In the part of my brain dedicated to Favorite Movies, James Cameron’s TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY sits on the top shelf with all the best and strongest. It was the definition of knock-you-through-the-back-of-the-theater summer blockbuster when it arrived in 1991, and my love for it has only deepened in the intervening quarter century.
Some big budget FX movies arguably get by on technological gimmicks that lose power as years pass, but not this one. It matters nothing that the groundbreaking, reality melting digital effects of the liquid metal T-1000 (Robert Patrick, THE MARINE) no longer cause jaws to drop, because in fact T2 is more impressive as a document of the time before computer imagery largely replaced old school stunts and sets and locations. No matter how many times and ways people and vehicles and buildings and cities and countries and planets have been elaborately destroyed by computers in the summers since, the thrill of T2 is not gone. For example the semi vs. motorcycles, helicopter vs. truck and other attempts to quash the relentless pursuit of the T-1000 are still exhilarating.
Rewatching every few years doesn’t wear out T2’s spectacle. Instead it amplifies the themes that animate the movie’s soul.
To me, the central theme of T2 is the capacity for change – for the robot designed to kill to become the good guy, the protector, the best friend John ever had. For the scared waitress to become a fierce asskicker, and then become a more caring, optimistic person after that. For the man whose work will doom the world to learn his error and fix it. For these people, together, to change the future, from certainty of catastrophe to hope for a better tomorrow.
It’s also about the potential of the next generation. John Connor (Edward Furlong, PET SEMETARY 2), the future leader of the human resistance, current kid with a Public Enemy t-shirt, is nicer than his mom (Linda Hamilton, Beauty & the Beast). He feels the need to rescue her from a potential T-1000 attack in the hospital, against her wishes. He demands that the Terminator not kill anyone, and gets worked up about it multiple times. He rushes to stop her from killing Miles Dyson (Joe Morton, BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET). When the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger, AFTERMATH) points out that killing Dyson might save the world, John doesn’t care. He insists it can be done morally.
It’s also about the importance of friendship. In one of her occasional bouts of hard-boiled narration, Sarah compares The Terminator favorably to all her ex-boyfriends when it comes to being there for John. The poor kid has had a turbulent childhood, he’s never known a father, he doesn’t seem to have great foster parents (and now they’re dead), but does the Terminator really fill that hole by being like a dad?
Recently, long time outlawvern.com commenter Master Troy made a very astute observation about the number of people around here who are touchy about the subject of fathers because of a death or an absence or a bad relationship. And it made me wonder how much our strong connection to action movies could be related to that. My late father wasn’t a huge action fan or anything, but I do remember sharing certain formative movie experiences with him, and I know there’s some nostalgia for that that enhances my love for, for example, DIE HARD. I also believe that Bruce and other action icons served as models of masculinity for me alongside my dad, and I bet it’s even moreso for many kids who didn’t have dads around, or ones that they liked.
But The Terminator doesn’t show John how to act – it’s the other way around. When I wrote about the first three TERMINATOR movies ten years ago I compared T2 to E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL – two very different stories, both about a young bike-riding boy from a broken home having a limited-time friendship and life-and-death adventure with a being from another world.
I mean really, he acts more like an exchange student than a stepdad. John doesn’t so much learn from The Terminator as learn from teaching him. He passes on important lessons about dumb slang, high fiving, why humans cry and the value of human life. It’s soul-strengthening to have someone to share his values with, and to talk to about his fucked up life, but even just to goof around with. He uses The Terminator to harass some random, innocent bodybuilders in a liquor store parking lot, for example. Not cool, but better than robbing ATM machines, I guess.
I would be honored if we could be each other’s Terminators around here. Cool looking badass men and women (we wish), sometimes not knowing how to act like regular humans (we admit), but enjoying each other’s company and learning from each other and becoming better and more human together until the inevitable, hopefully far away day of the molten-metal thumbs-up of farewell.
But if you think that last paragraph was the warm-fuzziest thing ever written in an essay about T2, just wait until this next point. I am here to tell you that T2 is also about the power of hugging. This is the thing I was most newly attuned to during this viewing. When John rescues Sarah from the hospital his entire life is changing. He spent years hating her, thinking she was crazy and had brainwashed him. Now he knows that her story was true and he’s reunited with her after all these years and for the moment they’ve escaped danger. As they drive away she turns to him in the backseat and reaches for him. He smiles huge, so happy for this moment of affection… until he realizes that she’s not hugging him, she’s checking for wounds, and then she chews him out for risking himself to save her, says she doesn’t need his help. Totally oblivious that he just wants a damn hug from his mom. Makes him cry.
Later, when Sarah has invaded Miles Dyson’s home, shot him in front of his family, having intended to murder him until his little son shielded him, and has relented and broken down… she has sort of reverted to a child state, sitting on the floor, crying, and John comforts her with a hug, like he’s the parent.
At the end, when the Terminator demands to be terminated to destroy his CPU, he hugs John. The more contact “Uncle Bob” has with humans the more he learns from them, and it seems he has picked up on hugging.
Finally, when it’s all over, when there are no Terminators and there is hope that Judgment Day won’t arrive, Sarah does hug John. Maybe she has a learning CPU too, maybe she learned it from the Terminator. Anyway, now she gets it.
