Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is still one of the best action blockbusters ever made. There was no equal in 1991. I hadn’t even seen the film until a few years later, and I knew all the catch phrases and iconography from it. This movie almost instantly came into the pop culture vernacular. Many films today are huge blockbuster successes, but they don’t make the impact that T2 did. While I consider The Terminator to be the best of the franchise and of Cameron’s career, this is one amazing second best to have that is massively better than most peoples’ number ones. A few years ago I even had the pleasure of seeing Terminator 2 on the big screen thanks to a regular retro summer film series as my local Marcus Theatre, and it still felt like an event to me.
Over ten years after a killer cyborg was sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), her son John (Eddie Furlong), the future leader of the human resistance, is targeted by a more advanced Terminator – the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a liquid metal based machine able to take on nearly any form. John’s only hope for survival is a re-programmed Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent by his future self to protect him. Meanwhile, Sarah has become a quintessential survivor who has been institutionalized for her warning of the nuclear holocaust she knows is inevitable. When these heroes converge while eluding the T-1000, the idea is sparked that Judgment Day could be averted by wiping out SkyNet’s entire existence.
Terminator 2 is one of those blockbuster movies that you really can’t call yourself an action fan if you haven’t seen it. It is a masterfully crafted and executed piece of sci-fi action cinema that melds together the key signatures of James Cameron’s style. It has heart, humanity, emotion, depth, character, thematic weight, and bombast all in plentiful amounts. While I love the first movie for its killer pace, storytelling innovations, and intensity, this really is the big budget James Cameron style refined and smoothed out. Aliens was his first foray into that style, but I think that film did drag in too many places killing the pace and momentum of the narrative frequently. This film is a vast improvement over that. While we don’t get that same innovation of storytelling like imparting exposition during a frenetic chase sequence, considering the complex nature of the T-1000, I think having a calmer scene to convey those “harder to wrap your head around” ideas is the better way to go. The film has more important things to deal with overall than the frenetic action sequences, mostly.
Now, I may have had the Special Edition in my mind too prominently when thinking about the overall pacing of the film when writing my review of The Terminator. While that cut does have many great additional scenes that build character and story beautifully, it loses some tighter editing and storytelling cohesion that the theatrical cut possesses. For these reasons, Jim Cameron considers the theatrical version to be the better cut of the film. Where the Special Edition lags a lot in the second act, giving us a lot more slow scenes of character building and such, the theatrical version is much tighter. It moves along in a more streamlined fashion allowing a few bits and pieces to be logically filled in by the audience, and to direct the focus of the story more consistently on John, Sarah, and the T-800. All of these additional scenes are well conceived and well executed, and I surely endorse watching the Special Edition for a more expanded view of this amazing story. Still, it is the theatrical cut I am focusing on for this review because it is Cameron’s preferred version, just like with the Special Edition of Aliens.
It’s great that the movie begins very similarly to the first. We get the future war sequence showing us more than before, but instead of a paragraph of text on screen, we get the Sarah Connor narration that sets the epic, emotional mood greatly. Then, we see the T-800 appear and assault some people while seeking some suitable attire, just like in the original. While many know going into the movie that Arnold plays the good Terminator in this film, Cameron sets it up as if you do not have that knowledge. It treats both Terminators as potential lethal threats. Yet, while the T-800 gets a shot of levity with the George Thorogood track “Bad to the Bone,” the T-1000 is given a far more threatening vibe throughout. Still, Kyle Reese was initially presented in a dangerous, threatening capacity as well. So, someone watching this cold could not wholly be certain when paralleling this sequel to the original movie.
The film plays on your misconceptions of being uncertain which time traveler is the threat, and it’s an even greater scene when Sarah herself encounters the T-800 during her attempted escape from the mental hospital. Giving Arnold the line of, “Come with me if you want to live,” is excellent creating a surreal moment for Sarah, but one that resonates with her and the audience. We already know this Terminator is here to protect, but making even the slightest connection of trust between Sarah and the Terminator is immensely important. The scene is also excellent in that all of our main characters have converged, and finally sets the story along on its ultimate path in exciting fashion.
