Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Written by James Cameron and William Wisher
Directed by James Cameron
Certain movies extend beyond just being a new film and exist in their time as a cultural phenomenon. Terminator 2 was that sort of a picture, where even ten-year-old me, who couldn’t see the film at the time because it was rated R, could feel how big it was. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the biggest action star at the time, and he was returning to work with James Cameron. Since directing the first Terminator, Cameron had helmed Aliens and The Abyss. In the latter film, he experimented with computer special effects that audiences had never seen before. For such a small number of films, the director had gained massive acclaim. At the time, with its budget of around $100 million, it was the most expensive movie ever made.
Set in 1995, John Conner (Edward Furlong) lives in Los Angeles with his foster parents. His mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton), is imprisoned at a mental hospital after attempting to bomb a computer factory she believed was responsible for the dark future she learned about in the first film. Once again, two visitors from the future arrive, one a Terminator Model 101 (Schwarzenegger) and a liquid metal T-1000 (Robert Patrick). The Terminator reveals he was reprogrammed and sent back by John in the future to protect himself from this assassination attempt. John and the Terminator break Sarah out of the hospital and try to figure out what to do next. They realize they have a chance to stop the launch of SkyNet, the advanced A.I. that will lead to the fall of humanity. But the T-1000 is closing in, and time is running out.
Terminator 2 came out at a time when the Hollywood action movie was being redefined. Die Hard came on the scene in 1988 and placed Bruce Willis front and center as a new action icon. You also had directors like Paul Verhoeven putting out very stylized pictures like Total Recall. While he’s not a director I fawn over, James Cameron is an innovator, and he managed to create an action movie template that went further. The sequences in T2 are such a perfect blend of practical and digital effects. It’s a balance other filmmakers fail to understand and apply in their own pictures. It’s vital that the majority of the space be real, and anything C.G. that is incorporated needs to be blended in with precision.
T2’s story is also relatively simple when you stand back and look at the film. There is a clear antagonist whose goal is never obscured. The protagonists have one goal, to begin with: survive. Then around the midpoint, we get a second goal that grows out of that first one: prevent this dark future from happening in the first place. This second goal makes the film even more interesting because it reshapes the antagonist’s mission. He’s not just out to kill John Conner; the T-1000 is also trying to ensure he comes into existence in the first place. When you compare this plot to the four sequels released, since you immediately see that they over-complicated their structure, the audience becomes unclear about motivations. This is especially egregious in Terminator: Genisys which loses the plot almost immediately as it tries to reboot the franchise by making the story incomprehensible.
The straightforward nature of T2 makes it feel quaint in a sea of overly complex movies we get now. The cast is kept lean with supporting characters never overstaying their welcome. This way, the focus of the relationships is between John, Sarah, and the Terminator. When Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) is brought into the story, he doesn’t take away from those relationships because the writers make it tie back in. Sarah tries to kill the man and can’t, which affects her relationship with John. She becomes emotionally vulnerable, and John becomes a caretaker for Sarah for a moment. It also serves as part of John’s arc, insisting that people should not be killed as they fight against the T-1000. Even the cold Terminator gets an arc with John augmenting his CPU to learn as he interacts with the humans.
Terminator 2 is a very entertaining big-budget science fiction movie that keeps itself grounded in the relationships of its characters. Set pieces serve to both showcase the cutting edge special effects and raise the stakes of the narrative. Sadly, fans of this film seem to falter so severely when trying to make follow-ups, possibly sending the message the Terminator franchise should have stopped here.