Terminator 2: Judgment Day is and always has been the Terminator movie closest to my heart. It’s probably due to the fact that I watched T2 repeatedly on cable as a child — I was 10 years old when it was first released, and an HBO/Cinemax junkie through adolescence — and, I can admit now without shame, I majorly crushed on little Edward Furlong throughout the ’90s. (Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge” music video, anyone?)
But it was only while watching T2 again as an adult that I began to appreciate its complexities. Yes, it’s an action film about a robot from the future who blows s*** up, but it’s also a story about human nature and the bonds of love and friendship; a self-reflexive but not overly self-aware sequel; and a technical marvel of a movie that employs the most special of special effects and puts all of its insanely expensive budget on screen.
T2: Judgment Day opens, as does the first film, on a desolate glimpse of the future. Again, it’s Los Angeles circa 2029 A.D. and rebel humans skirmish with deadly machines on the battlefield — only this battlefield is revealed to be a former playground littered with human skulls, a foreshadowing to the recurring nightmare that returning heroine Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has throughout the present, the year 1995. (So too does the production quality reveal familiar visuals that feel different; here, James Cameron‘s bigger budget is immediately evident: among sets with actual depth of field, endoskeleton Terminators walk and shoot humans with the fluidity of CG rather than jerky stop motion animation. Even the lasers look more modern.)
Back in 1995, it’s been ten years since Sarah Connor gave birth to her son John, conceived with resistance fighter from the future Kyle Reese before his untimely (or timely) death in Terminator. As two Terminators touch down from the future — one sent to kill the young John, the other sent to protect him — Sarah Connor prepares herself for the battle ahead while locked in a mental hospital. Like Reese in the first film, Sarah tries in vain to warn authorities of the pending Judgment Day, when a nuclear blast will decimate humankind; unsurprisingly, no one — especially the superbly slimy Earl Boen, reprising his role as psych evaluator Dr. Silberman — believes her. As the reprogrammed Terminator Model T800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) joins forces with the Connors, the trio attempts to battle a newer model Terminator (Robert Patrick) and destroy the technology that will eventually lead to the creation of SkyNet.
As happens through the entire film, we’re treated to frequent nods to the first film that validate and add new dimension to our Terminator-like memories. (Remember how the Governator first lands from the future, in his nude crouch? Or how he beats up some local thugs for clothing?) Where the Terminator in the first film was deadly and ruthless, in T2 he’s menacing, but practically a pacifist. The decision to turn him from villain to hero (and Sarah Connor from wallflower to warrior woman) was simply genius — a character reborn anew that critic David Ansen termed “Conan the Humanitarian.”
The new old Terminator also becomes an underdog with the introduction of a newer model: the T1000, a mighty morphin’ Terminator made of liquid metal who can mimic any human form and voice (Robert Patrick). Suddenly the muscled, lumbering T800 is an obsolete model to which the shape-shifting, metal armed-T1000 seems invincible. Thanks to this juxtaposition, we learn to accept the Terminator as not only a physical underdog, but a hero to be pitied and rooted for. (What match is he for the Oscar-winning CGI effects of ILM, whose metal morphing effects resemble those they created for Cameron’s The Abyss?)
Beyond the Terminator/T1000 match up, it’s the Terminator’s fundamental personality shift that makes T2 so compelling. The T800 is alternately pet and father figure to the ten-year-old John Connor (Furlong), a rebellious young tech prodigy in the making who wears a Public Enemy t-shirt under a camo jacket and rips ATMS for cash when not playing Missile Command and After Burner with his friend, the mulleted redhead kid from Salute Your Shorts (Danny Cooksey).
(Small details like this date T2, but not distractingly so. For that matter, let’s give a shout out to Jenette Goldstein AKA Vasquez from Aliens as John’s foster mom! )
Back to that “boy and his robot” dynamic. After meeting in an iconic hallway shoot-out scene that recalls the slow-motion dance club shoot-out in Terminator (threatening stalker-type saves a Connor from actual killer, takes them on the run), John and his cyborg pal develop a deeply moving relationship that gives T2 its most compelling emotional resonance. John teaches his ‘bot slang, how to smile, where humans like to leave their car keys; the Terminator in turn gives the young Connor a steadfast protector and father figure, a fact that Sarah Connor herself notes in one of the film’s many voice-overs.
As the story progresses, robot and human trade roles; the T800 becomes more compassionate, Sarah more machinelike. Bent on changing the future (or history, depending on your vantage point) as told to her by our dear, departed Kyle Reese, Sarah sets off to prove that there is “no fate,” hoping that she can save the future by assassinating the scientist due to invent Terminator technology. Between the events of Terminator and T2, Sarah Connor has become a woman on a mission — get strong, be tough, learn military tactics, and protect John — but her training has pushed her too far. (Incidentally, given the obvious physical and weapons training that Hamilton did in preparation for the role, this has to be one of the most dedicated thespian transformations in movie history.)
They say that guns don’t kill people; people kill people. In T2, weapon and human are equally dangerous. As the Terminator’s “master,” John exercises responsibility by forbidding human casualties, even in the interest of his own safety, while Sarah nearly kills scientist Miles Dyson (the excellent Joe Morton) to save her son; Dyson himself is blithely creating the technology that will wipe out humankind in the interest of national security. T2‘s anti-violence message is a subtle thread woven throughout its story, present between explosions, firebombs, and blasts of gunfire.
The specter of the first film looms constantly over T2, whether through visual reference (a bloody X-acto knife, the blue hues of technology-themed scenes) or dialogue (“I’ll be back,” Arnold assures the Connors as he confronts a lobby teeming with SWAT). It also dredges up the age-old sci-fi problem — time travel and the causality loop — but smartly addresses it in a single scene; John explains the story of his birth to the Terminator, including how in 35 years his future self will send Kyle Reese back to 1984. “It messes with your head,” he complains, echoing my sentiments. Which came first — John knowing Reese was his father, or John sending him back in time? Cameron and co-writer William Wisher seem to be telling us not to put too much thought into the matter.
Ultimately, the brilliance of Terminator 2: Judgment Day is that it’s a sequel which not only continues its original story, but also builds upon and expands it in terms of storytelling, theme, and scope. T2 is the rare case where a sequel is better than the original, though it never forgets its debt to the first film; it would be nothing without, and yet is much more than, the first Terminator.
Tomorrow, see how well we like the new John Connor, the new lady Terminator, and Claire Danes in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (AKA Terminator 3: My So Called Future).
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