Terminator 2: Judgment Day (United States, 1991)

May 09, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Terminator 2: Judgment Day Poster

When James Cameron crafted The Terminator in 1984, the concept of a sequel was far from his thoughts. The film's box office performance, while more than justifying the movie's understated $6.5 million budget, did not result in studio executives rushing to Cameron to make a follow-up. However, The Terminator arrived on tape just as the mid-'80s home video revolution was gathering steam, and it became one of a few titles whose VHS success oustripped its theatrical performance. By the late 1980s, there was no question that Cameron would make a Terminator sequel. The only mystery was how spectacular it would be. Aliens, Cameron's first big-budget directorial assignment, had been an edge-of-the-seat ride and indications were that he had every intention of topping it with Terminator 2. (In between Aliens and T2, Cameron made The Abyss, a film plagued by production issues that received a lukewarm initial reception but was re-evaluated once a more complete version of the director's vision was released for home viewing.)

At the core of The Terminator lies the concept of time travel, with machines from the future returning to the past in an attempt to change it while future humans sought to retain the status quo. For Terminator 2, Cameron changed the game. Once again, there are pro-human and anti-human factions tripping through time, but on this occasion, both sides have the same eventual goal: change the future. For Sarah Connor (an ultra-toned Linda Hamilton) and her 10-year old son, John (Edward Furlong), it's a chance to avert the coming apocalypse. However, for the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), the latest machine weapon, the mission is to kill the Connors. With those two eliminated, the future human resistance will be toothless, thereby assuring eventual machine dominance.

For T2, Cameron's planed "major twist" was unveiled before the movie's release because of marketing considerations. This time, Arnold Schwarzenegger would portray a good Terminator instead of a bad one. Had this been kept a secret, it would have packed a wallop. Unfortunately, the trailers let the cat out of the bag and few (if any) members of the audience were unaware of this switch-up. Knowing the twist beforehand neither ruins the overall movie-going experience nor damages its integrity, but it's not unlike being aware of the identity of Luke's father while watching The Empire Strikes Back.

With the hulking Schwarzenegger, at the height of his cinematic popularity in 1991, playing the heroic figure, someone else was needed to assume the villain's mantle. Since it would have been foolish to attempt to out-bulk Schwarzenegger, Cameron opted instead to make the T-1000 the picture of ordinariness. In fact, based on the story's original conception, the T-1000 would have been played by Michael Biehn (Kyle Reese in The Terminator), making the role reversal symmetrical. Fearing audience confusion, however, Cameron abandoned this idea and offered the part to Robert Patrick. The T-1000's seeming physical inferiority is more than compensated for by the unique nature of its construction. It is a creature of "living metal," capable of re-forming into almost any shape of equal mass and virtually indestructible. With the T-1000, T2 became the first motion picture to make significant use of the then-new CGI technology that Cameron had pioneered in The Abyss. In the wake of T2, CGI would become an increasingly used staple of special effects-heavy motion pictures, with 1993's Jurassic Park taking it to the next level.

T2 features bigger, bolder, more energetic action sequences than its predecessor (Cameron had a budget of more than ten times that of the original for the sequel). The big moments include a chase scene in which the T-1000, in a truck, pursues John Connor and his Terminator on a motorcycle; the prison break of Sarah Connor; and the explosive finale at Cyberdyne. The film is long enough to allow for more character development than in the original. We come to understand how her obsession with the future has transformed Sarah into a driven woman. A touching friendship develops between John and The Terminator, lending aspects of an off beat "buddy movie" to T2. And Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), the scientist/engineer unlocking the secrets of the 1984 Terminator's chip, must face the moral and ethical implications of what he is inadvertently doing. By trying to help mankind, is he instead becoming the author of its genocide? The time paradoxes addressed in this film are more complex than those in The Terminator. This storyline postulates that actions from the future have formed a cornerstone of the past, raising questions about the non-linear nature of time. Cameron's original ending for T2 would have made future sequels unlikely; producer Mario Kassar forced Cameron to abandon his planned "coda" to allow for the possibility of additional Terminator movies. Thus far, there have been two (plus a television series), but Cameron has not been involved, claiming the story he wanted to tell concluded at the end of T2.

T2 opens with two Terminators arriving in 1995 through separate time portals. The nuclear cataclysm caused by Skynet's gaining awareness is barely more than two years in the future. The "superior" Terminator, the T-1000, has made the trip to ensure that nothing impedes Skynet's development and that John and Sarah Connor are terminated. The "inferior" Terminator, a "series 800 model 101," has been sent back through time by the future John Connor to safeguard his mother and past self. The idea of destroying Cyberdyne and averting the bleak future is not part of his original mission but is decided upon by Sarah after her son and his Terminator free her from the psychiatric hospital where she is being confined.

There's a little more humor in T2 than there was in The Terminator. Most of it results from the interaction between John and the Terminator, where the human child attempts to teach the robot killer the intricacies of offhand social interaction. This includes slang expressions such as "Hasta la vista, baby." It's also worth noting that, although it would be a stretch to call Schwarzenegger's Terminator "kinder and gentler" in this film, he does not kill anyone. Even before John explicitly orders him not to commit murder, the Terminator's visit to the past lacks a body count. (The same cannot be said of the T-1000.) Of course, injury, intimidation, property damage, and general mayhem are exempted.

Although the theatrical version of the film clocked in at 137 minutes, the most commonly viewed home video version is the extended director's cut, which adds about 15 minutes of additional footage, and the new scenes do not impede the breakneck pace. Perhaps the most notable of the inclusions is a dream sequence in which Sarah interacts with Kyle Reese. This sequence - the only one in T2 featuring Michael Biehn - provides stronger connective tissue between The Terminator and its immediate sequel.

Combined, the first two Terminator movies offer some of the best contemporary-based science fiction action ever provided in a motion picture series. Although the third Terminator movie continues the legacy of impressive, big budget action, the screenplay is lacking in both depth and substance and it feels inferior, especially when viewed back-to-back with Cameron's efforts. Although The Terminator is arguably the more visionary of the first two films, T2 is the more visually and viscerally satisfying. It's an exhausting experience and, even 18 years after its release (as I write this review), few films have matched it within the science fiction genre for sheer white-knuckle exhilaration.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (United States, 1991)

Director: James Cameron
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick, Joe Morton
Screenplay: James Cameron & William Wisher
Cinematography: Adam Greenberg
Music: Brad Fiedel
U.S. Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Run Time: 2:17
U.S. Release Date: 1991-07-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1