TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY
Robots killing humans only gets better than this when it's in space.
Directed by James Cameron
Written by William Wisher and James Cameron
With Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor), Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator), Edward Furlong (John Connor), Joe Morton (Miles Dyson), and Robert Patrick (The T-1000)
Spoiler alert: severe, but seriously, come on
What a difficult thing this has been: there's so much to say, it was hard to figure out how. Clearly, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a film adored by virtually everyone and deemed "inferior" almost exclusively by those who slightly prefer the original, needs no defense. But let's establish our thesis anyway: T2, as it was indelibly branded by its behemoth of a marketing campaign, is not just the best of its series. It's the best of its breed.
Terminator, made on the semi-cheap in 1984, wasn't in a position to even attempt what T2 would accomplish seven years later, when James Cameron returned to the well and brought back the culmination of a decade's worth of populist filmmaking. Within the confines of a single movie, he gave us not just the confluence of the 1980s' most beloved genres, and not just the apex of the R-rated popcorn flick, either; he gave us the very technological and artistic bedrock upon which the whole edifice of modern special effects filmmaking endures. Love it or merely love it a little less, T2 points the way to the future as much as it sums up the past. It is the Citizen Kane of 80s badass cinema.
It's been eleven years after Kyle Reese and the first Terminator did battle to decide the fate of Sarah Connor's unborn child. The unstoppable killing machine was stopped, and Kyle died, but Sarah lived, now pregnant with Kyle's son. Sarah earned her survival, but her nightmare had just begun: we find her presently in the custody of the State, her stories of time-traveling warriors—and subsequent history of anti-computer violence— diagnosed as an elaborate brand of paranoid schizophrenia. So it surprises no one but Sarah when her six-month review doesn't result in being moved to a minimum security ward, let alone being permitted to see her now-adolescent child, the soteriological maguffin whose impossible existence shall one day ensure humanity's survival against the machines.
As of 1995, however, John Connor remains a consummate jagoff, gifted with a modicum of hacking acumen and a minibike. What he doesn't know is that his future enemy, Skynet, has sent back another terminator to finish the job—and, as before, the human resistance has sent another hero to protect him. (Also as before, halfhearted attempts are made to confuse you as to which one is the good guy. I predict it's the one introduced with "Bad to the Bone" playing on the soundtrack.)
Meanwhile, Cyberdyne scientist Miles Dyson is only months away from reverse-engineering the learning computer retrieved from the crushed skull of the first terminator. His work will lead to the activation of Skynet—and, from there, the all-out nuclear exchange that will end half humanity and come to be known, fittingly, as Judgment Day. Can John—and the world—be saved?
On that note, we can concede that T2's critics have their reasons for being wrong. If its implicit retcon of Terminator's future history weren't enough, it explicitly abandons its predecessor's coldly elegant notion of time travel, too, swerving into another paradigm entirely (halfway through the film!). The consistent time loop of the original is thrown over for its ontological and dramatic opposite, expressed in the franchise's koan, "No fate but what we make."
Yet these issues could trouble only the tortured nerd, seeking truth and logic in Hollywood action films. T2's turn from Terminator's Cold War pessimism is more of a feature than a flaw anyway, an artifact of that moment in the early 90s when we could believe we weren't doomed. Rather uniquely, this badass actioner renounces the apocalypse.
No, consensus says the most unpalatable element is John Connor himself—and the change in tone John represents. His future existence hung over Terminator, quite literally like the Holy Ghost; in T2, he makes his first appearance in the flesh, in the person of young Eddie Furlong, some years before his career-ending turn in a self-produced American remake of Trainspotting.
But what's to fault in Furlong's performance? Everything (allegedly) objectionable is already there on the page, and it's deeply unfair to blame a 14 year old for failing to elevate every line. He's never less than serviceable, in fact, which is more than you could say about most actors his age. If it barely seems possible that Furlong's John Connor could grow into humanity's savior—if it never seems possible that Furlong's John Connor has received years of abusive tutelage in Sarah Connor's art of war—this remains okay by me. It's not the intent of the character.
T2's monument to the 1980s would have been incomplete without weaving in kid's adventure, and that's exactly what John is here to do. The intermittent detours into goofy comedy—and serious schmaltz—are simply what happens when you throw just about the only popular 80s genre Terminator didn't touch back into the mix. It pays to remember that there was a time when R-rated action was as big for children as it was for adults—maybe bigger. You can see the calculation in Cameron's move, when he opted to follow-up Terminator's hard-hitting, mind-bending thriller with a movie largely about a boy teaching his square robot dad how to be a (certain value of) cool. Indeed, in a pointed repudiation of one of the central tenets of 80s badassery, John even forbids his T-800 from taking human life. It's this kind of sentiment that could have defused the movie monster appeal of the character. Instead, it does nothing of the sort, only furthering T2's surprisingly humanistic themes—certainly, it does that at least as much as it panders to increasingly violence-averse parents. (It helps immeasurably, of course, that the Terminator gets his face ripped off by bullets and bashed open by a girder, till his glowing red eye is nearly ready to fall out its socket.) When it comes to John, it's only curious why his participation in the narrative comes to practically nothing but a sassy moral compass for adults; then again, if there's one persistent feature to the Terminator series, it's how much our future leader continues to suck in the present.
