When you tell someone you're a film buff and love to write about movies, "What is your favorite movie?" is the inevitable question. When I respond with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, more often than not I get puzzled looks, a head nod with a squinty-eyed hint of judgment, and the follow-up. "You have a degree in literature and you pick that '90s action movie?" Shouldn't it be The Godfather? Or if we're picking science-fiction, wouldn't 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner be a better choice?
No, they wouldn't. To me, Terminator 2 is not only one of the best action movies, but it is absolutely one of the best movies of our time. It isn't just how well it was filmed, but also its story structure, characters and overall humanity. Even though I get those funny looks when I describe it as my favorite movie of all time, T2 is not a movie that really needs defending. What it does need, and is the essence of this article, is a deeper look into what an accomplishment of cinema it is.
The technical aspects of the film were groundbreaking in the early '90s. CGI was still a nascent tool to use in film, and it was scarcely used in T2. When it was utilized, it wowed audiences. The antagonist T-1000 (Robert Patrick) saw the most use of the CGI through its morphing abilities. I confess that I personally don't think it holds up well by today's standards, and does date the film slightly. As I said, it was used scarcely, with the filmmakers also employing the use of practical effects, which are astonishing in this film. The truck chase along the Los Angeles River, the Cyberdyne shootout and subsequent destruction, the helicopter chase, the refinery. All practical sets with little green screen and filmed on location. Real explosions. Rewatching this movie to appreciate how an action movie was done 25 years ago is a spectacle that makes me just a tad nostalgic.
These pulse-pounding action sequences not only put some modern ones to shame, but they aren't superfluous. They might be a little extreme, but each one serves to progress the plot. This isn't John McClane driving a police car into a helicopter. Each sequence brings us to the next logical point in the story. John Connor (Edward Furlong) is chased through a mall, only to be rescued by the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who informs us who the target is, thus establishing him as the good guy.
A boy needs his mom, so we have a prison break at Pescadero State Hospital and a mother/child reunion. The assassination attempt on Dr. Miles Dyson led to his revelation of what the audience already knew — Cyberdyne's progress on Skynet's microprocessor. This gives our protagonists their goal — to secure the parts from the 1984 T-800 to stop the reverse engineering that was already in progress.
Blowing up the Cyberdyne headquarters isn't an extraneous fireworks show. These characters are preventing Judgment Day. You feel the stakes, and the characters are believable. Our human characters are fragile and vulnerable, not just to physical harm. It's not only the human characters that exhibit these traits. The eponymous cybernetic hero of the story brings us the most feels by the movie's end.
Any movie can have these levels of technical proficiency and story development. But that isn't what makes a great movie. To have a great movie you need great characters. Believable characters that have real motivation for what they're doing. Luke Skywalker has some motive. He hates the Empire and there is nothing left for him on Tatooine. His words, not mine. All valid reasons. Yet there isn't a raw humanity in his desires. I'm the biggest Star Wars fan I know, and this is the one that irks me about the trilogy. In T2, with half the primary characters being cyborgs, we have some of the most human moments in a science-fiction film.
The first character is the T-1000, our antagonist. I would never call him a villain, because a villain has to have malicious intent. Trying to kill a child is malicious enough, but only when it's a person doing the killing. Being a machine, the T-1000 has been programmed. The doesn't make him for the most engaging antagonist, but it makes him ruthless and frightening. This from Kyle Reese, the dad-to-be of John Connor and Sarah's protector in The Terminator:
"It 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, until you are dead."
Although he was referring to the T-800, it most certainly applies to all Terminators. The T-1000 is far more refined and elegant than the tank that was Arnie's Terminator. In Rebecca Keegan's The Futurist, the biography of James Cameron, the writer and director of both films, the Terminator creator is quoted as saying:
"If the 800 series is a kind of human Panzer tank, then the 1000 series had to be a Porsche."
So we have the perfect antagonist to fight against the antiquated, clunky T-800. Two machines with opposing programming, and neither will stop at anything to complete their missions. While the T-1000 has the benefit of shape-shifting due to its mimetic polyalloy (liquid metal), the T-800 boasts a humanity that is surprising.
The Human Panzer Tank
Key word in this character category is "human." In terms of a story arc, the T-800 has the most apparent and profound. This compassion is taught to him through his charge, the young John Connor. Through the Terminator and the life lessons John teaches it, we begin to understand the type of leader that he will be after Judgment Day. Over the course of the film, John conveys the value of human life to a machine.
"I know now why you cry. But it is something I can never do."
