July 3, 1991
There are a few interesting summer of ’91 movies – STONE COLD, THE ROCKETEER, HARLEY DAVIDSON & THE MARLBORO MAN – that I skipped in this series because I’d already reviewed them in a form I felt satisfied with. If I had more time I would’ve like to revisit them for completism, but you know how it is.
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY is one I wrote about in 2007 (with a pretty good comparison to E.T.) and more definitively in 2017 on the occasion of its 3D re-release. But when I decided to do a summer of ’91 series I knew it was the summer of T2 and it had to be included. So this is meant as a supplemental review about its place in 1991, but I think I’ve come up with some pretty meaty stuff to discuss (in addition to silly stuff about toys and video games and crap if you’re more interested in that).
This is the fifth part 2 (including 2 1/2s) of the summer – after FX2, MANNEQUIN: ON THE MOVE, NAKED GUN 2 1/2 and SCANNERS II: THE NEW ORDER – so let’s start by examining its approach to sequelization. In 1985, James Cameron told Cinefantastique “we’ve got a story worked out” for a TERMINATOR sequel, and that there were “two ways it could go… It will either wait 18 months until we’re done with ALIEN II and then we may do it. I have a suspicion they won’t want to wait that long because they’ll want to follow closer on the heels of the film’s success. In that case what will happen is that we will oversee it at one remove, and select a director. We’ve got a story worked out, but it hasn’t gone beyond the talk stage.”
Fortunately he was wrong – due to rights disputes between Hemdale and Carolco it took 7 years, during which time he not only made ALIENS but also THE ABYSS, and innovations in computer generated imagery pioneered on the latter made the “mimetic poly-alloy” Terminator possible. That’s maybe the most unlikely part of TERMINATOR’s leap from part 1 to part 2: that it went from low budget underdog to groundbreaking reinvention of cinema. It’s hard to express to people who weren’t there how new it was to see something like the T-1000. The liquid metal turning into Robert Patrick, and then Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video 4 months later, made the world fascinated with “morphing.” We had seen increasingly impressive practical and optical effects throughout the heyday of ILM in the ‘80s, but they all seemed like they were progressions of tried and true techniques. This felt like something we’d never seen before, never thought about before.
It was such a once-in-a-lifetime intersection of cool idea and game-changing technology that it has completely ham-stringed every subsequent Terminator sequel (which have indeed been done with Cameron “at one remove”), because no variation on a Terminator ever seems as new and incredible as the T-1000 did. So that’s one major reason why this is a great sequel, but far from the only one.
It opens with a redo of the future war sequences from the first film. Kind of like how the beginning of EVIL DEAD 2 was sort of a remake of the first film done with more filmmaking experience and resources (in this case approximately 15 times the budget of the first film). The look is very similar (still taking place at night and feeling like a horrible nightmare) but with improved effects and larger scale. The landscape no longer seems crammed onto a small soundstage, there are more skulls, more soldiers, more Hunter-Killers, and it’s easy to forget but the look of the T-800 endoskeleton was a surprise reveal in THE TERMINATOR – he gets blown up and you’d think he’d be dead but he emerges as a still functioning (if limping) metal skeleton. So we take it for granted now, but the opening featuring a bunch of Stan Winston’s creations marching into battle is announcing okay, we are continuing from there, but bigger and badder.
Yes, it follows some beats from the original. You got your Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator and your other guy being zapped into present day L.A. naked (improved optical effects there), stealing clothes and weapons and searching for a Connor – this time Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, KING KONG LIVES)’s ten year old (no fucking way – to me he’s 13 for sure) son John (introducing Edward Furlong), the future leader of the human resistance, boss and son of Kyle Reese, who said he “taught us to smash those motherfuckers into junk.”
His life is very different from his mom’s, so this cat and mouse section is very different, not to mention the great new twist that both visitors from the future are Terminators and one was reprogrammed to protect him. The heart of the story is this buddy movie between a kid and a musclebound robot that does whatever he says. Sarah later talks about him as a father figure, but he’s more like a dog. He teaches him stuff, hangs out with him, gets him to do tricks, laughs at him, gets frustrated with him.
One thing I thought about during this millionth viewing is what an unusual but perfect dynamic this premise provides. It’s always entirely believable that John asks this robot question after question about how he and the T-1000 work, sometimes to understand what’s going on and sometimes just because he thinks it’s fuckin cool and wants to know more. It’s also built-in that the Terminator will answer every one of these questions straight forwardly without hesitation. That gives Cameron an absurdly easy method for explaining all the rules of this world that will be important and/or that he wanted us to know because they’re cool.
