Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2: Judgment Day ★★★★★

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

In 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 machines lay waste to the human resistance led by John Connor. We cut to 1995, and a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) appears outside a bar and he steals one of the patron’s clothes and a gun, and he is not alone. Sarah’s son, John (Edward Furlong) lives a rebellious life in a foster home. Sarah herself is kept in the Pescadero Mental Institute, by Dr Silberman (Earl Boen), and is plagued by a recurring nightmare of the destruction of Los Angeles 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 the arcade, John sees the officer and fearing he’s under arrest, makes a run for it, only to encounter T-800. The T-800 commands John to “Get down!” as it’s revealed that the cop is a Terminator as well; the T-1000, made of liquid metal.

The T-1000 pursues john in a big truck, only for the T-800 to save John in the nick of time. John learns that his future self reprogrammed the Terminator to protect him from Skynet’s second attempt to assassinate him and cancel out the resistance. To maintain discretion, John commands the T-800 to take him to the Mental Institute to set Sarah free, and makes him promise not to kill anyone. They break in, encounter Sarah who’s almost completed her escape, but once again the T-1000 is in pursuit to kill and impersonate Sarah. They escape into the desert, and Sarah questions the T-800 to learn of 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, and sets out to kill him to stop Skynet from 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 to her, following up her arc from the first film and kicking 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 Miles 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, as much action as you can fit into the screen without getting bored, the Terminator skeletons are as real as they come, and establishing a bleak, apocalyptic future that must be avoided. I cannot imagine T2 being shot any different than it is now, the stark blue night photography is eye popping and pleasing to the eye, while maintaining that essential grittiness one expects from a Terminator film. T2 lives up to it’s reputation as a great action film: 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 lacks impact. There are plenty of stunts, explosion and effects shots that seem to show off a bit, but the film earns those moments. The dream depicting the destruction of Los Angeles is especially chilling, with people burning alive and model buildings being obliterated, and naturally it holds up. The climax in the steel factory is magnificently atmospheric and hellish.

T2 revolutionized CGI with the liquid metal form of the T-1000, it’s a flawless look, and the emotional payoff is as good as it gets. It’s used economically and gets more creative throughout the film. The model work on the Machines are very detailed and brilliantly shot, 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 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, 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. Hamilton’s narration at the beginning is understated and sparse, so it ultimately doesn’t detract from 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 and even 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. The ending is perfection. It’s that ambiguous, open-ending, and emotionally charged. It hints towards an ambiguous future and 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’s commentary resonates more as our state of technology 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 make 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 it’s human form flickering on and off in the climax. When it’s finally destroyed, we see it for the writhing, screeching monster that it is. The primitive CGI works to it’s advantage with the “uncanny valley” effect coming into full force.

Sarah’s nightmare of the burning playground symbolizes 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 militarized 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 of the value human life, as epitomized by John and the Terminator, is just as prevalent in the story, but it’s usually secondary to the themes of artificial intelligence and technology.

While many prefer The Terminator to it’s sequel due to it’s gritter 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 it’s 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 enough on their own as well as as a duology. It’s one of those endlessly rewatchable films that hasn’t aged a day since it first came out - a definitive classic.

Hasta la vista, baby!

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