40 for 40 – #9. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
We find ourselves at #9 and yet another of the greatest sequels of this or any other timeline.
A movie that took on the mantle of its predecessor and not only met expectations, but exceeded them to become one of the world’s most beloved action films.
A standout, introductory performance, a wonderfully-strong female lead, and a movie icon at the peak of his powers, combined with groundbreaking special effects that helped pave the way for Hollywood for decades.
#9. Terminator 2: Judgment Day – Ultimate Edition (1991) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick. Directed by James Cameron.
Say what you will about James Cameron, but the man knows how to make a sequel.
Firstly, in 1986, he redefined the world of Ellen Ripley, creepy eggs and face-huggers with Aliens. Then in 1991, he followed up own seminal film, The Terminator, with a second installment; a movie that is often regarded as not only one of the best sequels of all time, but an all-round action classic.
I’ll admit – I was a little too young to appreciate the original Terminator when it was first released in 1984. I had seen it, and yes, mostly enjoyed it, but as a kid it was never one of my go-to movies. However, when I started seeing trailers for a sequel, one with a new-and-improved (and somehow even more threatening villain that the original) I was instantly intrigued. I ended up going to the theatre to watch Terminator 2 and within twenty minutes, I was mesmerised.
The bleak opening of the post-Judgment-Day-apocalypse still feels the most real to me of all of Hollywood’s potential ‘end of the world’ scenarios. Maybe it’s because (at the time of this movie) we were only told stories about it by the films’ characters, and only shown glimpses of this Hellish future. I still feel that way to this day. For those first two Cameron-helmed movies, it is definitely a case of ‘less is more’.
The chilling voiceover of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) narrates parts of the film and adds just the right amount of gravitas at just the right moments. Her monotone delivery keeps a sense of dread running in the background of the entire story.
Speaking of Sarah, Hamilton is incredible in this film. Sarah undergoes one of the biggest character changes from movie-to-movie of any sequel I’ve ever seen. The frightened waitress from the first movie is nowhere to be seen in T2, replaced by a stone-cold soldier.
1991 wasn’t too far past the seventies and eighties Hollywood stereotype that mental health facilities were often the worst kinds of prisons, littered with psychotic guards and unfeeling doctors only interested in torturing their patients for personal gain. Well, T2 certainly adheres to that same almost-outdated principle, but in this case it works. Seeing Sarah trapped in one of these stereotypically-soulless places is the perfect Hell-hole to place her at the beginning of the story.
While Sarah is not insane (we know she’s telling the truth), she has definitely been affected by her ordeal. Cameron likes his metaphors, and like the mythological Cassandra, Sarah seems to believe she is cursed to know the future, unable to avoid it.
Cameron’s re-cut ‘Ultimate Edition’ of the film really is a vast improvement to what was already a spellbinding movie. By splicing the deleted scenes back into the narrative, Cameron has created an even better movie, with more well-rounded characters and a meatier plot.
One of these restored scene involves seeing Sarah’s drug-induced dream of Reese (Michael Biehn), the doomed soldier from the future, telling her that their son is in danger. It’s great to see Reese again and we really feel Sarah’s loss, gaining extra insight into her sudden motivation to escape her holdings. This restored scene, when coupled with the first peek at Sarah’s recurring nightmare, also introduces two major character arcs for Sarah: her estranged relationship with her son, and her need to change the future and avoid Judgment Day.
Sarah’s institution also allows Cameron the brilliant continuity nod of having psychiatrist, Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen) return. In the first film, his love of Reese’s ‘Terminator delusions’ lead him to remark how he could ‘make a career out of it’, and in T2 we see he has done exactly that.
T2 does a superb job of building its own universe in-between movies. For instance, I love the Cyberdyne conspiracy subplot. Both the fact that Sarah’s assumption that the company covered up all evidence of her encounter with the first Terminator turns out to be true, and the grandfather paradox that reveals how the villainous supercomputer, Skynet was only able to exist thanks to technology sent back in time to essentially ‘father’ itself, just as Reese fathered future resistance leader, John Conner, played (in this film) by Edward Furlong.
Furlong is great as John, the petulant ‘pseudo-army-brat’ given a pet Terminator of his own. But there’s more depth to Furlong’s performance than just seeing a (supposed) ten-year-old curse. Throughout the movie, John is often shown to be emotionally hurt by what he feels was a betrayal by his mother, only to feel even worse when he learns the truth (and how he didn’t believe her). I also really enjoy the would-be father / son dynamic between him and the Terminator. I find it to be an inevitability-tragic plot point that is just as strong today as it was back in 1991.
