-1000 still looks almost 25 years later and his gimmick still remains effective.  They even have a new take on the tanker truck explosion which revealed the T-800’s endoskeleton in the first movie and amazingly that cool effect has a bearing on the plot and how our heroes finally defeat him.  Cameron overindulges in effects shots with the T-1000 but it’s hard to fault him for it, as they’re all just so entrancing.

Joe Morton as Miles Dyson does a wonderful job in his meandering unnecessary subplot but he’s extra weight.  I also get annoyed when a movie establishes an emotional connection with a character (Dyson’s family are a catalyst for Sarah not wanting to kill him) only to use that to wring out heartbreak when they’re unceremoniously killed.  It’s a cheap and manipulative tactic and it’s one of my biggest problems with the movie.  (Fun fact: If you look closely, you’ll see that the leader of the SWAT team that storms the Cyberdyne building is a young Dean Norris of Breaking Bad sporting a full head of hair.)

The biggest problem isn’t Dyson though, it’s not John, it’s not mullet kid, it’s not any of that.  Terminator 2’s biggest problem is its titular star.  Schwarzenegger was already established as a big doofy action star by this point so it’s really not surprising that the T-800 became more comedic, but I swear that this movie feels like a kids’ film half the time when he’s onscreen.  The callbacks to the previous movie, the music cues, the deadpan humor (which, to be fair, was present and even more problematic in the first film due to its darker tone), and Arnold’s goddamn troll faces are so egregious that I sprained my rolling eye.  As bad as it is watching John say “Hasta la vista, baby”, it’s far more annoying hearing the T-800 say it.  “Hasta la vista, baby” is this movie’s “Fuck you, asshole” and I think that says everything about this movie’s tone as compared to its predecessor.

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If there’s one thing Terminator 2 does very right, it’s action.  The cinematography is beautiful and the action scenes are vibrant and well-choreographed.  The chase between John, the T-1000, and the T-800 is pulse pounding, the fight between the two terminators is worth all the build-up, and a scene of what amounts to the T-800 destroying a bunch of empty police cars is surprisingly exciting.

If there’s one thing Terminator 2 does very wrong, it’s story.  We have four characters with motivations and arcs bouncing off of one another, but James Cameron started a bitter feud with brevity sometime around The Abyss and it’s only grown more heated over time.  The idea of John Connor being conceived by a man he sent back in time to save his mother was already a bit absurd, but now we’re to believe that the machine SKYNET sent back to kill her is responsible for the creation of itself?

The whole Cyberdyne/Miles Dyson subplot is a needless time-sink that kills the momentum of the story and serves very little purpose in the grand scheme of things.  Cameron could’ve worked in a more succinct way for our heroes to stop Judgment Day, but instead chose to add a fifth character whose story is a huge dead-end.  The movie is nearly two hours and thirty minutes long and could stand to be, at most, an hour and forty-five minutes.  James Cameron is one of the few auteurs to actually regress as his voice became more pronounced and while his downfalls are insignificant in this film, it’s still an omen of the Titanics and Avatars of to come.

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Terminator 2 isn’t a bad movie, it’s actually quite a good one.  It’s actually great and I deny anyone who dismisses it as kitschy crap that’s not worth watching.  It’s a good movie but it’s a bad sequel to The Terminator.  It’s the Aliens to The Terminator’s Alien and, as such, it’s the more fun to watch of the two but the frequent attempts at levity, over-drawn plot, bloated run-time, and different tone rob the franchise of the power established by the first movie.

T2 is almost twice as long but doesn’t do even a quarter of the world building that the first managed in an hour and a half.  Nothing could have lived up to the first movie and I doubt that anyone could replicate the magic that made the first one work ever again, but Terminator 2 doesn’t even try and that’s both its weakness and its strength.   It’s only through the talent of James Cameron (and I’m talking 1990 James Cameron, 2015 James Cameron would fuck this franchise up something awful) that all the hokey elements of Terminator 2 manage to work, it’s through his dedication that all these plates manage to continue spinning with just a little wobble.  I wonder if the guy who directed Breakdown and three writers (collectively responsible for such cinema classics as Mindwarp, Tank Girl, and Catwoman) have the skill to keep that going?

Terminator 2 can be found on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Instant through Amazon.  Or you can get a Blu-Ray of all four films.

“Desire is irrelevant. I am a machine.”

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