After destroying the arm and microprocessor of the 1984 Terminator, the T-800 accepts the necessity of his own destruction, and this crushes the young John. He pleads with the Terminator, crying, ordering him to stay. The T-800 knows that for the human race to survive, a factor he has no stake in, he too must be destroyed. He acknowledges the human capacity for emotion, and why we are this way. This is a machine that understands pain and loss, yet a machine built only for the purpose of killing. He also acknowledges that which separates himself from humans, and in doing so becomes more human than human. The self-sacrifice for the survival of billions of people is the ultimate demonstration of what it means to be human.
Now comes the meat and potatoes, and the main reason this movie stands above all others for me. In the first film, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is a naive waitress/everywoman trying to reconcile the fact that she is to be the mother of the future leader of the resistance. Since then, she has transformed into a paramilitary expert and, in all honesty, a domestic terrorist in her quest to bring down Skynet before its inception. Sarah Connor is one of the most compelling female characters in cinema. I am reluctant to use the reductive term "female character." It is an apt description, but her gender isn't what is so compelling; it's the fact that her gender never addressed. She isn't the ass-kicking Alice from the Resident Evil films, who receives her own slow-mo fight sequences as the men around her stare, mouths agape. Sarah Connor is a soldier. She is the mother of the human race, tasked with instilling in her son the skills he will need to lead and survive.
Cameron earns his paycheck by bypassing this convention, as is evident in how he wrote Ripley in Aliens. There is no scene where a slack-jawed male character has to say, "I don't take orders from girls," only to eat his words when the woman has proven her chops. Ripley just does what needs to be done. Like Connor, she is capable without needing to evoke male characteristics. They do this without sacrificing their femininity, and both have their moments of maternal ferocity. Ripley with Newt, Connor with her son. Cameron is the godfather of the "strong female character," although I feel that term is overused. Ripley and Connor were "strong female characters" before it was a buzz phrase, and they never drew attention to the fact.
Sarah Connor is a difficult character to dissect. When we meet her at the asylum, she is hardened — cut from concrete and driven to be reunited with her son. Her relationship with John is utilitarian and quantifiable. After being liberated from the asylum, she reaches to the back seat of the getaway car toward her son. He leans in for an embrace, but we see that she is not trying to hug her son, but to check him for wounds. She is committed to preventing Judgment Day, but when confronted with killing Miles Dyson, the father of doomsday, her exterior cracks. She cannot take a human life. She goes on to chastise Dyson, saying:
"Fucking men like you built the hydrogen bomb. Men like you thought it up. You think you're so creative. You don't know what it's like to really create something; to create a life; to feel it growing inside you. All you know how to create is death and destruction..."
John cuts her off, though, telling her this kind of Oppenheimer comparison isn't constructive. Sarah cares for John, but not in the way that he needs. His childhood was spent either with military men she would be with in order to learn the skills he needed, or foster parents after her incarceration. The only real father-figure John has ever known is the machine his mom has learned to hate. Rightfully so, considering she sees only the machine that killed John's father, referring to it as only "it" or "the machine," while John uses the gendered pronoun "him." There is a voice-over in the film that reveals a layer to Sarah, and also provides a different perspective on the Terminator:
"Watching John with the machine, it was suddenly so clear. The Terminator would never stop. It would never leave him, and it would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die, to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice."
Just like Kyle's description of the Terminator in the first film, this Terminator would never stop. This is the point where Sarah is enlightened, holding a machine above humans, but it isn't until the end of the film when she truly accepts the machine as an equal. The Terminator hands Sarah the apparatus to lower him into the molten steel, trusting her to do what is necessary. Sarah extends her hand and the Terminator's battered, metal equivalent grasps it. Their eyes meet and there is an unspoken acknowledgement, two veterans from opposing sides of war, and the machine is lowered into oblivion.
This triumvirate — the two Terminators and Sarah Connor — serves to demonstrate the heart of this film. I won't go Freudian and assign id, ego and superego to the three I've presented. They all serve as different facets of a greater film, particularly Sarah and the Terminator. Not to dismiss the T-1000, who constitutes a formidable threat, but when we look at the parallel arcs of the two protagonists, a real story emerges. Both serve to protect John but with different methods and motives, and both transcend their original notions of their intended purpose. Sarah is not the conventional cinematic mother we're accustomed to, and the Terminator surpasses his original purpose to demonstrate the potential humanity has for change. Both have a shift in ideologies and world views I've not witnessed in a blockbuster. I can't think of another film that has this many elements of introspection, action and characterization tucked so neatly into two-and-a-half hours.
I don't aim to convince anyone to make Terminator 2: Judgment Day their new favorite film of all time. I just have to convey in writing, finally, why I hold the film in such high regard. Hopefully, at the very least, some insight was gained. Few sequels surpass their predecessor the way this movie does, and T2 set the standard. Overall, I just hope that I stop getting dubious looks when I say that it is absolutely, unequivocally, the best movie ever and we should all watch it once a month.