CINEMA CLASSICS: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Well, we couldn’t let a bad review be the sole take, could we? Oscar restores the balance with a celebration of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ultimate cyborg opus. 

Who made it?: James Cameron (Director/Producer/Co-Writer), William Wisher (Co-Writer), Stephanie Austin, B.J. Rack (Co-Producers), Carolco Pictures/Pacific Western/Lightstorm Entertainment

Who’s in it?: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick, Earl Boen, Joe Morton.

Tagline: “It’s Nothing Personal.”

IMDb rating: 8.5/10 (Top 250 #42).

Terminator 2: Judgement Day is easily one of the greatest movies of all time, and James Cameron’s magnum opus. It is quite possibly the greatest sequel ever created, building on the stakes, the action, the characters, and the drama like any great sequel should; no rehashing or overblown call-backs to the first being a bonus. You’ve probably seen it a hundred times if not more, but what is it about the movie that endures to this very day? What hasn’t been said before? I will be reviewing the original Director’s Cut or “Special Edition” as I feel it tells a more complete and enthralling story.

With a narration by Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the film opens with a very literal bang, as a nuclear fallout destroys Los Angeles and we bear witness to the War of the Machines, as Terminators and other advanced weaponry lay waste to the human resistance led by John Connor. We cut to 1995 as a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) appears outside a bar before stealing one of the patron’s clothes and a gun. But he is not alone. Sarah’s son, John (Edward Furlong), lives a rebellious life in a foster home. Sarah herself now resides in the Pescadero Mental Institute thanks to Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen), and is plagued by a recurring nightmare of Los Angeles’ destruction on Judgement Day. A police officer (Robert Patrick) arrives at John’s foster home, and inquires to his location, but the T-800 is hot on his tail as well. Both track John to an arcade and, fearing he’s under arrest, John makes a run for it, only to encounter T-800. He commands John to “Get down!” as it’s revealed that the cop is a Terminator as well; the “liquid metal” T-1000.

John soon learns that his future self reprogrammed the Terminator to protect him from Skynet’s second attempt to assassinate him and cancel out the resistance. Connor then commands the T-800 to take him to the mental institute to set his mother free, and makes him promise not to kill anyone. They break in to encounter Sarah who’s almost completed an escape, but once again, the T-1000 is in pursuit to kill and impersonate her. They escape into the desert, and Sarah questions the T-800 to learn the identity of Skynet’s key creator: Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), a Cyberdyne Systems engineer working on a revolutionary new neutral net CPU that will form the basis for Skynet. Sarah sets out to kill him to stop Skynet from ever being created.

Schwarzenegger is back, and delivers the iconic performance of his career thanks to Cameron’s direction and script. Hamilton returns as Sarah, showing a more aggressive and unhinged side following her arc from the first film and kicking some serious arse. Furlong is a natural rebel as young John, breaking the stereotype of poor child actors. Arnold and Furlong work brilliantly off each other to help the audience buy into the relationship between John and the Terminator, and at the end, it pays off extremely well. Patrick is pitch-perfect as the T-1000, coming across as slightly more human and approachable, which makes his performance all the more creepy. Michael Biehn makes a brief appearance as Kyle in a dream sequence, and he’s great as usual. Morton puts in a strong performance as the unassuming Dyson. Boen is suitably cowardly as Dr. Silberman, while Jenette Goldstein and Xander Berkeley are decent as the foster parents.

The opening prologue is a classic unto itself; brilliantly shot and edited, the Terminator endoskeletons are as real as they come, establishing a bleak, apocalyptic future that must be avoided. I cannot imagine T2 being shot any differently than it is now, as the stark blue night photography is eye-popping whilst maintaining that essential grittiness one expects from a Terminator film. T2 lives up to its reputation as a great action film. There’s no terrible shaky-cam, no overly-quick cuts, the photography is crystal clear, and the audience never feels detached from the story. It’s even more impressive when you consider that Arnold’s character cannot allow himself to kill people, and while there’s less killing than the first film, none of it lacks impact. There are plenty of stunts, explosions and effects shots that seem to show off a bit, but the film earns these moments. The dream depicting the destruction of Los Angeles is especially chilling, with people burning alive and model buildings being obliterated; it naturally holds up. The climax in the steel factory is magnificently atmospheric and hellish, too. T2 revolutionised CGI with the liquid metal form of the T-1000 and it’s a flawless look, with the emotional payoff being as good as it gets. The effects are used economically and get more creative throughout the film. The model work on the machines is very detailed, giving a great sense of scale to the war. The blending of liquid objects to physical ones for the T-1000 is particularly impressive. It goes without saying, but Stan Winston’s animatronics for both Terminators and the makeup work on Arnold is brilliant; you’d be hard-pressed to find a poor effect in the film. For a $100 million budget, every cent is seen on the screen.

