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Non-Review Review: Terminator 2 – Judgement Day

Terminator 2 is a pop culture classic, a film that single-handedly made Arnold loveable despite films like Junior and Jingle All the Way, typecast Robert Patrick as a distinctly unpleasant individual and reminded us that not all teenage protagonists had to be eye-roll inducingly bad. Spielberg’s Jaws is frequently regarded as “the first blockbuster”, but I think the case can be made that Terminator 2 redefined the kind of summer movie we saw – for better or worse, it laid down a blueprint which has been followed countless times since.

Prepare to be blown away...

I should lay my cards on the table, and be up front with you. I might even like this film more than I like The Terminator. Both are classics and both feature pretty much all the talent involved at the top of their game, but the sequel is pretty much the movie which set my expectations for what an action movie can do – in most possible ways. Cameron pulls off some absolutely stunning “how the hell did he do that?” stunts (although in the era of High Definition, it’s somewhat easier to see when a stunt double was user), some wonderful CGI which still holds the hell up today, and a whole stole SWAT van full of ideas.

From beginning to end, it’s a masterclass in film structure, with scenes and sequences rolling off each other like a set of dominoes – everything is set in motion and the plot movies like a well-oiled machine. What’s remarkable is the fact that Cameron so skilfully balances everything. Despite the iconic setpieces (of which there are many), the film never loses sight of its characters or its clever notion of time travel, playing out the conflict of fate against free will. It’s high quality content, orchestrated nearly perfectly.

The simple fact about Terminator 2 is pretty mush the same simple fact about Cameron’s Aliens: he took the story the original told and just made it so big, complex and yet complete that it was near impossible for any film that followed to step out of the shadows. I’ve made my disdain for Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines evident elsewhere, but it’s amazing how painfully that movie suffers by contrast. This film simply does everything better than its sequel. Hell, it even does humour better. This is the movie which gave us Arnie stealing a pair of sunglasses from a bar owner to tune of “Bad to the Bone”. The follow-up gave us Arnie assaulting a bunch of strippers and getting felt up by a female opponent during a fight (he’s like a Ken doll). Amazingly, Cameron manages to avoid heading into “camp” territory, a move that Mostow was unable to replicate, and with dire consequences – as much as the movie endears itself to you through its humour, you need to believe in the menace. Sexual harrassment robot fights aren’t exactly menacing.

It’s obvious that Cameron, wunderkind that he was, got something of a budget increase here. Compare the economically-staged future scenes from the original with the “look at our production budget!” showmanship of the sequel – every dollar is on the screen. And it’s really well spent. Cameron executes the apocalypse with such great skill that the sequence in the playground has somehow etched itself even further into the cultural memory than the Lyndon B. Johnston campaign advertisement s which inspired it. Even in the wake of the Cold War, a conflict entering its twilight as the movie was made, those moments send chills down the spine. As well they should.

However, with money and higher production values inevitably come consequences. Terminator 2 is an inherently more commercial film than its predecessor. Spot the Pepsi and Subway product placement at your leisure. The original was allowed to be raw, provocative and cold. This one has to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. And, the truth be told, Cameron embraces the challenge of rendering his vision more accessible in a way that few niche directors would. He treats the bigger stage and the wider audience as an opportunity, rather than a burden. His film is arguably a simpler version of the original – right down to embracing outright optimism instead of stone cold cynicism – but it’s a bigger one. The film isn’t afraid to have ideas and to suggest them to the audience. Notions like fate and predestination paradoxes are thrown out there to an audience that is used to car chases and shootouts. Of course, they get both – the finest possible example of both – but they get so much more.

Think of the ways the movie could have gone wrong. From the fact that Arnie had to be written as a good guy due to his increasing public profile through to the fact that the movie was using experimental graphics technology. And then notice how Cameron turned each of these items into a strength. The notion that the killing machine from the first film would be the hero of the second was executed ingeniously, making Arnie simultaneously one of the most iconic heroes and villains of the twentieth century. I know that the trailers eventually spoilt that he was the good guy (with the ads pimping that “I swear I will not kill anyone” line), but I can’t imagine seeing it blind, believing Robert Patirck was the good guy only to be shocked twenty minutes in. That’s great storytelling right there. Indeed, it takes a skilled hand to humanise the killing machine on top of all the other stuff happening in the film (“why do you cry?”), but it never feels awkward or forced. And I’m a damn cynic, I am.

And Robert Patrick. Seriously, how scared of him were you when you first say this? In fairness, I was around about eight. He is the perfect spiritual successor to the Terminator from the first film. It would be easy to put the villain’s effectiveness down to the state-of-the-art effects work, but Patrick gives him just an eerie calmness in the face of everything. I always thought that Patrick deserved to be bigger than he was, but such is life.

Linda Hamilton is great… again. This time, Sarah Connor is in full action hero mode. It’s a wonderful role and a testiment to Cameron’s skill writing female characters. Edward Furlong isn’t exactly Oscar-worthy in his big screen debut, but – as far as supporting kid characters go – John Connor isn’t too bad. He’s a bit of a dick (nearly getting those two guys killed at the phone box, after they tried to help him), but he feels relatively organic, which is quite something.

If you get the chance, check out the Director’s Cut. It’s one of those rare Director’s Cuts where I can tell what’s missing while watching the original scene. In many cases, it’s small additions (the T-1000’s shape-shifting on the fritz or a conversation between Sarah and her deceased lover or an attempt to dispose of the Terminator), but they add up to a lot of character and complexity (and help certain minor events make more sense). In this case it’s a cherry on top of an ice-cream, but it definitely works better.

James Cameron was “king of the world” in 1992. You only need to stick on Terminator 2 to see why.

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7 Responses

  1. Best action movie ever made. Every time I drive by an oil truck, I imagine it’s filled with nitrous oxide (or whatever it’s called) and I’m immediately reminded of how effing unreal the last hour or so of this movie is. Too bad the last two movies haven’t come anywhere close to how good this was.

    • Yep. It’s like an engine, where every moment builds momentum to the next. The Cyberdyne/highway chase/steelworks bit is just… woah!

  2. Best summer blockbuster ever (although TDK is close). Whenever this is on I end up watching the whole film, regardless of what I’m doing.

    • Yep. Probably the defining summer event film and on the shortlist of best sequels ever (also a list featuring TDK).

  3. Must watch this again, it’s been too long. My fav bit was always the sequence in the mental hospital. Best sequel ever.

  4. This reminds me of summer’s when I really anticipated movies coming into cinemas. I was only a kid when this came out but I had seen The Terminator – and at the time that was one of the scariest movies I had ever seen. With Back To The Future Part 3 in 1990, this in 1992, and Jurassic Park in 1993, ‘big budget blockbuster’ meant great trailers, great anticipation, and great films. Infuriatingly, not only has the quality dimished so much now, my anticipation of these sorts of films has gone almost completely.

    • Yep. But maybe we’re just more jaded and cynical. or maybe there are too many such films these days. I think year-on-year, Hollywood’s output has skyrocketed in the last two decades, which makes it all the harder for anything to have a shelf-life like that or to make an impact like that.

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