Retro Review by George McGhee
Terminator 2 a nutshell: Ten years after the events of The Terminator and Sarah Connor is in mental asylum with no-one believing her story. Her son and the saviour of the future, John is a delinquent, living with foster parents. This time, two terminators arrive from 2029, one sent by Skynet to assassinate the Connors, another sent by John Conner reprogrammed to protect them.
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The Terminator was a surprise hit in 1984, introducing the world to writer/director James Cameron and turning Arnold Schwarzenegger into a bona fide star. Taking 1950’s pulp sci fi themes (time travel, robots, nuclear paranoia) and infusing them with a 1980’s punk-slasher-film aesthetic.
Cameron learnt his craft under low budget maestro Roger Corman, so he knew various tricks on how to make a movie look more expensive than it should. The film exceeded everyone’s expectations and earned over $75m worldwide (from a $6.5m budget) creating well deserved demand for a potential sequel. Thanks to this success Cameron now had his pick of projects so he decided to tackle another sequel instead, Aliens (1986).
In the wrong hands, Aliens could have been a simple cash in, like many other horror sequels – same monster, different victims. Yet, among the hordes of xenomorphs and gun happy marines, was Ripley, a scarred survivor wanting closure on her ordeal. A grieving mother forced to become a surrogate mother and protect her new child by any means.
Aliens was a huge hit, proving The Terminator wasn’t a fluke and with a decent budget, Cameron could deliver a blockbuster spectacle, taking a story in new places with engaging characters. Like with The Godfather Part II, it was a film many would go on to claim (much to the displeasure of Sir Ridley Scott) actually improved on the original film.
Expanding the Terminator universe…the right way.
With Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron changes conventions again. Damsel-in-distress Sarah Connor has become distressed-damsel-in-asylum and Arnie’s unstoppable killer now the comedy relief babysitter. Albeit one who will kneecap you to protect his charge.
It’s a smart move from Cameron turning the villain into the hero, but also a logical one. Arnie’s career had sky-rocketed since the first film and audiences were used to seeing him as the leading action hero. One capable of defying expectations in family friendly comedies like Twins (1988) and Kindergarten Cop (1990) with both released in the run up to T2.
Cameron could have easily followed his Aliens template even closer and simply upped the numbers. An army of Terminators get sent back to take out more cannon fodder. However, as the first film showed, with a decent amount of firepower or heavy machinery, Schwarznegger’s hulking Terminator could be stopped. So, how do you top that?
What about a villain who can’t be shot, crushed or blown up? One that doesn’t need any weapons, can assume anyone’s identity and runs like Usain Bolt? The T1000 is an inspired choice of villain that has never been bettered in the following sequels. Relatively unknown, Robert Patrick brings a brilliant mix of physicality and sinister charm that Arnie’s monosyllabic T-800 is incapable of.
Cameron had always wanted to use a liquid metal Terminator, but ironically, he had to wait for technology catch up with his vision. Effects legends, ILM (Star Wars, Back to The Future, Indiana Jones) are responsible for delivering ground breaking effects that still impress today. The film pushed CGI effects to it’s limit, though Cameron uses them to enhance the storytelling, making the T1000 a unique and very dangerous villain.
At the same time, it’s easy to forget how much stunning practical trickery is at play here – prosthetic’s, animatronics, pyrotechnics or even some clever use of twins – check out the podcast episode where we discuss the several uses of twins and links with Gremlins 2 in more detail.
Raising the stakes
Much like it’s predecessor, Judgment Day deftly balances some chunky time travel exposition between some thrilling action sequences that maybe long, but the pace never lets up. In all of the key action sequences, Cameron cleverly dials up the tension before unleashing stylish action that still impresses.
The first big action scene (outside of the prologue) begins with both Terminators closing in on John in the Galleria. Despite the heavy marketing, the uninitiated don’t know which robot is hero and which is villain. Without any prior knowledge, you could even assume that Patrick is a human, like Kyle Reese.
Once the Terminators reveal their true colours, the extended action that starts with a brawl in a mall and ends in a thrilling storm drain chase. Following that set piece, Cameron gives us time to breathe whilst the T800 brings John (and the audience) up to speed on his mission whilst allowing some comic relief, as John realises the T800 must follow his every command.
“a fearsome mamma bear who’s willing to break a few bones to protect her son”
Meanwhile back in the asylum, we get to spend time with the original film’s lead, Sarah. Gone is the clumsy waitress from the original. We now are faced with a caged animal! She’s a fearsome mamma bear who’s willing to break a few bones to protect her son and prevent the nuclear apocalypse. It’s a clever take on the Greek myth of Cassandra, a woman who can foresee the future, yet no one believes.
Main differences from the original
The first film used the exposition a lot more economically, whilst our heroes are on the run. Yet, considering how action packed the last 40 minutes of the film will be, it’s a wise move to allow us to spend proper time with our heroes whilst adding some emotional heft. Whether it be the key scenes of the T800 bonding with John or Sarah’s descent into a cold-blooded killer, as she decides to go after Miles Dyson.
The scene at the Dyson’s is also a stand out for it’s chilling menace, as Cameron briefly returns to the body horror of The Terminator. It’s an interesting move for John, essentially a child, to instruct the T800 to savagely reveal his true self, but it’s certainly gets the required reaction from Dyson.
The third act is another brilliant example of tension and action spectacle, beginning with the Cyberdyne break in, which quickly turns into a break out, escaping most of LA’s police force as well as the T1000. The final chase again has echoes of the first film but the budget ups the scale considerably before reaching another factory set climax. The tension is cranked up until the very end as it appears the T1000 is unstoppable, the T800 is beaten to a pulp and our heroes have nowhere to go. After finishing off the T1000, Cameron hits home with emotional sucker punch – Sarah and John must also put their beloved protector into the furnace.
Is the sequel better than the original?
It’s a frequent debate between film fans, which is superior, The Terminator or Judgment Day? Similar to Alien and Aliens, there’s no straightforward answer. Both sets of film take the story in unexpected places, evolving characters and twisting conventions. Whilst I love, the gritty, no frills neo-noir chase movie of the original, I prefer T2 because it has a bigger story, amazing action sequences, humour and more humanity. Like many great philosophical sci-fi, the sequel dares to ask the popular question, “What does it mean to be human?”
Whilst the first film was a survival horror with a fairly forced love story, the sequel shows us the importance and complications of family. A mother who will go to any means to protect her son, a hard-working family man destined to destroy civilisation and a boy yearning for a father figure. Amidst all the action, special effects, plot and character development there’s also a good amount of humour and just the right amount of emotion. John can be an annoying little shit at times but I always have something in my eye, come Arnie’s fiery thumbs up.
After several botched sequels, the rights to the Terminator franchise have ended up back with Cameron once more. Even whilst busy with Avatar sequels, Big Jim is currently crafting a new sequel, with Tim Miller of Deadpool in the director’s chair. Arnie is back, as always and more interestingly, so is Linda Hamilton, as the film intended to be a direct sequel to T2. Will it be good? The future is not set…
Coulda Woulda Shoulda
Rock star Billy Idol for first choice for T-1000 but injured himself in a motor bike accident. Denzel Washington turned down the role of Miles Bennett Dyson
James Cameron – the man knows how to deliver a sequel.