Since we’ve mentioned the Terminator, I guess can’t go much further without addressing the Austrian elephant in the room: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
This is my favourite Schwarzenegger movie. I also believe it is his best. His performance as the T-800, a run-of-the-mill Terminator unit reprogrammed as a protector is amazing, and as this new T-800, Schwarzenegger gets a chance to play more of a character, not just a (no pun intended) robotic villain like in the original.
The most pivotal scene for the character (and looking back, perhaps the entire movie), is the Ultimate Edition’s restored scene in which Sarah and John reset the Terminator’s CPU in order to help him learn and better blend in with society.
Cameron is perhaps at his creative best here. What looks like a simple mirror shot is actually a hole in the wall. On one side, Furlong and a dummy of the Terminator carefully framed to avoid seeing its face. On the other side – a talking Arnold with a Furlong stand-in (seen only from behind) and Linda Hamilton’s twin sister. Both women copy each other’s movements to give the impression that one is the mirrored reflection of the other. It’s such a creatively-shot scene and a master-class in filmmaking, but it is also much more than just a technical marvel. It’s powerful, too.
Despite the initial plan, once the chip is free of the Terminator’s head, Sarah’s first instinct is to smash it and rid the planet of at least one cyborg. John of course, objects, and this leads to a great confrontation between mother and son where John questions how the world is supposed to listen to him if his own mother won’t. It plays on the tension and estranged relationship of John and Sarah and helps them on their way to reconciliation.
And obviously, this scene helps explain why the Terminator becomes more empathetic and understanding of humans as the film progresses. His programming now allows him to learn, and John’s lessons have an almost religious effect on the emotionless machine.
Even after all these years, it’s still a joy to watch John teach the Terminator about smiling, checking cars for spare keys, using vernacular like the now iconic, “Hasta la vista, baby,” and most importantly – not to kill.
Like Sarah, this is another huge character change for the sequel – a Terminator that doesn’t kill anyone through the entire film. When later confronted by a horde of policemen and SWAT team officers, the Terminator manages to decimate their forces without harming a single person. It’s a huge moment for the character, since at this point it seems to have come to appreciate the value of human life. Before, it refrained from killing due to John’s direct order. But now, after having its CPU reset, we can see he is perhaps choosing not to kill.
One character with no such aversion to killing is the new Terminator introduced in this film – the terrifying T-1000, played to perfection by Robert Patrick. This new antagonist takes the unstoppable nature of the Terminator from the first film and turns it up to eleven to become one of my favourite movie-villains of all time.
Its knife-like arms and fingers evoke memories of Freddy Kruger and other slasher movie killers over the years, and Cameron gives us just enough techno-babble to explain the T-1000’s ability to change shape. Its ‘poly-mimetic alloy’ is quickly dismissed as simply being – liquid metal.
The T-1000 using a primary mode of a police officer is a clever twist. Using a symbol of authority to portray the ultimate faceless authoritarian in Skynet helps play up the rebellious or ‘anti-social’ aspects of Sarah and John’s characters.
Another scene from the highly-recommended Ultimate Edition shows the T-1000 search John’s room to find a hidden box left to him by his mother. This scene helps explain why the T-1000 seemingly pops up out of nowhere during the movie. It establishes that it already knows everything it needs to about John and thereby can predict his actions.
It’s a superb scene for Patrick. Perhaps his most ‘mechanical’.
I also love that the Ultimate Edition later shows the repercussions of the damage the T-1000 suffers during the movie. Colour glitches, losing its structural integrity, etc… it helps set up the final reveal of its semi-melted feet (and how John can tell it’s not Sarah) and creates a nicely written payoff, rather than an odd, out-of-place moment in the theatrical cut.
T2’s visual effects (by the legendary Stan Winston and Denis Muren) were ground-breaking in 1991, and they still hold up today. Most of the jaw-dropping CGI revolves around the T-1000 and its ability to morph into various shapes, weapons and people.
Rising from the floor, imitating the hapless security guard and slipping between the prison bars of Sarah’s asylum, pouring itself into a helicopter cockpit (and later piloting it with a third hand while wielding firearms), and reforming from nothing but shards and battling the Terminator at the steel mill, are only some examples of the brilliant and creative effects in T2.
Practical ‘real-life’ effects play a huge role in this movie as well. The most obvious that comes to mind is when the Terminator removes the flesh from its arm. Yes, it’s done with clever camera angles and animatronics, but it remains some of the most originally-done movie effects to this day.
Not to mention the impressive vehicular stunts with all manner of motorcycles, trucks and even helicopters. Chase-after-chase helps build tension and create a feeling of an ever-expanding game of Cat-and-Mouse that permeates the movie from beginning to end.