Cameron integrates some smart, natural humour into the screenplay, too, such as the banter between John and the Terminator, or even something as simple as Arnold’s facial expressions. Even though the part where John teaches the Terminator 90’s slang does date the film to an extent. That, and the second act in the desert where the pacing grinds to a standstill are generally my only gripes with the film. The score by Brad Fiedel is excellent: while the majority of the soundtrack accentuates the tone and builds up tension, the returning theme is an instant classic, displayed on a larger scale. It’s just as chilling, tragic and emotional. At over two-and-a-half hours long, it is certainly a grander, more epic story than the first Terminator film, raising the stakes superbly. The denouement is perfection. It’s ambiguously open-ended and emotionally-charged, hinting towards a future that doesn’t demand a sequel. A law that has so far been broken, but the two Cameron films stand together above the rest.

Much has been said about the film’s commentary on the evolution of automation, artificial intelligence and technology, but I find the film resonates more as our state of tech advances. The parallel nature of the film’s Terminators is particularly fascinating. Both start out with few moral scruples when they arrive, but Arnold’s character develops more human traits such as promising not to kill, learning to smirk and use slang, understand emotions, and creating original ideas in order to fulfil his mission to John, including self-sacrifice. Meanwhile, the T-1000 blends in with the other humans at first but gradually becomes more robotic and cold as the film progresses; it gets shot up a lot but remains implacable and never expresses pain, making the contrast more terrifying. I also like the detail of how it becomes increasingly erratic with its human form flickering on and off in the climax. When the T-1000 is finally destroyed, we see it for the writhing, screeching monster that it is. The primitive CGI works to its advantage with the “uncanny valley” effect coming across in full-force. Sarah’s nightmare of the burning playground symbolises the death of innocence and the culmination of humanity’s capacity for destruction, allowing us to understand her motivations all the better. When she sets out to kill Dyson, her militarised look and black sunglasses illustrate that she’s becoming no better than a Terminator, putting her own humanity at stake by threatening Dyson at point-blank range. Of course, the message of family and the value of human life, as epitomised by John and the Terminator, is just as prevalent in the story, but it’s usually secondary to the themes of AI and technology run amok.

While many prefer The Terminator to its sequel due to a grittier horror style, quicker pace, and impressive feats of filmmaking for a smaller budget, I enjoy Terminator 2: Judgement Day just a little more. I find that T2 is a somewhat different film than its predecessor and was excellent at what it was – a sci-fi action epic, just as The Terminator was excellent as a sci-fi/horror/thriller. Both complement each other and both are different yet similar enough to work on their own as well as as a duology. It’s one of those endlessly rewatchable films that hasn’t aged a day – a definitive classic.

Hasta la vista, baby!

Best Scene

The T-1000 displays how relentless he is in one of the film’s most memorable action sequences.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The first film to have a production budget of more than $100 million.
  • To date, this is the only sequel to win an Academy Award when the previous movie wasn’t even nominated.
  • Industrial Light and Magic’s computer graphics department had to grow from six artists to almost 36 to accommodate all the work required to bring the T-1000 to life, costing $5.5 million and taking eight months to produce, which ultimately amounted to 3.5 minutes of screen time.
  • Special F/X guru Stan Winston and his crew studied hours of nuclear test footage in order to make Sarah Connor’s “nuclear nightmare” scene as real as possible. In late 1991, members of several U.S. federal nuclear testing labs unofficially declared it “the most accurate depiction of a nuclear blast ever created for a fictional motion picture.” For Sarah’s nightmare of the nuclear holocaust, some of the materials used in the miniature Los Angeles model that mimicked all the destroyed masonry were Matzos crackers and Shredded Wheat. After each take, it would take on average two days to set the model up to shoot again.
  • Out of all the time-travelling Terminators in the series, the T-1000 is the only one that doesn’t have any first-person “Terminator vision” moments.
  • The mini-gun used in the film was the same mini-gun that was used in Predator (1987) also starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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  1. Mark C Baxter says:

    excellent review. for me though the best scene is the tanker chase, perfectly complemented by Brad Fiedels amazing soundtrack

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