Hamilton as Sarah Connor in this specific movie is among the pantheon of iconic cinema badasses. At the time we all marveled at her buff arms and the scene where she does pull-ups in the mental hospital, but she’s not just the product of a good Hollywood workout. She also moves like the trained warrior she’s supposed to be. When she runs, she runs like someone who’s gonna kick your ass. Her hospital escape is something to behold, a well-planned sequence of brutal maneuvers to incapacitate the people she needs to, take a hostage and get through the locked doors. You gotta love her methods of using a mop handle and a syringe as weapons, but my favorite part is just the little ready-for-action skip she does down the hall after she gets a hold of a security guard’s club.
But – just like Ripley in ALIENS – Sarah has had experiences with bad robots, and this has created trust issues with good robots. So when she comes face to face with the Terminator again that soldier exterior melts away and she slips to the floor like she’s helpless in a nightmare and becomes part 1 Sarah again.
An April 1991 Fangoria column featuring “first news” of T2 described the then-secret plot like this: “TERMINATOR 2 picks up in the year 1997, 13 years after the final image of Sarah Connor driving off into the Mexican desert. While preparing for the imminent nuclear holocaust that will mark the machines’ rise to power, Sarah once more encounters the unstoppable cyborg with a mission, as well as a few of his ‘friends.'”
I’ve long regretted that I never got to see the movie like that, assuming Arnold is another Terminator sent to kill her, and that the T-1000 is a human sent to help her like Kyle Reese was. I guess it was too hard to advertise without giving those things away.
(Speaking of Kyle Reese, the column also quotes Cameron saying, after filming had already begun, that he was bringing back Michael Biehn. Not sure what that would’ve been, or why it didn’t happen, or if he would of been one of the “friends” that are mentioned.)
Years later, other people made a pretty enjoyable part 3, a part 4 that deserves more credit for its good parts than it gets but that doesn’t work, and a part 5 that just pissed me off. One problem they have is that the liquid metal Terminator was such a never-been-done-before idea that nobody has figured out a comparably envelope-pushing gimmick. All they can do is add different types of morphing for each sequel.
But that’s the least of it. They’ve also never matched the John and Terminator/John and Sarah relationships. Cameron set the bar about ten miles too high.
Whatever your mileage on those sequels, it would be hard to argue any are on the level of T2 or improve the story by adding to it. Now there’s talk of Cameron getting the rights back and possibly producing one or more sequels based on his ideas. The question of what that would be about is intriguing, but it will probly always be best to think of T2 as the end of the story. They proved that the future can be changed, maybe without even training a little boy to lead an army. There is always hope. The rest is up to us.
In another Fangoria article, this one from July, 1992 (“T2: A Judgment In Steel” by Marc Shapiro), co-writer William Wisher (JUDGE DREDD, THE 13TH WARRIOR) seems to feel the same. “This isn’t so much a sequel as it is part two of a very fascinating adventure,” he says. “We’ve finished that story, and as far as I’m concerned it should stay finished… Everything we had to say about the Terminator has been said. One of the things Jim and I talked a lot about was whether there should be another follow-up. And we made our decision in the way we wrote TERMINATOR 2. There are no back doors in this film. We wrote this movie so that the fat lady sings.”
T2 is a perfect sequel because it takes some of what was great about the first movie – the cool idea of it, the two leads, the theme music – but puts it on its head. Sarah Connor and the Terminator have, quite intentionally, become completely different characters, for the better in both cases. So it’s an all new template, in no way a rehash. And it does it bigger, WAY bigger and louder and cockier, and yet much more grounded in human emotions and relationships. Some people prefer the smaller, tighter, simpler original, and that’s legitimate. But on the other hand, come on though. Dude. Be honest with yourself. Look in the mirror. T2. You don’t have to admit it. But you know it. We all know it. T2. Case closed. No takebacks. Chill out dickwad.
P.S. I wrote this on the occasion of seeing the T2 re-released in 3D, so I’ll say a bit about that. I was excited just to have a chance to see it on the big screen again – last time I did was at Cinerama’s 70mm Film Festival quite a few years ago – but as a fan of 3D I also really enjoyed the conversion. I think THE PHANTOM MENACE might be the only other old film converted into 3D that I’ve seen, but that was a disappointing experience where I rarely even noticed it wasn’t flat. But due to improved technology and Cameron’s perfectionism, this is a really well done conversion with consistent depth. Since it wasn’t meant to be 3D there aren’t any gimmicks, but there are plenty of guns pointed out at the crowd and explosions sending debris and flames outwards. The opening montage of L.A. traffic looked particularly cool because it’s grainy and blurry, very much emphasizing the film stock, and therefore looks very different from any films made in the modern era of 3D.
It also, obviously, holds up as a fun movie to see with an audience. There was some dumbass couple talking and laughing at the emotional parts but, you know, fuck ’em. Not only does the movie not feel dated in a bad way, but this was the first time I watched the nuclear holocaust nightmare scene and pictured it as an actual possibility of something that could happen to me. It was actually upsetting.
Anyway after the credits they showed the T2 3-D: BATTLE ACROSS TIME movie ride film from Universal Studios, so that was pretty cool.
Okay, that didn’t happen, and I never went on that ride. Was it cool?
Even without a movie ride, I think the depth really added something to the high speed chases, emphasizing the feeling that you’re there on the vehicle with them, and that you may hit the various obstacles in their path. If you like 3D movies and T2 3D is still playing when you read this, rush the fuck out there and see it. And then email me if you want my address to send the thank you card to.