And it’s just very unusual to have a main character who will always answer questions directly and literally, not argue or hesitate or hold something back. He’ll tell John if he disagrees but he won’t argue. When he almost kills those random musclemen in the parking lot and John yells “Put the gun down!” he instantly places it on the ground. No questions asked. You wouldn’t want every character to be like this, but it’s really cool to have one.
(Again, there’s no equivalent in the first movie.)
Another job for some great sequels is to take a character we like and push them to a new and even more interesting place. Of course Cameron had done that outstandingly in ALIENS. Ripley was already a great character in ALIEN, but I think in her Oscar nominated performance in ALIENS Sigourney Weaver took it to the next level – such a full and interesting character processing the trauma of what she’s been through and lost, then reluctantly going back to where it happened because she’s the best one for the job, clashing philosophically with much of the team, but bonding with Hicks and Newt, before facing the down the Queen with both more physical force and more emotional layers than anything in the already perfect first film.
Without being a repeat, Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor goes through an equally impressive transformation. I love the way it follows up on the ending of THE TERMINATOR but not directly – we find out that yes, she stayed in Mexico to have her son and train him for leadership, but at some point she “tried to blow up a computer factory, but she got shot and arrested.” The first shot of her in the sequel starts on her now-ripped arms as she does pullups in her cell in the maximum security wing of the Pescedero State Hospital For the Criminally Insane.
As I mentioned in my RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II review last year, Cameron’s draft opened with Rambo in a mental hospital, and I’m glad he got to use that for this instead. This script is co-written with William Wisher, who had provided additional dialogue for THE TERMINATOR, wrote the novelization, and acted in the Cameron films Xenogenesis, THE TERMINATOR and THE ABYSS.
I really believe that the primary archetype for what constitutes a “badass woman” in movies from the past 30 years came specifically from a template trying to copy T2 Sarah Connor. As an example, when the now-semi-cancelled Joss Whedon was a writer on the original TOY STORY he wanted to include Barbie, who would’ve driven up and said “Come with me if you want to live” as she rescued Woody from Sid’s house in “a commando style raid.” So his idea of the opposite of what you would expect from Barbie was Sarah Connor. The archetypical female action hero of the ‘90s.
But that template never captured Sarah in full. You can put on a tank top, army pants and sunglasses and smoke cigarettes like Sarah, but that’s not gonna get you there. You can have attitude, but that’s not enough either. The woman we saw forced to go from waitress to humanity’s hope overnight without missing a beat has been hardened in every way over the 7 years – physically of course, but also emotionally (the older I get the more crushing it is to see her repeatedly reject John’s attempts to connect with her) and with her world view (being the only one who knows that 3 billion people are going to die in the near future will fuck you up).
These days there are criticisms of this type of character for allegedly empowering women by simply giving them traits perceived as masculine. Or, more specifically, by making them violent. I wouldn’t dismiss that outright, and don’t feel qualified to. But I think there’s much more to Sarah Connor than muscles and gun training. She’s really fuckin cool in that way that I know no better word for than “badass,” but it’s not in the obvious way. She’s complicated. Damaged. Furious. She has no time to be fun or nice. But you do know she loves her son. And that she’s learning from him. In some ways her utter badassness is a symptom of her pain – a flailing attempt to convince herself she can deal with the un-deal-with-able. It’s hopeless, but what the fuck else is she supposed to do? She has a job to do with her kid and she fuckin does it. She has to prepare him to save humanity, and right now she has to protect him from this fucking newfangled Terminator.
I’ve long noted how the T-1000 (Robert Patrick, DIE HARD 2), one of the scariest cinematic villains of the ‘90s, spends most of the movie (by choice!) in the form of an LAPD officer, four months after the beating of Rodney King had put the spotlight on them as a particularly brutal police department. One thing I hadn’t thought much about is that, were it not for the marketing telling us Arnold was the good guy and this dude was the bad guy, we would’ve been meant to assume not only that Arnold was the one coming for John, but that this other guy was the Kyle Reese, the one referred to in Sarah’s voiceover when she says “As before, the Resistance was able to send a lone warrior. A protector for John.”
So (completely by accident) the character could sort of follow the arc of many naive white people of the time who thought of cops as Officer Friendly until the advent of consumer camcorders showed them what kind of savagery a mob of the motherfuckers would love to do to a human being if presented with the opportunity. That would’ve been a pretty cool switch up.
