Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2Synopsis: Sequel to Terminator. Skynet, the 21st century computer waging a losing war on humans sends a second terminator back in time to destroy the leader of the human resistance while he is still a boy. His mother is the only one who knows of the existence of the Terminators, human-like robots that exist only to kill and are nearly indestructible, and Sarah, the boy’s mother is currently in a state mental hospital because of her ‘delusions’. A second protector is sent back to the past by the Human resistance to protect John Connor, their future leader, at all costs.

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Terminator 2: Judgment Day 9.0

eyelights: Linda Hamilton. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Edward Furlong. Robert Patrick. the story. the pace. the visual effects. the set pieces. the score.
eyesores: its lapses in logic. its déjà vu quality. its dated CGI.

“The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.”

‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ is the first sequel to one of the 1980s’ most remarkable motion picture. Released in 1991, seven years after the original, it exploded onto the screen, netting over half a billion dollars at the box office, landing it third behind ‘E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial’ and ‘Star Wars’ for all-time biggest earners. When adjusted for inflation, it remains today the largest grossing R-rated film of all time at the domestic box office.

I was 18 at the time and I was pretty excited to see the movie. Two of my three best friends were die-hard Guns n’ Roses fans and, “You Could Be Mine”, the first single to their latest albums, ‘Use Your Illusion 1 + 2’, was a blistering tie-in to the picture. The video featured Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-101 and it was in high rotation. I was no great fan of the band, but this song kicked @$$, and every time it played was a reminder that ‘T2’ was coming.

And when it did, we were blown away: it was exciting, funny, touching, and thought-provoking, it had a few terrific surprises in store, the performances were great, the characters were relatable, it was full of top-of-the-line eye and ear candy, and it improved on the formula set by ‘The Terminator’. Plus which it featured one of the silver screen’s most bad-@$$ female characters: a $#it-kicking Sarah Connor, in the form of a toned and trained Linda Hamilton.

We were wholly impressed, and I still am now.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that ‘Terminator 2’ remains one of my all-time favourite action pictures (top 10, for sure). And that’s after having seen it often enough that its effect should be diluted by now: I saw it at the cinema, on VHS, on laserdisc, and on DVD. I’ve seen the theatrical version, the special edition and the extended special edition many times each. And yet I still get a kick out of watching it go through its motions, like a fine-tuned machine.

We all know the story (and if you don’t, go watch the first movie, then watch this one pronto – what are you waiting for?): In 2029, to prevent the human race from winning the war, the machines decide to send another Terminator back through time to kill off John Connor, the leader of the resistance – while he’s a defenseless 9-year-old. But Connor decides to send a protector for himself. This protector: a reprogrammed T-101 Terminator.

‘Terminator 2’ is a pulse-pounding action-thriller with a science-fiction twist. Its action sequences and set-pieces are unforgettable; there was nothing like it at the time, managing to outdo its forbear even though it frequently emulates it. It is like ‘The Terminator’ on steroids. And yet the biggest surprise of the picture, and what makes it so damn fine, is the fact that it is also a character-driven piece, taking the time to explore the psyche of its main characters.

John Connor: Connor is 9 years old. He’s spent his young life being conditioned by his mother to believe in the Terminators and the future they come from. He is deeply troubled, delinquent, and defiant, which has led him to being passed around from one foster home to the next.

But there is hope beneath all the open wounds and scars: he isn’t entirely despondent and he still cares even for those he professes to hate. This will be his path to redemption, as this will lead him to try to protect his foster parents, his birth mother and even strangers.

Edward Furlong was new to acting when he took the part. It was, in fact, his first role. He’s a bit raw, but that’s perfect for the part of a feral young lad on the run. He manages to tap into some very human and touching parts of himself throughout the picture.

Interestingly, John Connor should be 9 years old in this picture (the story takes place June 8-9, 1994), but Furlong was 13 years old when they shot the picture. It looks discrepant to anyone who knows the series’ backstory, but it’s a detail that can be forgotten/ignored.

