During the war between the Resistance and the machines in 2029, Skynet sends a new, highly advanced terminator, T-1000 (Robert Patrick) back to 1999, a little over a decade after the events of the The Terminator. With the original terminator failing to complete the mission he was assigned when sent to 1984, T-1000’s assignment is to now track down Sarah Connor’s (Linda Hamilton) son John (Edward Furlong) and kill him, thereby eliminating the future Resistance’s hope.
Meanwhile, the future John Connor has reprogrammed a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and sent him back to the year in order to protect his younger self.
Following the success of The Terminator, James Cameron was on a roll throughout the ’80s with the action/sci-fi genre. His followup, Aliens, was a worthy successor to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Alien. After that came The Abyss, which broke new ground for visual effects. Cameron would then take the leap in CGI technology made by The Abyss and usher in the ’90s with what would become his best film and what still stands as his strongest film to date – Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Now, whether you’ve seen the first Terminator or read last week’s review or any other review of the 1984 classic, you know Schwarzenegger was the villain. This time around, the iconic character does a complete 180 by becoming the hero. At the time this film was being prepped for its release, TriStar Pictures made the unfortunate decision of marketing the hell out of that character twist. In some ways, you can understand their decision. This was Arnold at the peak of his career, post Total Recall, Predator, The Terminator and Conan the Barbarian. As charismatic leading man action heroes go, he was it at the onset of the ’90s. Bigger than Van Damme; bigger than Seagal and even bigger than Stallone. However, imagine the punch this film would’ve packed had the studios kept Arnold’s turn to the good side a secret (an easier feat to do back then coming years before the Internet, social media and the 50 million other media outlets).
Not that it takes anything at all away from the movie; the film itself isn’t at fault for the way it’s marketed, but we can only wonder the shock and excitement viewers might’ve felt the moment the shotgun wielding T-800 approaches John Connor as if to shoot him, only to realize he’s actually aiming at the villain behind the child.
Any budget restraints Cameron may have had with The Terminator as far as the action and special effects go (his idea for the T-1000 was postponed ’til this film ’cause of the limited special effects he had available) are now gone. By the time Cameron was set to do Terminator 2, he already had three critical and box office hits under his belt, so it’s safe to say the studio had plenty of confidence in him as they pumped the budget up to nearly 10x the budget of its predecessor. The result is a bigger, explosive, more action-packed, experience that features some of the most expertly crafted action setpieces and innovative special effects of its time, both of which still hold up to this day.
It’s extremely difficult to create just one memorable action sequence. Cameron gives us at least four: A semi vs. motorcycle chase on the L.A. river, Sarah Connor’s prison break, the Cyberdyne break-in, and the climactic tanker chase (which leads to the iconic “hasta la vista” moment).
But Terminator 2, thankfully, isn’t a case of Cameron taking a fat check from the studio and going mindlessly hog wild. Cameron’s of course going big or go home with the action and the effects, but it’s all done in service to the story which expands upon the mythology created in the first film and allows for enough development amongst all the characters without feeling laborious about it. Even at over two hours (the extended cut is a little over 2 1/2), Cameron keeps things moving at a tight pace by keeping us engaged in the story and characters. We now begin to see the seeds planted that would build up to everything Kyle Reese warned Sarah about in The Terminator. In the first film, it made sense that Sarah was the “damsel in distress” since she was completely blindsided by what was happening. As the years have gone by, it’s changed her into a woman more fiercely driven than the Sarah we saw from 1984 (it only being two years shy of Judgment Day will do that to you).
Only one shot of Linda Hamilton one-arm shotgunning the T-1000 near a vat of molten metal should be enough to convince you she deserves a spot next to Ellen Ripley as one of the best action heroines in film.
Even a smaller supporting role like Joe Morton’s Myles Bennett Dyson, the creator of Skynet, is given enough depth in the limited time he has onscreen. Though what Skynet would eventually become leads you to believe Dyson is some sort of mad scientist, he’s anything but. Instead, he’s a family man creating something for the betterment of mankind; However, in doing so, he’s inadvertently laying the groundwork for nuclear world war. When faced with that realization (and it’s an “arm-slicing” doozy of a scene when he does), his initial good intentions become weighed down by the moral and ethical dilemmas now surrounding them.
In one of the most inspired choices of villain casting to be captured on film, not to mention the creative “liquid metal” effects (a combination of CGI and practical puppetry) behind his character, Robert Patrick is able to send chills down viewers’ spines though he barely utters a word for most of the film, and has only about a fraction of the build Schwarzenegger has. That’s exactly why he’s so effective here, though. The T-1000 is the antithesis of the T-800, and because of his ordinariness, he actually fits the mold of Cameron’s original idea for Skynet’s infiltration unit. That ordinariness is what makes the machine much more advanced than Schwarzenegger’s. Unlike the T-800, who’s built like a machine and talks in stiff, robotic “affirmatives” and “negatives”, the T-1000 can be expressive like a human, talk like a human and looks like your everyday average human. You can pick the T-800 out of a crowd; you can’t so much with the T-1000 (unless you’re one of the few lucky witnesses to have seen Schwarzenegger blast a hole through his head) and that chameleon-like effect is what makes him such a great adversary.
Unlike the first film, humor plays a bigger part here, most of which comes from the bond that develops between John Connor (a nice film debut by Edward Furlong) and the T-800. That’s not to say Cameron turns Schwarzenegger into a Care; he still carries that trademark intimidation and commanding presence with him, and isn’t afraid to blow a building up or fire off more than a couple rounds in order to keep John alive. This time, however, Cameron applied a new trait to the role that we didn’t get, for obvious reasons, in the first film and that’s empathy. Yeah, you can argue that protecting John is nothing more than the mission he’s been reprogrammed to do, but there’s still something profoundly touching about the relationship John shares with this machine, a machine that by the end of the film understands more about human connection than he ever did before.
If it doesn’t get at least a little bit dusty in the room for you during their final scene together, you simply have no soul.
With a dominant hero, badass heroine, terrifying villain and mind-blowing awesome action sequences, Terminator 2: Judgment Day contains everything an action film needs to be great, going above and beyond what the genre typically asks for by packing its suspenseful story with a healthy helping of heart. As a landmark for both the action and science-fiction genres, its influence on both can still be seen today, and to this day, remains the crowning achievement of Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron’s careers.