AGAINST THE GRAIN: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Cal dares to take issue with James Cameron’s beloved sequel to The Terminator. Surely not? 

In the history of cinema, very few sequels are as loved or as acclaimed as 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, writer-director James Cameron’s follow-up to his 1984 science fiction thriller which helped to solidify Arnold Schwarzenegger’s star status. Although the technical execution of Terminator 2 holds up decades later, it remains a hugely-flawed blockbuster as a whole, and looks positively garbage compared to its dark, horrifying predecessor. A family-friendly sequel, this follow-up set the template that is now followed by every PG-13 blockbuster today, with softened violence, a lighter tone, slipshod attempts at depth, and a lower body count. On top of this, Cameron’s expansion of the franchise’s mythology creates massive holes and logistical issues.

In the future, a holocaust known as Judgment Day brings about the end of the world, denoting the beginning of a war between machines (controlled by a network known as SkyNet) and humankind. The human resistance is led by is a man named John Connor (Michael Edwards). In the original film, SkyNet sent a ruthless cyborg known as a Terminator back in time to kill John’s mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) before John could be born. It failed. Thus, in Terminator 2, SkyNet sends another Terminator – a more advanced model, a T-1000 (Robert Patrick) – back to the early 1990s to kill a ten-year-old John Connor (Edward Furlong). Naturally, Connor in the future also sends along a protector for his younger self; this time a reprogrammed T-800 model Terminator (Schwarzenegger). On the run from the T-1000, John, his protector and his mother begin working to destroy SkyNet before its construction in the hope of preventing the rise of the machines.

With the hulking Schwarzenegger emerging as the hero here, Cameron needed another actor to assume the villain mantle. It would have been silly to attempt to out-bulk the enormous Austrian Oak, thus the T-1000 is instead the picture of ordinariness whose ostensible physical inferiority is compensated for in the nature of its construction: it’s almost indestructible. Patrick excels as this new model of Terminator, with a cold, stoic demeanour which renders him an effective antagonist. The T-1000 is a cyborg comprised of “liquid metal” which can morph into physical objects or beings of similar size, and can form knives out of its limbs. With the T-1000, Cameron took the chance to perfect the digital effects technology that the filmmaker had pioneered for The Abyss. Terminator 2 was not the first film to use CGI, but it was one of the first movies to use the tool in such a capacity. Of course, the digital effects are not as seamless as they once appeared back in the early 1990s, but they hold up quite well primarily because Cameron used them judiciously, mostly relying on old-fashioned practical effects and make-up. When Mr. Cameron spends a lot of money on a movie, all of it shows up on-screen. Also of note is the wonderful score courtesy of Brad Fiedel. The main Terminator theme at once haunts and entices, while all the supplemental music gets the heart racing.

Although entertaining and skilfully-assembled, Terminator 2‘s fatal errors stem from the script. Cameron’s writing is hampered by countless cheesy lines, most notably derived from John’s interactions with the T-800. As a direct consequence, the dark, edgy tone of the original Terminator is compromised. The violence of this sequel is toned-down, with Schwarzenegger unable to actually terminate anyone. Arnie makes more sense as a villain – he’s an intimidating, well-built figure, and the “sweet, friendly cyborg” role is not a good fit for the Austrian Oak. It’s especially disappointing to behold Arnie’s T-800 firing a minigun at the police, but being careful not to hit any of them or cause any casualties. Although Terminator 2 is rated R due to profanity and a few violent action beats, it does feel like Hollywood’s first step towards sanitised PG-13 action movies – it unmistakably ushered in a number of conventions which dragged the genre out of the low-tech 80s and into modern, high-sheen blockbuster territory of the 21st Century.

Furthermore, Sarah is too one-dimensional and overdramatic, though Hamilton does handle the material well enough. John, meanwhile, is whiny and fragile despite supposedly being a badass punk. Furlong’s performance is a serious drawback, and he’s especially awful during the cutesy interchanges in which he teaches the T-800 to talk like a wiseass. Even worse are the scenes in which Furlong weeps. Equally abysmal are the attempts at goofy humour and sweetness. The Spielberg-esque ending is out of place in this franchise, and other moments – like Arnie’s attempt at smiling – are impossible to watch without cringing. Schwarzenegger’s performance is focused, but the material fails to serve him. Plot holes exist in the feature, too. How did the liquid metal T-1000 get through the time portal without a covering of living tissue? In addition, there are inconsistencies – the Terminators are emotionless robots, so why does the T-1000 give us the world’s greatest “Oh shit!” face right before its destruction?

Terminator 2 does further the mythology of this series, but the results are muddled and confusing. Why did the machines send the T-1000 to take out John as a boy when they could have sent one back to 1983 to kill an unsuspecting Sarah Connor? But if that did happen, then that would mean that the events of the original movie never took place because it is established that whatever happened due to time travel is what has always happened, what with the paradox involving Kyle Reese being John’s father. It makes your head hurt. The first Terminator was a beautifully self-contained story, as it was established that the time displacement equipment was destroyed after Reese and the T-800 travelled back to 1984. How, then, can further time travel occur? More pertinently, why would SkyNet stop sending cyborgs to kill John or his mother? Surely there’s no kill attempts limit. Moreover, Judgment Day is ostensibly prevented here, which makes no sense because that would delay the birth of Kyle Reese and mess up the entire timeline. Perhaps Terminator 2 should have actually ended like its maligned sequel, 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, with the characters ultimately realising that Judgment Day is inevitable, accepting it, and watching it occur. That would have been a dark, haunting and powerful ending.

In spite of its gaping flaws, Terminator 2: Judgment Day will forever be remembered as the film which helped to redefine the summer movie experience, for better or for worse. Cameron’s sublime skills as a filmmaker keep the movie afloat, but Terminator 2 still pales in comparison to its masterful predecessor, despite being more polished.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • In the audio commentary, James Cameron says that not only was the biker bar scene filmed across the street from where LAPD officers beat up Rodney King, but that they were filming the night of the beating.
  • Production took sufficiently long that Edward Furlong visibly aged during the shoot – he is clearly much younger in the desert, for instance, than in other scenes. His voice began to break and had to be pitched to one level in post-production.
  • A female passer-by actually wandered onto the biker bar set thinking it was real, despite walking past all the location trucks, cameras and lights. Seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger standing in the bar dressed only in boxer shorts, she wondered aloud what was going on, only for Schwarzenegger to reply that it was male stripper night.
  • Given Schwarzenegger’s $15-million salary and his total of 700 words of dialog, he was paid $21,429 per word. “Hasta la vista, baby” cost $85,716.

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