Everything I praise this film for goes along with praising James Cameron’s directing abilities, but also, I think this is probably his best screenplay. It’s very smart taking the ideas of a formulaic sequel and making tweaks and twists here and there to keep the ideas fresh. Cameron then builds upon every idea from the first film and expands upon it for a much larger story that digs even deeper into the humanity of these characters and ideas. I do have one critique to get to much later on that affects the climax, but with the substance of the characters, themes, and story, I don’t think anyone could’ve done a better job developing and fleshing out these ideas. Cameron really wrote a fantastic screenplay alongside co-writer William Wisher. On the Cameron-Wisher audio commentary the Extreme Edition DVD, Wisher states that he has never worked on a film before or since that so precisely realized on screen what he envisioned in his head while writing it. That’s a testament to Cameron’s filmmaking abilities, and the excellent quality of this motion picture. He knew how to hit it directly on the head, and translate his vision to film in a near flawless fashion.
It is amazing how the film is able to humanize Arnold’s Terminator. He eventually becomes our full-fledged hero, and the one we are wholly rooting for. This is accomplished through so many elements. From early on, John is instilling little pieces of morality and humanity into the T-800 that slowly pay-off. The shift in the character is entirely seamless. In almost every scene there is a subtle evolution that molds him from that cold, stoic cyborg into a character of personality and humanity. You feel for this machine like you would for any noble, honorable, compassionate hero. The relationship built between John and the Terminator becomes powerful and heartbreakingly emotional by the end. The final moments between Sarah Connor and the Terminator are powerful, and her final words of narration are amazing. It seems like something you’re not even aware of happening during the course of the movie, but once you’re there in those moments, you do feel something poignant for this character who was just a one dimensional bad ass who is now complex and dimensional. It is surely one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s finest, most subtle, and nuanced performances. He is exceptional throughout this movie.
Linda Hamilton is scary here. She goes from that wholesome, tender, but tough woman we saw with Kyle Reese to this near psychotic, militaristic, violent woman, and she makes it work stunningly. If you knew the exact date that the world would suffer a nuclear holocaust, you would go a little insane and violent as well. Especially if everyone you told didn’t believe you. Hamilton got into such intense physical shape she even scared Arnold a bit. She handles the physical demands of this film with shocking ability and precision. The training she went through in every aspect honed the character into the hardened, effective weapon we see. Performance wise, Linda Hamilton is amazing all the way through showing the profound inner turmoil and despair that has enveloped Sarah, but also the psychological mess that she has become living with this imminent apocalyptic knowledge. Everyone around her is a walking corpse to her. They’re ghosts who don’t know that they’re dead, yet. That’s a scary mindset to live in, and Linda Hamilton goes full boar into the depths of Sarah’s corrupted psyche. She has lost hope for herself and humanity, but she goes on a journey here to regain that hope. Even when she attempts to kill Miles Dyson, despite trying to be as cold as the Terminator herself, when forced to look Dyson in the eye face-to-face, her humanity will not allow her to take an innocent life. Hamilton is just a whole different animal in this movie, and it is a complex and powerful character that she brings to life.
Eddie Furlong is quite impressive in this, his first acting role. He had a lot of help along the way to bring out his talent and mold it for this performance. His John Connor has a fine arc going from this rebellious punk kid who respects no form of authority, and has little emotional attachment to anyone, to forging some massively strong bonds with both his mother and the T-800. We see a vibrant emotional range from Furlong, and he meshes perfectly with Hamilton and Schwarzenegger. He never gets lost amongst them as the film has so much pertinence for his character, and he holds the weight of that role strongly and profoundly. I also highly endorse Cameron’s idea of never having John Connor fire a gun in the film. He handles them, reloads ammo, but never discharges a weapon. Cameron wanted John to be perceived as an intellectual leader instead of a brute force one. Of this trio, he is the one with the most level headed mind and clear perception of morality. He stabilizes the cold, amorality of the Terminator and Sarah’s erratic, psychologically fracture mentalities. He might seem like a supporting character because of his age, but John Connor is a central, pivotal character in this story that anchors the humanity of all. Furlong is tremendous all the way through this performance.