Sarah Connor: Sarah has spent all her time since the events of ‘The Terminator’ trying to learn as much as she can about combat (going so far as hooking up with soldiers) in order to pass on her knowledge to John, who she believes will become the human race’s only hope.

She has become hardened, and haunted by visions of a certain future; she is a shadow of the carefree young woman that we encountered in the first picture. But she is a force of nature. Watching her train her body and carry herself like a soldier, is nothing short of impressive.

Still her ability to take on the world to come is hobbled by her lawlessness, which gets her locked up in a high security facility, and her inability to handle the scope of the destruction awaiting them: over half of humanity is scheduled to die only three years later.

Her mind is splintering.

Linda Hamilton is phenomenal here. I’ve seen her in other films and she’s never been more powerful than in ‘Terminator 2’. It would be easy to dismiss her performance and say that it was the part that was meaty, but she fully transformed herself. She IS this Sarah Connor.

T-101: The T-101 (sometimes inaccurately referred to as the T-800, because it’s the Series 800, model T-101) is a machine and as such shouldn’t have any character development to speak of. But it also has a learning computer which allows it to adapt and blend in better.

Through its interactions with John, who forbids it from killing anyone, and instructs it in behaving more human, it becomes less machine-like, to the point of understanding some core emotions. The transition from a detached killer to a thoughtful protector is ably portrayed.

The most interesting moment comes when Sarah muses that the T-101 is the best father figure that John could ever have had because it would never raise its voice in anger, never hurt him; it would protect him to the death. It would never stop. It has no human frailties.

Arnold was at his peak when he made this picture. He had had a few monstrous hits at the box office and he couldn’t have been more confident. It shows in his performance, which is pitch-perfect. If one were to pick just one movie to explain his appeal, this is it.

T-1000: As Cameron has said, the T-1000 is to the T-101 is like a Porsche to a Panzer Tank. It is sleek, powerful and loaded with options. It has no genuine expressions or personality, but it nonetheless has characteristics that make it fascinating to watch. It is more than machine.

In particular, what’s interesting is to see how its behaviour is modeled after animals: Robert Patrick purposely scanned rooms in a similar way as a bald eagle and moved through crowds like a shark going for its prey. He also has a physicality not dissimilar to a panther’s.

A lot of this came from personal training on top of Patrick’s acting choices, but I was incredibly impressed with his performance – to the extent that I later decided to emulate his physicality in my own movements (or at least try to). I make lots of friends that way.

These four characters move the picture forward, even as the action pieces keep the audience riveted to their seats. They have interesting dialogues about the value of human life, humanity’s destructive behaviour, fate/destiny, personal responsibility, and the power of technology. Between those exchanges and the setting, which is three years before Skynet annihilates over half of the world’s population in one single blow, ‘T2’ captures your interest.

James Cameron grabs hold of the audience right at the onset, building-up the tension with a similar opening to the original’s to set the stage, to jog the audience’s memory, but also to surprise them – by delivering a twist that few expected (Cameron had purposely ensured that all promotional material was left ambiguous so as to not reveal any key twists). This great reveal was brilliant because it stunned audiences and gave them a hero they wanted to root for.

For me, ‘Terminator 2’ is full stellar moments:

  • The first pulsating mechanical beats of the “Main Title from ‘Terminator 2′”. Brad Fiedel had already done an outstanding job on the first film. But, just like Cameron, he outdid himself with the sequel – creating a score for the ages.
  • The opening sequence with the T-101 going to a biker bar, naked, and telling a biker to give him his clothes. There’s a mixture of roughness and subtle humour (irony, not actual gags) in the piece that’s pitch-perfect.
  • The great reveal that the T-1000 is the threat, not the T-101. Given how Cameron staged the appearance of the T-101, at best one supposed there were two threats – not that the T-101 was a goodie. Genius.
  •  John discovers that the T-101 was sent back by his older self to protect him and that he will obey his commands. When he realizes that has his own Terminator, he gleefully decides to use it for laughs and to bully others.

But he soon realizes the awesome responsibility that comes with having his own killing machine, and decides to tell it not to kill anyone. This brings into question his -and our own- respect for human life – a recurring theme.