But if there's two, it's that there might be no actor in history who's been as reliable as Arnold Schwarzenegger when it comes to combining high-test action and extraordinary silliness. In this regard, T2 sees him at the height of his powers, even wringing genuine emotion out of his awkward, generic subplot.
Cameron's amazing achievement is not just that John Connor's occasional descents into abject frivolity don't poison the ultraviolence at the film's beating heart. It's that T2's most iconic moments arise directly from its bizarre family dynamic. Sure, we all could've lived happier without having to ponder the great philosophical question of the 20th century, "Did you call moi a dipshit?" But you can keep your soulless self-superiority to yourself when it comes to a certain thumbs-up. That must be the most perfect grace note of Cameron's career—hilarious, deeply bittersweet, and absolutely unforgettable, whether you want to or not.
Are you a sociopath? Take my one-question quiz and find out!
Now, wait: too much Flight of the Navigator could not have been sustained. Luckily, we have Sarah Connor, whose crushing awareness of the future forges the necessary link between T2 and Terminator. Brought to even more vivid life than before by a buffed-up Linda Hamilton, it's Sarah who forces the film to hold a consistent (often depressing) tone. Without her, the movie might have fallen into camp excess; with her, T2 never has an excuse to forget its stakes.
Those stakes are high enough that Sarah's almost willing to let them consume the humanity she's fighting for in the first place, until she's nearly indistinguishable from the efficient monsters she fights. Speaking of grace notes, consider the shot where a palm frond slaps Hamilton right in the face and she keeps walking toward her target like it's not there. (Credit Joe Morton, too, who provides Hamilton's borderline-antihero with an indispensible screen partner. As Dyson, he supplies some of the most upsetting evocations of fear and pain you'll ever see.)
Sarah remains the ultimate Final Girl; now we see what that kind of trauma can do to a strong mind not content to lie still.
In this mode, Hamilton is just endlessly compelling to watch, as Sarah deals violence to her enemies with foresight and brutality alike—her escape from the mental institution, which maybe winds up just a B-side here, would be the best action scene in a lesser film.
T2 is not a lesser film: unchecked ambition, the ethos behind James Cameron's whole career, is the very lifeforce of this, his greatest work. While it's traditionally incumbent upon a sequel to be bigger, few sequels eclipse their predecessors like T2. Already better looking than Terminator, it's not just the switch to 'Scope, nor Cameron's and returning DP Adam Greenberg's keener, oranger-and-tealer talent for creating beautiful images, nor even Brad Fiedel's reworking of the Terminator theme into perhaps the greatest non-Williams piece of music ever made for a motion picture. No, it's money: the fuel to Cameron's fire.
With a hundred million to burn, T2 brings setpiece after setpiece, each and every one of them amongst the all-time greats. Yet despite the massive scale on which he operates, in every beat of the action, Cameron milks the adrenal gland with supple dexterity and surprising tenderness. A solid 40 minutes of action concludes the film, not a second of it stale. (Though a fleeting 20 seconds of it might be wrongfooted—namely, an overly-demanding 20 seconds concerning Sarah's voice, sensible only if you're armed with the high-caliber fanwank to help you explain it. Be assured, however, that once so equipped, it does work.)
All good things come to an end, and T2 ends on one of the highest notes its genre ever hit: the legendary final confrontation with the T-1000, amidst the fire-and-ice phantasmagoria of what I presume must be the most gorgeously photographed steel mill there has ever been. Cameron presently renders the terminators' struggle in explicitly epic, even mystical terms: a battle of demiurgic forces in a cosmic foundry, caught between the very elements of creation as each fights, quite literally, to make the world.
And now, sublimity.
T2 remains, to a surprising degree, the sum of its performances; they give those big explosions and truck crashes such a perfect sense of scope. Thus no conversation about T2 could be complete without discussing Robert Patrick's supernatural turn as the bad terminator.
Patrick has always gotten less credit than he deserves, for his personal contribution is hard to discuss. His performance is so inextricably bound up in so many other filmmaking arts—hell, it's bound up in several other actors' performances!—that it's much easier to talk about his character. We will not fall into that trap, though it's a useful enough beginning point: the T-1000 is the paramount fucking marvel for at a least decade in either direction. The only reason I refuse to call it the best villain and the best special effect of its whole century is because it's unwise to cross the Invisible Man. (And, albeit in a decidedly more prosaic way than one can claim Sarah as the ultimate Final Girl, isn't the T-1000 the ultimate Slasher Villain? Its whole body's a knife.)