The performance of Robert Patrick as the T-1000 is just uncanny. I like Cameron going back to the idea of the Terminator being far more average looking so it can be a cipher amongst humans. Patrick has the right slender, average build, but is able to conjure up so much menace in a different way than Arnold did in the first movie. He feels like a shark relentlessly hunting his prey where he can be silent and subversive, but ultimately, be efficiently lethal. Even when Patrick is portraying the T-1000 as the kindly police officer, there’s something so subtle about what he does that puts his portrayal just slightly off-center. You can’t put your finger on it, but there’s an odd quality to his manner that still evokes the menace and cold machine underneath. His physical ability is incredible. When he’s rapid firing a gun, he doesn’t blink once. He runs with stunning speed, and maintains that fluidity of motion throughout. He creates a complete character with brilliant nuances that are subtly and directly effective to an audience. It also love that Robert Patrick’s career didn’t get pigeonholed into this unique sort of role. He scored some meaty dramatic work after this movie, and has continued to have a very successful and diverse career to this day. His dedication to a role is clearly evident here, and shows how much of a physical actor he can be when tested.
And on a final casting note, I believe Joe Morton was a remarkable choice for Miles Dyson. This was the first thing I ever saw him in, and it set a standard of excellence with Morton that he has never failed to live up to. He’s an actor that is able to channel a deep well of emotion and sympathy in such honest, human ways. When you see Dyson, he is a man that is enthusiastic about his work, and in a scene from the Special Edition, he talks about all the good this technology could do for humanity. He’s not a malevolent man. He’s a wonderful family man with all the best intentions in the world, but when he learns the truth about his future history, it takes him about the length of a heartbeat to realize what must be done. Joe Morton instills such passion and empathy into this character that even though he is a supporting character, he adds such poignant emotional impact and weight to the film. Sarah realizes that the solution to SkyNet is not to destroy the people that created it, but to destroy the building blocks of it and allow humanity to survive. And of course, Dyson’s final moments on screen are powerful due to Morton’s amazing acting talents.
At the time, this was probably the most bombastic action movie to date with the biggest special effects ever seen. I remember news broadcasts covering the Cyberdyne building explosion, and shows going behind the scenes to show us how all these mind-blowing effects sequences were done. It was massively fascinating. This was the dawn of the digital age of visual effects, and we were able to be awed by it all. The opening future war sequence blows away what we saw in the first film by miles. It shows us a legion of T-800 endoskeletons stomping through the landscape, and large scale shots that really sell the scope of this movie. The T-1000 CGI effects were amazing at the time, and still hold up pretty damn well today. They brought to life something we had never seen before, nor something we ever could have seen before. I believe, as the film goes on, the digital effects become better and more impressive due to how they interact with the physical reality around them. It was a tremendous feat that revolutionized the visual effects industry. Of course, you can never take anything away from the masterful practical effects created by Stan Winston Studios. There was no equal in this field, and rarely a man better to embrace these new technologies and imaginations than Stan himself. This film was a big part of the legacy he left behind, and he even directed the original teaser trailer which showed the construction of Arnold’s T-800 Terminator. Pure awesomeness!