  • Watching the T-1000 in action. He’s sleeker, dwarfed by the T-101, but he’s faster, more powerful – and able to morph, being made of mimetic poly-alloy. He’s as unstoppable as the original, only deceptively so.
  • The first reveal of Sarah Connor. There was a terrific lead-up to it, with her psychiatrist telling visitors about a patient of his, and only seeing her from the back, working out (having pushed her bed against the wall)

We could never guess that it was her, since the last time we saw her she was off driving through Mexico. But when we realize who she is, menacing, nearly feral, we’re stunned; this is not the same fragile woman we knew.

  • The sight of Sarah in military garb, ripped, tough and carrying a weapon like a pro. This woman was so bad-@$$ that my friends and I held her up high for years afterwards. In fact, I still do: she literally blew away stereotypes.
  • Sarah’s reflections on the value of the Terminator in her son’s life, and how it could learn the meaning of human life – giving hope that perhaps humanity can too. These were thought-provoking moments that still resonate now.
  • The poignant moment that Sarah and John (with the able help of the T-101) tell Dyson, the inventor of Skynet, about the future. The look on his face as he realizes his creation would destroy have of humanity says it all.
  • The Cyberdyne conflict with the police. The whole sequence is good, but watching the T-101 beat the living crap out of whole squadron with his machine-gun and grenade launcher without killing any of them was a blast.
  • Sarah has recurring nightmares about the future nuclear holocaust. These shots of the world being decimated are jaw-dropping. Apparently, Cameron based himself on real nuclear test footage to create this chilling effect.

As I was saying, I find ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ wholly enjoyable even to this day; I find it extremely difficult to find something to dislike. But, for the sake of argument, here are a couple of things worth considering.

  • ‘Terminator 2’ is basically a souped-up version of ‘The Terminator’: it has a similar core, which is that a Terminator has been sent out in time to quell the resistance before it happens and that a protector is sent out to prevent this from happening. It even begins and ends in very similar ways. It fleshes out nascent concepts from the original, but they aren’t especially new ones. In fact, the newest idea (the liquid metal T-1000) is a recycled idea from the original script.
  • The T-1000 can reshape in any form that is approximately its size. However, it can’t mold any of the things it carries and can’t create complex objects – so why doesn’t it lose stuff along the way? For instance, it seems to always be carrying a belt and gun! If they were just extensions of its metallic form, like the uniform, fine. Except that it uses its gun regularly, which indicates that it’s separate. So how can it change shapes and retain those items?
  • While it was cutting edge at the time and the “wow” factor was insane, the CGI looks dated now. I mean the actual effects, not the concept. Thankfully, it’s nothing more complex than liquid metal, or else it would look really shoddy; since it’s an amorphous blob, it looks more realistic than if they had tried to create something more detailed. This is nothing that couldn’t be tweaked with new technology, but it’s not really necessary; it still works.
  • Finally, there’s the matter of the timeline. If they had changed the future in the end, then John would simply vanish because he would never have existed – because Reese would never have been sent back in time in the first movie (not that this plot point makes any sense in the first place). So clearly they hadn’t changed anything after destroying both Terminators. Might it be because the T-101’s left arm was left behind in the factory’s gears? Hmmm…

Honestly, I’m reaching here. ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ was never intended to be ‘Citizen Kane’. It’s ambitious, yes. Exciting, absolutely. Well-conceived, totally. But perfect it is not. And that’s the only reason why I rate it as low as I do – which, honestly, could conceivably be the highest rating I’ll ever give to an action picture (and if there are better ones, there are very few of them).

In my estimation, much like ‘The Matrix’, ‘Terminator 2’ is a must-see picture for anyone who likes action and/or science-fiction; it’s one of those rare landmark, near-perfect, pictures in the genre. I’d also recommend seeing the original, but if one had to pick between the two, I’d suggest the sequel: it sets up all the pieces so perfectly that you nearly don’t need to see its predecessor.

‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’ was crafted with the same precision as its namesake. And that is why it endures.

Date of viewing: March 15, 2015

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