Instead we know from the beginning what’s up, and we know the irony of him acting like he’s a nice guy here “to protect and serve” (the motto painted on his car showcased in a shot repeated from the first movie). It’s a movie that sides with the so-called troublemakers who have been failed by these authorities. Since being taken away from his mother, John has been arrested for trespassing, shoplifting, disturbing the peace and vandalism, and apparently hasn’t been caught yet for hacking ATM machines. His current foster parents Todd (Xander Berkeley, who was in TAG: THE ASSASSINATION GAME with Hamilton) and Janelle (Jenette Goldstein, who in the first five years of her career racked up Vasquez in ALIENS, Diamondback in NEAR DARK, an episode of Max Headroom, plus parts in MIRACLE MILE and LETHAL WEAPON 2) have “had it with that goddamn kid” and see him as a pain in the ass juvenile delinquent. “That’s right, officer. What’s he done now?”
But we get to see that this supposedly bad kid is not only a good kid, but represents a way ahead for humanity specifically because he rebels but rejects violence and searches for kinder solutions than those his mom believes are necessary. He makes the Terminator follow his non-killing rules and disobeys what he’s been taught by risking himself to rescue his mother and then to stop her from enacting a Machiavellian assassination plan (though she thinks better of it before he arrives). Other than that unfortunate, aborted terrorizing of computer genius Miles Dyson (Joe Morton, THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET) and family (S. Epatha Merkerson, SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT and DeVaughn Nixon, TO SLEEP WITH ANGER), the Connor crew exclusively battles cops and security guards who don’t know what’s going on and are unwittingly fighting for the benefit of our future machine overlords. Just doing their jobs. The T-1000, on the other hand, guns down a random mall janitor, tosses a truck driver (Cameron’s former job) out of his vehicle, and slaughters the innocent (even if they’re dicks according to John and his friend) foster parents.
One horrible irony that really jumps out at me in this day and age is that after Sarah decides to spare Dyson’s life, even though she believes killing him would save human civilization, some random cop (Dean Norris, I believe) who has no idea who Dyson is or what’s going on in the building just casually shoots him anyway. Given the information the police have they should assume he’s a hostage, but they just run in and kill him for no reason. One of the most accurate things in the movie.
Since this is a summer retrospective this is my chance to talk about all the merchandise and other tie-ins for T2. Like many a mainstream movie aimed at adults, they had a music tie-in. The movie poster was on the cover of the single for John’s favorite Guns ’N’ Roses song, “You Could Be Mine.” But there’s not an album’s worth of popular music – the soundtrack was the great score by Brad Fiedel.
And only now have I learned that there was an unauthorized “Terminator 2 Dance Theme” by someone called “The Object.” It’s kind of a MORTAL KOMBAT-ty electronic dance version of Fiedel’s main theme. There are different remixes, but at least one version has samples of a fake Arnold saying “Hasta la vista, baby” and (for some reason) an interview with “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase about Survivor Series.
But even though T2 was aimed primarily at adults, nobody was fooling themselves – it was the movie of the summer for kids too. In those days we agreed as a society that a violent R-rated sequel to a low budget movie by a Roger Corman guy could also sometimes be the most exciting movie of the summer and that kids might as well get in on it with toys and video games and shit.
Like DON’T TELL MOM THE BABYSITTER’S DEAD, SUBURBAN COMMANDO and SCANNERS II, T2 has a major scene set an arcade. And of course it was adapted into multiple video games: an arcade one, I think two different versions made for NES and other systems, one for the Gameboy…
…which actually spends more than half of the (admittedly short) game with adult John Connor breaking in, capturing and reprogramming the Terminator that becomes Uncle Bob. And it has some adorable art of little John Connor, complete with Public Enemy t-shirt. Yet another video game adaptation of the movie was released in 1993 for the Sega Genesis and Super NES. Also at that time there was Terminator 2 Judgment Day Chess Wars. “Terminator Is Back… In a Deadly Game of Chess!” (A chess game with Terminator characters who then fight in a futuristic battlefield.)
There was also a pinball machine and CD-ROMs of things like screen savers and audio clips. And a board game. And of course Topps trading cards and stickers. And some pretty cool model kits.
Beginning in September, Marvel Comics published a 3-issue comic book adaptation. These things are not usually very good, but kind of interesting to me to imagine how much of the completed film was available to them when they made it. They certainly captured the look of John Connor in his Public Enemy t-shirt, and subtleties like how fuckin cool Sarah looks running down the Pescedero hallway with the absconded baton.
