April 2024

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

DIRECTOR: James Cameron


Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick, Joe Morton, Earl Boen


With 1984’s The Terminator , then fledgling filmmaker James Cameron displayed narrative prowess, a deft hand with action sequences, and economical use of a limited budget. By 1992, now an established filmmaker with hits like 1986’s Aliens and 1989’s The Abyss, Cameron got to wed his imagination and ambition with the budget to match and state-of-the-art visual effects, and the result was Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which stands alongside Aliens and The Empire Strikes Back as examples of a sequel which expands on and goes farther with what was begun in the original installment. The sequel has ingenious special effects, spectacular action sequences, more humor spread around, a broader scope and scale, and a surprising amount of heart and depth. And it also had superstar and original Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The set-up continues the narrative at a logical progressing point from where the first one left off. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), having turned in the interim into a hardened survivalist, has been declared insane due to her screaming about impending nuclear Armageddon- Judgment Day- and killer machines, and placed in Pescadero State Hospital under the watch of Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen). Her rebellious pre-teen son, John (Edward Furlong), is living with foster parents. Having failed to stop John, destined to lead the post-apocalyptic human resistance, from being born, the supercomputer of the future, Skynet, again dispatches a Terminator through time to eliminate the boy. This time, it’s a new model, a T-1000 (a steely Robert Patrick), a shape-shifting being made of liquid metal that can imitate anyone it touches and is roaming around Los Angeles in a police uniform hunting for John. As before, the human resistance sends a counterpart to defend the target, only with a twist: this time, it’s a reprogrammed Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and an identical model to the one that pursued Sarah to an inch of her life years earlier.

As solid a film as The Terminator was and still is, Terminator 2 is bigger, bolder, and better. The tone is less bleak and more interested in entertainment. From the opening scene, in which The Terminator commandeers a man’s leather outfit, motorcycle, and sunglasses, and sets out to the tune of ‘Bad to the Bone’, it’s clear that Terminator 2 has more panache and humor than the somber, ominous Terminator. The special effects are far more polished, and the action sequences are a notch up in their scale, ambition, and audaciousness. Once again, the Terminators show a fondness for semis and motorcycles. There is another early chase involving motorcycles and a semi, and then John and the Terminator’s rescue of Sarah from the mental hospital where they have another close call with the T-1000. Between these two lengthy and high-energy action sequences, the first third or so of Terminator 2 is dynamic entertainment. Then things slow down for a sizable middle section, but even though T-1000 is offscreen for some time, and the pace calms down, Cameron puts the down time to work with effective comic relief and character development as John, Sarah, and the Terminator form an unlikely but effective surrogate family unit. We are also reminded that not only is Terminator 2 a spectacular action movie, there’s an intelligence at work in the underlying narrative and thematic structure, which exists to do more than string the action sequences together. The mantra from the first film ‘no fate but what we make for ourselves’ is repeated several times. And the introduction of Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), the unwitting architect of the computer which will nearly annihilate humanity, raises a few ethical dilemmas. Is taking a life justifiable if it saves others? While the first film had the aborted fledgling romance between Reese and Sarah as its emotional center, the heart of Terminator 2 becomes the bonding between the boy and the machine, which is played for a few laughs but ultimately generates poignancy. There is depth and feeling to the moment when the Terminator climactically tells John, ‘I know now why you cry’. The movie plays a little with the time paradoxes it creates, including the fascinating idea that it was the recovered remains of the original Terminator, sent from the future, that revolutionized technology enough to lead to the construction of Skynet and the Terminators in the first place, in a tangled unending cycle. Then we kick into action high gear again, with our group making a raid on the headquarters of the company which constructs Skynet to destroy the technology there, where the T-1000 gets back on their tail in time for a climactic car chase and then the final mano-a-mano and cat-and-mouse game in a steel factory, ending on a genuinely poignant note.

In general, I would not consider myself a particular Arnold Schwarzenegger fan, but with the Terminator series, he found the role that fit him perfectly. Schwarzenegger is not a strong actor, but he has charisma and screen presence, a cool, unflappable demeanor, and with Terminator 2 he gets to display another strength he didn’t have the opportunity to show much of in the first- an aptitude for deadpan humor. When John informs him that he can’t simply go around killing people, Schwarzenegger monotones ‘why?’. His ‘bonding’ moments with John as the boy teaches him (with varying degrees of success) to act more human, not only provide the bulk of the movie’s comic relief, but a surprising amount of emotional depth. Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is a much different person from the innocent, blithely oblivious waitress we first saw her as. Sarah is now haunted by the knowledge that the world is going to end- she even knows the exact date- and has become a hardened, borderline fanatical and obsessed survivalist determined to drill into John’s young head the skills he will need to become the leader of the human resistance. Hamilton, who was a little unpolished in her first Terminator outing, is in great action heroine mode here; she’s every bit as tough and imposing as another Cameron-directed leading lady, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in 1986’s Aliens. Like many young acting newcomers, Edward Furlong makes up for what he sometimes lacks in polish with boundless spunk and energy. John has yet to develop the discipline to become the leader of mankind’s resistance, but his brains and backbone are already apparent. And Robert Patrick is the best ‘bad Terminator’ the series has to offer. However nifty all of T-1000’s special effects and shape-shifting abilities might be, he wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable without a suitable actor, and with his eternal expression of implacable steely relentlessness, Patrick is chillingly threatening. In fact, the T-1000 is one of the best villains in the entire sci-fi/action genre, a wonderfully effective combination of special effects and actor. Despite his much less imposing frame, Patrick is more menacing than Schwarzenegger was as the villainous cyborg in the first installment. In the supporting cast, we have Joe Morton’s Miles Dyson, who’s not a power-hungry megalomaniacal corporate villain, just a man doing his job all too well, and Earl Boen returning in a somewhat larger role as Dr. Silberman. Xander Berkeley and Jenette Goldstein have the small roles of John’s foster parents.

Terminator 2 was one of the first films to begin using CGI- computer generated imagery- in a prominent way, and took full advantage of the new special effects technology, particularly in creating the T-1000. The T-1000 is given all kinds of eye-popping scenes, melting through cell bars, transforming into various people, turning his arms into lethal metal blades, and reforming his head that’s been blown in half by a shotgun blast. Unlike some films that overplay their hand and overuse their CGI, the visual effects here, like those in the first Jurassic Park, are used well enough to be legitimately awe-inspiring. From the very beginning, again showing a brief scene of the human resistance battling the machines in the devastated ruins of future Los Angeles, it’s obvious that the special effects and model work had come a long way since 1984, partly due to the gap of time, partly because Cameron could now command the kind of budget to make his visions entirely realizable. In a neat bit of trivia, two scenes, one in which T-1000 impersonates a guard at the mental hospital, and another in which it imitates Sarah Connor, use no special effects or visual tricks to place the identical figures in the same shot- simply Linda Hamilton’s identical twin Leslie Hamilton, and identical twins Don and Dan Stanton.

Expanding and improving on what was accomplished with the first Terminator, Terminator 2 asserts itself firmly as one of the best sci-fi/action thrillers ever made. The film is every bit as good now as it was in 1992, and few films have blended humor, spectacular action, effective character development, and an underlying narrative with depth and intelligence into a more solid whole.