We can start with its costuming, of all things: early on, the T-1000 adopts the form of a cop, and if there's one organization a killer robot from 2029 might deem worthy of borrowing some menace from, it's the LAPD. But the T-1000 can take and retain this disguise because it is (as if you didn't know) a shapechanging monster, rendered in mimetic polyalloy—that's right, liquid metal. It is so staggeringly powerful that Cameron and Wisher struggled with how they might ever actually kill the thing. 24 years on, it still inspires awe.
The T-1000 is early CGI's signal triumph: true, when it transforms, there might be a split-second where the lighting doesn't quite match and its digitial genesis is patently clear; but 95% of the time, it is a radically convincing effect, a near-equal for the best CGI today. Let's not ignore, however, the practical effects and editing cheats used in tandem with digital manipulation: the very best transition the T-1000 makes is accomplished with a simple cut, that also probably saved Cameron $10,000.
And that leads us back to Robert Patrick.
Taking on essentially the same role, Patrick could've recapitulated Schwazenegger. Miraculously, he doesn't, carving out his own personal niche in the monster canon. Acting starts with look, and Patrick's physical contrast with Schwarzenegger is already terrifically interesting. It's felt most keenly as they grapple, when the svelte T-1000 proves not just wilier than the older, bulkier model—but mightier, too. In quieter moments, however, the T-1000 is endlessly creepy: though obviously programmed with a much finer grasp of human interaction than its predecessor—can you even imagine the T-1000 choosing "Fuck you, asshole!" from a list of possible responses?—Patrick doubles down on look, recasting his affable handsomeness into something dangerously alien.
Yet Patrick is canny enough not to play his robot as merely emotionless—that's the genius of it. Patrick walks the narrowest line here, and if Cameron helps him out by letting him double-time that line at 36fps so that, through slow motion, Patrick's power walk reads as power, period, I'm still willing to give the lion's share of the praise to the actor.
Patrick, always implying the T-1000's anger and frustration and hunger, also always avoids projecting it directly, never quite insisting upon it—at least until a scene so late in the film that it (almost) seems earned. Patrick is so great that you won't even care that a default face for a shapeshifting terminator doesn't really make any sense.
You'll also forgive how the T-1000 disappears from the movie for about an hour. It's quality, friend, not quantity!
Well, an hour, give or take: since 1993, T2 has existed in both a theatrical cut and an extended edition. (Can I say here that T2 is the most effortlessly paced thing, at 130 or 156 minutes?) We might have avoided the comparison; however, the treatment of the T-1000 is where the difference becomes too important to ignore.
True, the extended version's reinclusion of character work for the Terminator, Sarah, and Dyson already recommends it. But what makes it essential is how it perfects the climax. Particularly, the extended edition shows how atrociously broken the T-1000 is, even once it recovers from being frozen in liquid nitrogen and shattered. The truncated theatrical version only gives inscrutable hints, rendering the T-1000's failure to double-tap its nemesis nonsensical, its stalker-slowness in pursuit of John arbitrary. But with restored context, the T-1000 becomes only slightly more functional than the Terminator. Their exhausted battle for the future finally reaches the mythic proportions their stature and surroundings always deserved.
Whether you refer to the theatrical version or its pumped-up home video release—even if, through some failure of education, you don't refer to it at all—T2's legacy lives on. Today, it's clear just how expertly Cameron managed the transition from one era of action filmmaking to another.
Rated R mostly because the script had about ten too many "fucks" in it—and perhaps for a single gore-shock that would've passed without comment in a PG film ten years earlier—T2 suggests the shape of four-quadrant action cinema to come. It predicts the superheroics of the 21st century far more accurately than Tim Burton's viciously aberrant Batman ever did. Meanwhile, its visual spectacle prefaced the explosion of CGI—and budgets—that would necessitate the capture of the broadest audience possible. Two years later, Jurassic Park came out, the second phase in the CGI revolution. The choice between seven-figure R-rated action/horror and seven-figure PG-13 action/adventure would in the next ten years be decided totally in favor of the latter.
Indeed, the hyperviolent blockbuster with something for everyone remains represented almost exclusively by this single example, while the half-cartoon family film with barely-coded cum jokes inherits the Earth. Cameron did more than he could have intended, when he centered his masterpiece upon the conflict between the gritty, grotesque old Terminator and the shiny, shimmering digital monster. In 1991, we beheld the Stan Winston creation, smashed to pieces by the ILM computer effect; watching it now, you know that the Terminator truly is fighting the future, the practical movie magic that made him set against the smooth and bloodless liquid metal that would—very soon—take his place.
Other reviews in this series:
The Terminator (1984)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
Terminator Salvation (2009)
Terminator Genisys (2015)