A great marriage of miniatures, practical effects, and visual effects were showcased in the Judgment Day scenes. The nuclear explosion scenes are horrifying and have the deep penetrating impact upon an audience that they needed. The film opens with a tease of it, showing us the world moments before, and shortly thereafter with the playground engulfed in an inferno. It shows us what is at stake in Sarah Connor’s mind, the nightmare that she knows is coming. Then, eventually, we see that dark reality that haunts her every moment of every day, and it is shocking beyond imagination. Judgment Day is no longer an abstract concept to the audience, we see the near annihilation of humanity in a thermo-nuclear holocaust. It is terrifyingly dark, but it motivates everything forward and sells the necessity of our heroes’ actions. Overall, this is one of those great films that uses stunning and innovative special effects to tell a substantive story. It doesn’t make itself all about the spectacle, it gives you something meaningful to invest yourself in, and then, blows you away with everything it achieves in every facet of filmmaking.
Terminator 2 is filled with some excellent action sequences that really drove the bar higher right near the outset of the 1990s, but kept it grounded with dramatic weight and peril. There were plenty of big, over the top action movies, but this film gave you big, explosive action while maintaining the integrity of danger and drama. The initial chase sequence down the storm drain has some awesome stunts and great tension. The Cyberdyne building sequences are excellent as well with the Terminator unleashing the mini-gun and grenade launcher on the LAPD, or the showdown with the SWAT team. All of the action in the film is exceptionally well done with some highly impressive stunt work and practical explosions. Today, so much is done digitally that we don’t tend to see a lot of practical pyrotechnics or a real stuntman doing things not against a green screen. Seeing all that done here just gives that extra sense of weight and realism to this film.
Brad Fiedel immensely improves on his score from the original giving it a wider, more epic orchestral style. Watching the film this time, I swear I picked up on more cues that I hadn’t noticed before, and I didn’t even have the surround sound on. I have owned this score on CD for longer than I can remember, and I clearly haven’t listened to it a long time. This is terrific, gorgeous work all around. The main theme is given its best rendition here over the opening credits, but Fiedel adds in many great themes and cues throughout. The T-800 has a very metallic clanging theme while the T-1000 is given a more subversive, fluid sounding one highlighting the difference in styles of both Terminators. Yet, the score soars during the most emotional parts of the film giving us the depth of humanity that is signature Cameron.
Terminator 2 is a beautifully shot, large scale film. When I watch this, I constantly get the feeling of this is what an action blockbuster is meant to look like. There’s just great camera work all over this film giving it a dramatic and cinematic visual beauty. The strong blue tones really came to define a widely seen look in the early-to-mid 1990s, and it started here with some gorgeous cinematography by Adam Greenberg. There are so many stunningly lit scenes that create beautiful mood and dramatic quality throughout. Every single shot is composed masterfully and they each have a storytelling purpose. Where the first film was a little rough edged and had an intense, raw energy to it, T2 is an epic scale film producing big, high quality shots while still pinpointing and highlighting the emotional depth of the story. The action scenes are shot so amazingly well giving us strong dramatic moments, and maintaining a solid sense of geography amongst how it is shot and edited. The most visually stunning sequence is indeed the steel mill climax with the beautiful use of vibrant blue and orange lighting. It’s just great seeing that many of the same vital artists and filmmakers who worked on the first film were brought back for this sequel, and they had all evolved and improved upon their craft to such a marvelous degree.
I do very much like how James Cameron, again, takes a lot of the content from the first film, but presents it to us in a different context. The role reversals of giving a lot of Kyle Reese’s dialogue to Arnold’s Terminator was a great idea that plays on the preconceptions of the audience, and to twist around the characters’ perceptions. Even the T-1000 takes on some of the T-800’s dialogue from the first film in particular moments. I think that gives everything a very intriguing quality of the presentation of the characters and the storytelling. While the “I’ll be back” line doesn’t have quite as much dramatic impact in this film, it’s still used in a very telling way. In most cases, these moments are cleverly done so to form a resonance with the audience. They hit a familiar chord in the hearts or minds of the viewer, and they work really well.
