REVIEW: Terminator 2: Judgment Day [1991]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 137 minutes | Release Date: July 3rd, 1991 (USA)
Studio: TriStar Pictures
Director(s): James Cameron
Writer(s): James Cameron & William Wisher Jr.

“You’re really real”

Oh what seven years can accomplish through cinematic technological achievement. While The Terminator still looks good today, Terminator 2: Judgment Day looks amazing. Director James Cameron acknowledges his evolutionary leap by opening the follow-up with a near-replica 2029 Los Angeles prologue as the first to showcase exactly how far forward. These new sentient machines are carbon copies of the old moving with marginal hitching to physically belong next to their human adversaries. Besides the sequences inside cars with flat projections whooshing by (Hollywood still hasn’t perfected this trick), there’s enough awe-inspiring action and sci-fi artistry to unanimously earn the film’s four Oscars opening weekend. And despite needing sixteen times the budget of its predecessor to achieve that success, don’t automatically assume story becomes an afterthought in the process because T2 remains a benchmark for sequels across the board.

Cameron’s two films after creating his world of Skynet and nuclear apocalypse pushed him towards finally realizing the potential of his initial idea. He’s stated how the original plan was to have two Terminators travel through time, but bringing a second one made of metal alloy to life in 1984 was impossible. After working with extensive special effects for the humanoid water creature from The Abyss, however, the moment arrived. Couple this advancement with his experience turning Alien‘s cerebral horror into Aliens‘ adrenaline rush of action/adventure and Cameron found himself with the box office clout, expertise, and courage to change the landscape of cinema altogether. After all, T2 succeeds on its own terms, deftly continues the franchise’s mythology while simultaneously reinventing it, and shows how crucial authentic emotion and heart is to giving violence and destruction resonate weight.

The film’s set twelve years later with Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton)—every-girl waitress turned badass guerilla soldier thanks to knowing mankind’s fate and her son’s importance to surviving it—incarcerated at a psychiatric care facility under Dr. Silberman’s (Earl Boen) watchful eye. With everything that happened to her now being labeled delusions of a schizophrenic, no one can blame John (Edward Furlong) for turning delinquent. Years of hearing his mother’s insane rhetoric and learning how to hack ATMs and load artillery do him no good in suburbia with foster parents at their breaking point (Jenette Goldstein and Xander Berkeley). The only environment for John to thrive in is the one awaiting him once America becomes a wasteland for the machines to takeover. And even though Reese told Sarah the war was all but finished, Skynet’s AI obviously survived.

You can just imagine the robots in 2029 sending their Terminator back to 1984, expecting to cease existing a human-free world only to be disappointed the carnage continued on instead. So they kept working and eventually built the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a highly evolved Terminator able to adapt his appearance along with his voice to remain virtually undetectable. The limits to his transformations are a bit fuzzy since the newly rewired to protect the Connors rather than kill them T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) explains he can only change into metallic objects like knives. Apparently T-1000s can morph into other humans and hospital corridor tiles when needed too. I’ve learned to just accept it because these liberties allow him to become completely unpredictable and ruthless towards his goals. Patrick’s stoic death stare has made him a legend of movie villainy.

The machines decided their previous failure necessitated going straight at their opponent rather than the source. If Sarah Connor was too resilient, the window for success to kill John was while she’s locked up and he defenseless. What they didn’t anticipate was how well developed their previous Terminator’s wiring would prove. Because even though future John Connor altered its code to make the T-800 protect his younger self, the computer chip’s teachable AI reveals itself as possessing the capacity to understand what it means to be human. This is a key theme throughout the film with a hardened killing machine replacing the once helpless Sarah and the unwitting orchestrator of extinction (Joe Morton‘s Cyberdyne Systems lead tech Miles Dyson) proving a family man who genuinely believed his work would protect his species, not destroy it.

This duality is everywhere, trickling down into the T-800’s new protocols going directly against the old and the T-1000 literally turning into the people able to get him closer to fulfilling his mission. Even John flickers between his two selves—the heart that will make him a great leader and the advanced intellect that made him trouble with no one to counter his boredom. And on a grander scale, mankind’s desire to be God ensures all “good” deeds could one day turn “bad” because our creation will in turn strive to do so as well. The vicious cycle of ambition and power makes it so every advancement in history will ultimately work towards our demise if put in the wrong hands. Sarah will kill first and Dyson construct the impossible before either questions the moral bankruptcy such blind action breeds.

This makes Judgment Day great—not the gore, wall-to-wall action, or even the special effects. It’s how it builds from the original’s mythology to sow the seeds of what’s coming. I love The Terminator because it introduces these themes despite never escaping its life or death chase conceit. It lets us think between the lines and witness a nightmarish potential reality wreaking havoc in the present, decades before anyone’s imagined how to craft the bringer of our extinction. T2 fills in those blanks, fleshing out the bigger picture and showing how “heroes” possess the same entitlement as those we’ll quickly label criminals when machines steal control. Cameron and co-writer William Wisher Jr. set these inevitabilities in motion by closing the sci-fi loop of future inspiring past to guarantee what’s foretold. But they also supply hope change is still possible nonetheless.

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