REVIEW: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

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”

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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

MVP

James Cameron – the man knows how to deliver a sequel.

PODCAST: Ep8 – Terminator 2 (1991)

In this episode Charlie and George travel back in time (but not naked, that’d be weird) to 1991 for the action sci-fi extravaganza that is T2: Judgement Day!

Whilst discussing the genius of James Cameron’s original vision and why it remains one of the best sequels ever made, they also take a closer look at Robert Patrick’s privates and remember a time when tie dyed t-shirts, mullets and Axel Rose were all considered acceptable.

Featuring monthly features like Coulda Woulda Shoulda and more behind the scenes trivia than you can shake a liquid metal fist at this is an episode that can’t be missed.

Copyright Notice: All copyright material remains the property of the original copyright holder and all clips and audio samples have been used only as a reference and as part of a review in line with Creative Commons FAIR USE policy.

Stream or download all of our podcast episodes directly from any of these sites below:

Extras

Would you like to know more?

No time to listen to the episode and enjoy a good read then be sure to check out George’s full Retro Review of T2: Judgement Day here!

RetroRamble 2017

Check out this episode on Libsyn!

Episode 8: Coming Soon

A very big thank you to everyone who’s already downloaded last month’s Batman episode. It seems the caped crusader’s late 80s film is a big favourite since it’s become our most popular show to date! Remember, we also provide a written retro review of all the films we cover on the podcast so please be sure to check out George’s review of Batman (1989). But what next? What could we possibly cover in Episode 8 you may ask?

How could we possibly match such spectacle?

Episode 8 is coming soon (edit: it’s here) and we should warn you, there will be mullets. Lots and lots of of amazing mullets, hopefully our photoshop work also gives you an idea of what we’ll cover.

Dun dun dun dun dun!

Dun dun dun dun dun!

NEWS: I’ll be back….again

After flirting on the fringes of each new production, it appears James Cameron is ready to go back to Titanic, Terminator. George McGhee wonders if this is a good idea.

It’s a machine that can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with, it doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and it absolutely will not stop…EVER. Yes, I’m talking about the Terminator but not the actual character- I’m talking about the studio engine that will not let this once great franchise die, by letting it gracefully slip into the fiery furnace of time with a graceful thumbs up, so to speak.

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Can James Cameron recapture T2’s magic?

Yet Hollywood keeps hitting the reset button on this franchise – why? Nothing is an easier sell than brand/name recognition – hence the continuing bombardment of remakes, sequels, and the term that makes me cringe – “shared universes”. The big surprise is that none other than the Miles Dyson of this franchise, self proclaimed “King Of The World” James Cameron, is actively involved in this new production.

Whilst Mr Cameron is far too busy prepping numerous Avatar sequels, it’s been revealed that he is taking on a “godfather” or a creative consultant role for a new Terminator film – as the film rights revert to him in 2019. One would hope that his involvement means proper production opposed to executive production – which is essentially funding a film but with little creative input.

On every sequel since Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) the Cameron Connection has always been crowbarred in some way, however tenuous. Both Terminator 3: Rise of The Machines (2003) and Terminator Salvation (2009) had his best wishes – mainly support for his friends/collaborators Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sam Worthington.

He had a more direct involvement in Genysis, from the initial suggestion on how to bring back Arnie (“what if the T-800’s skin ages like a human?”) to a cringe worthy video endorsement where he praises it as a true sequel to the first two films…. The claim is almost as outrageous as the shirt he’s wearing for the video.

Following the poor critical and audience reception at remake/reboot/sequel, Terminator Genysis (the first of a new planned trilogy and potential TV series tie in) we all thought the franchise, like Salvation before it (another planned trilogy…) was a non starter.

As a huge fan, I can still find strengths in each sequel post Terminator 2, which happens to be one of my favourite films of all time – however disappointing they can be. Rise of the Machines was averagely entertaining in a familiar way but I was really impressed with it’s bleak ending. Salvation was the opposite – fans were eager to see the future war teased in Cameron’s films and it had an interesting twist with a human/cyborg hybrid (like Genysis, the key twist was spoiled in the trailer). However the film still couldn’t avoid giving us another smack down finale in familiar factory, followed by the world’s first desert based heart transplant…

As Cameron points out, Genysis is a “true” sequel of sorts, with it’s Back to The Future II approach, the opening half hour impressively recreates previous scenes almost shot for shot. Sadly as soon as they announce “we must travel to 2017! For reasons!” it quickly falls apart with all too familiar action scenes (another Golden Gate Bridge set-piece, really?!) and wooden exposition delivered by Arnie, a miscast Emilia Clarke and miscast in everything, Jai Courtney.

The press release promises this new take will be a reboot and conclusion of the story, which…makes little sense. With Cameron’s busy slate, rumour has it that Tim Miller, the other man (besides Ryan Reynolds) that we have to thank for the wonderful Deadpool (2016), is due to take on the directing duties. Apart from being one of the funniest films of last year, Miller displayed an inventive flair for stylish action and violence and most importantly with a limited budget – so again, another reason to be hopeful, if not outright excited.

Is Cameron the right man for the job? Or does it need some new blood? After all, Star Wars is doing a lot better without George Lucas, now it’s in the hands of talented filmmakers who grew up with the originals. Cameron has done little to tarnish his Terminator legacy, with his last two theatrical features are two of the biggest selling films of all time. You can moan about the mawkish romance of Titanic or Avatar being Pocahontas with blue cat people all you want, those numbers don’t lie. It’s fair to say that box-office numbers don’t always mean quality (e.g. Transformers/Fast & Furious films) but it’s unlikely many would accuse Cameron of approaching anything half-heartedly – in each of his films, he’s clearly looking to push boundaries in terms of using technology to tell a story, opposed for the sake of it.

My concern is where can the story go, that it hasn’t tried already. Whilst a groundbreaking idea in the early 1980’s, has today’s technology overtaken the concept of a killer robot disguised as a human? Cameron pointed out back in 2011 that the machines have already won, we’re already enslaved to technology. It seems that Genysis took this concept literally with Skynet turning into a killer app – a storyline that people found hard to take seriously.

Personally I feel the only sensible way to approach Terminator is to go back it’s roots, as a low budget, horror sci-fi, and controversially get rid of Arnie – alright, give him a walk on cameo if you must. For further proof, check out the excellent action film The Guest (2014), which lovingly homages Terminator and other 80’s action thrillers. It’s almost an unofficial remake, with Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens (yes, you read that right) as a seemingly unstoppable soldier.

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To be, or not to be? Can Cameron save the franchise?

Time will tell if Cameron can right the course of this franchise and what exact role he will take. The last two features Cameron produced were Strange Days (1995) and Solaris (2002), both are strong sci-fi entries in my opinion. They offered intriguing concepts and strong visual aesthetics whilst still recognisably the work of their respective directors, Kathryn Bigelow and Steven Soderbergh. (On a side note, check out the Solaris DVD commentary with Cameron and Steven Soderbergh – it’s very informative and entertaining).

Many fans are saying the franchise has had it’s day, and whilst an unknown future rolls toward us. I face it for the first time with a sense of hope. Dun-dun-dan-dun-dun…….

Should Terminator be rebooted again?

Let us know in the comments below.