You can certainly see where someone like Christopher Nolan got his inspiration for his Dark Knight Trilogy and its use of practical stunts and explosions.
Like everyone else, I love the action movie aspects to T2, but as is often the case with a James Cameron movie, there’s a hell of a lot more going on under the surface if you’re willing to dig a little.
The threat of self-inflicted-mass-destruction hangs over the entire film. The idea that man will one day destroy himself is a constant theme of the Terminator films – but probably given the most importance in this one.
The sidetrack or subplot of finding Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) and destroying Cyberdyne before it can give birth to Skynet (and therefore changing the future) takes the film in a new direction, away from the potential monotony of yet another escape from the T-1000 and provides the movie a real plot.
All of this kicks off after we finally see Sarah’s nightmarish vision of Judgment Day in its totality. Even after the build-up, it is every bit as shocking as we’ve been led to believe. And it sparks a sudden character change (yet again) in Sarah.
Interestingly enough, in the scene where she storms Dyson’s home, Sarah has become the Terminator. Her cold, calculating demeanour is only broken at the last second, at which point she realises just how close she came to losing her humanity. It’s also the first time Sarah tells John she loves him in another brilliantly-acted scene by Hamilton, who should have at least been nominated for the Oscars for this one.
The music from T2 remains some of my favourite of any film. Composer, Brad Fiedel’s score is foreboding, tragic, and yet strangely-motivating. In my opinion, it really seems to be written around Sarah Connor, whose knowledge of the future destroys her present, but also inspires her to become the strong and powerful woman we see in this movie.
And who can forget Guns ‘N Roses? The perfect band at a perfect time for this movie. As a sidenote, I personally love the imagery of the shogun hidden in a box of flowers as a not-so-subtle nod to the band.
For a film that runs two and a half hours, it is still incredibly fast paced. In the first fifteen minutes, we are shown the future, see both Terminators arrive, are reunited with Sarah and are introduced to John. And as the story moves at a frantic speed, with action scene after action scene (littered with superb character moments, too), everything culminates in what might one of the greatest finales in movie history.
I really love Cameron’s use of symbolism by staging the final battle in a steel factory. Sarah, John and the Terminator are ‘forging’ the future, if you will.
The final moments of the film are also great for the Terminator. Again, thanks to its new ability to learn and adapt, it actually helps it to complete its mission. Throughout the entire movie, the Terminator is fighting a losing battle against the T-1000, physically outmatched in every way. But thanks to the earlier decision to reset the CPU, the T-800 develops what could be considered pride, determination and the unique ingenuity needed to defeat its superior foe.
At first, the Terminator protected John because it was ordered to. By the end, it does so because it cares for John. It now also understands pain and loss.
But it can never cry.
As always, the Terminator shows zero emotion, but its words reveal the pain running through its cybernetic mind. It’s definitely sad to see him go. But it’s such an inspirational moment, we still accept it as a victory.
Despite my love of Cameron’s Ultimate Edition, I do still prefer the theatrical version’s closing moments. The Ultimate Edition’s ending, where we see an older Sarah Connor, reminiscing about how she and John prevented Judgment Day from ever happening, seems a little tacked on. A little too perfect for a movie that often relies on cynicism and suspicion.
The open-ended nature of the theatrical version’s ending, where Sarah ponders an unknown future, is perfect to me for a story that hinges of the ambiguous nature of fate and destiny.
I really can’t get enough of this movie. It has plot. It has action. It has humour and best of all, heart. James Cameron managed to take his own movie, build upon its universe, its characters and storylines, to deliver a sequel that became a fantastic action film that stands the test of, well… time.
It added to the Hollywood mythos of Arnold Schwarzenegger, it introduced mainstream audiences to Robert Patrick (and to a lesser extent, Edward Furlong) and continued Cameron’s ability to deliver strong female leads by following up his take on Ellen Ripley with a dramatic re-imagining of Sarah Connor.
I watch this film two or three times a year, and honestly, I feel it’s one I’ll never tire of. Because when it’s over, when I finish watching and put this film away, one little phrase always pops into my head…
“I’ll be back…”
And I will.
Rating: 5 out of 5 neural-net processors.
Favourite Moment: The motorcycle(s) chase sequence.
Honourable Mention: “Goodbye…”
Next week: #8 – “Just a fly in the ointment, Hans. The monkey in the wrench. The pain in the ass…”
We know now why you cry…. Because you haven’t yet grabbed an Unfunny Nerd Tangent shirt! If you truly believe there’s no fate but what we make, take Mon Milfma home and teach her to smile! She swears she will not kill anyone…
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