However, if I have one major complaint, it’s that at a certain point it seems Cameron goes from paralleling events from the first film to almost outright remaking them. There’s no need for the climax to mirror that of the first film with a car chase leading into a cat-and-mouse game in an industrial complex. These are not poorly made sequences, but for me, they leave something to be desired, creatively speaking. For this, and another reason, I feel the climax is a little less than it should be. It feels like a retread of what we got the first time. I really like the helicopter chase, but it is the tanker truck chase that feels like a lazy rehash. I would have preferred a little more originality so we got something distinctly different instead of three successive chase sequences. All of the necessary elements of the liquid nitrogen and the steel mill could still work with a little more innovative thinking to keep the ideas fresh. The other reason that I feel the climax is lacking is that, after the first hour, the T-1000 almost becomes an ancillary part of the film’s plot. The film becomes strongly and rightfully involved in the attempt to change the future by destroying Dyson’s research and any trace of the original Terminator’s technology. It abandons the T-1000 for a lengthy period of time because he no longer is pertinent to where the plot is going, now. The T-1000 has no thematic purpose in the story. He’s just there to kill and nothing more. The climax feels lacking to me because the movie has already dealt with its big plot points and thematic material, and now, it just needs to resolve the hanging thread of the other Terminator. The film is about something thematic and poignant, but then, it just becomes about more action sequences until it has eliminated the T-1000 altogether. Then, it gets back to the substance of the story.
This is not to say the climax is not good. The fight between the two Terminators in the steel mill is really great. Seeing the T-1000 using its morphing abilities to adapt and re-mold itself around the T-800’s attacks is awesome. It creates a situation that the lower grade model is unable to sufficiently combat. In terms of physical power, they are about matched, but the T-1000 can take more punishment because of its nature. The T-800 cannot find anyway to physically damage this liquid metal advanced prototype, and this battle is great because of this dynamic. Even though the T-1000 shows signs of malfunctions, he still proves to be a superior adversary that none of our heroes seem to stand a chance against. If it weren’t for his malfunctions, he might very well have succeeded in his mission due to his cunning and mimetic abilities. He never stops being a lethal threat, but is not indestructible.
The emotional conclusion to this film is powerful and unforgettable. Never mind the obligatory action, what matters most is the journey these characters go on together which evolve them in ways they never could have imagined. It’s also a tragic and sad end, but one that instills hope that no subsequent sequel was ever able to honor or live up to. I am uncertain if I will get around to reviewing the other two sequels, but for the record, I thought Terminator 3 was a bad movie. I wrote a review of it ten years ago, but I would prefer doing a fresh review. However, I have no desire to actually watch that movie ever again. Terminator: Salvation I did like quite a bit, and I do wish to revisit it. So, you might see me jump straight to that one at some future point in time. I will also say that the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles television series was excellent, even if it was unceremoniously canceled by Fox, and on the mother of all cliffhangers, no less. This is why I no longer watch shows on Fox.
Anyway, do I really need a summation for this review? I think I’ve hammered in all that is so great about Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Unlike modern day summer blockbusters, like from Michael Bay, that deliver on huge visual effects action, but lack even a halfway decent screenplay or even just a semblance of substance, T2 gives you all of that. It delivers on every level giving you shots of adrenalin alongside a compelling, emotional, and epic story that is all about the characters. This is the biggest grossing film of the franchise and in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career at over half a billion dollars. Sometimes, the box office does reflect quality in a film, and that is surely the case with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Thank you for enduring this very lengthy review, but for a film of this exceptional quality, there was no way I could boil it down any simpler.
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This entry was posted on 03.06.2013 by Nick Michalak. It was filed under Movie Reviews, Science Fiction / Fantasy Movies and was tagged with action, adventure, arnold schwarzenegger, biker, brad fiedel, cyberdyne, cyborg, eddie furlong, film, franchise, future war, guns, james cameron, joe morton, john connor, judgment day, linda hamilton, liquid metal, motorcycle, movie, review, robert patrick, sarah connor, science fiction, sequel, series, skynet, steel mill, t-1000, t-800, terminator, terminator 2, time travel, violence.