But some scenes you gotta assume they didn’t see how it was staged in the movie (video arcade) or what the actors look like (Todd looks more like Bruce Wayne than Xander Berkeley; they definitely didn’t know what Danny Cooksey’s Tim was gonna look like; Dr. Silberman is a chubby guy, like maybe they didn’t realize he was the same character from the first movie). Of course, some of the R-rated language has been goofily rewritten like a TV dub (“Your foster parents are kinda dorks, huh John?”; “Chill out, jerkwad.”) But even while condensing the story, there’s at least one big scene we didn’t get to see until the special edition released on video in 1993: the one where they open up the Terminator’s head to turn his learning switch on, and John has to stop Sarah from smashing the CPU with a hammer.
The adaptation is credited to Gregory Wright. According to Wikipedia he was a writer for Marvel Comics such as Sensational She-Hulk, Deathlok and Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. With artist Jackson Guice he created a Daredevil character called Crippler who is said to be based on Willem Dafoe in STREETS OF FIRE.
The coolest thing about the adaptation is that it’s drawn by Klaus Janson, who I think is best known as Frank Miller’s inker on the entire-pop-culture-of-the-world-changing mini-series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. I love that Janson’s art here completely avoids the formulaic super hero drawing styles of the time in favor of a more expressionistic cartooniness. A few panels are awkward or don’t look as much like the actors, and I’m sure some people would hate it, but I think that’s a worthwhile trade off for some really stylish reinterpretations (or preinterpretations?) of classic moments from “THE NEW SMASH HIT FILM!”
And yes, despite being a violent R-rated movie, there were many toys. These included Micro Machines (tiny vehicles and figurines of the truck, Hunter Killers, a T-800 skull that opens up with a miniature playset inside), Action Masters (2.5” die cast metal figurines) and best and worst of all a fairly ridiculous line of Kenner action figures.
As I have noted in some of the other summer movie reviews like DICK TRACY and ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, the early ‘90s was a weird time when they were still making toys of wannabe-event-movies like had been so successful for STAR WARS, but the aesthetics had somehow evolved to this hideous type of Saturday morning cartoon design that puffs out the characters into inelegant blobs that neither resemble the actors in the movie or something that a person would want to purposely look at. The worst offender by far is DICK TRACY, where some maniac thought they could get away with smooshing human bodies into the shape of their popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys. I am not a religious person but that was specifically what the Bible was talking about when it said not to do bad stuff.
These are much, much better than that, but they’re pretty ugly little guys, especially after they add the different gimmicks they felt they needed to sell multiple versions of a couple characters. And the funniest part is that they created new characters. Along with all the variations on the T-101 (Battle Damage Repair Terminator, Meltdown Terminator, Power Arm Terminator, Secret Weapon Terminator), T-800 (Endoglow Terminator, Techno-Punch Terminator) and T-1000 (White-Hot T-1000, Exploding T-1000) and a John Connor with motorcycle they have, of course, “Cyber-GripTM with Crushing Claw Action! CYBER-GRIP is the most sinister cyborg of them all! When TERMINATOR gets too close, CYBER-GRIP can reach out and crush him with the awesome crushing power of his Cyber-Claw. Only the strength of TERMINATOR will be able to combat the evil CYBER-GRIP.”
It’s interesting to me that they could make up a character so absurd (he looks more like a Borg or a HELLRAISER III Cenobite than anything to do with Terminator) and stick it on such a beautiful painting for the packaging! Also note here that you can get a free making of TERMINATOR 2 video when you buy any three TERMINATOR 2 toys. Keep that in mind. For example, you could get this ugly fucker right here, Blaster T-1000. I guess they had to make him wide to accommodate the hidden rocket launcher inside him, but did they have to give him those asshole sunglasses? I wonder if he was one of those ones like we saw with ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES where they take a character from some other toyline and alter him?
They also had a “Heavy Metal Cycle – Launches Hyper Missile” the Terminator action figure could maybe steal from some GI Joes acting as bikers, plus “Mobile Assault Vehicle – Launches Attack Missile!,” and the “Bio-Flesh Regenerator Playset and Refills” that molded some kind of jelly over an endoskeleton so you could “Create Your Own Terminator Then Tear Him Apart in ‘Battle!’” I don’t know how crappy the molding substance is but on paper it seems like a cool idea.
The toys continued to roll out into 1992, and then they started a new line called Terminator 2 Future War, which gives us stuff like 3-Strike Terminator, Hot-Blast Terminator, Rapid Repair Terminator, etc., plus a re-release of Cyber-Grip and a horned robot called Kromium who “Grows into a Towering Foe!”
There were also larger sized “Ultimate Terminators” with battle sounds, light up eyes or talking.
Here’s a non-poseable figurine that according to the ebay listing is from ’92 and is 11” tall. It doesn’t mention this but it also would look good on my desk.
The products continued for several years. In 1995 a company called Toy Island, who had been making many ROBOCOP toys for a few years, were given the license by Carolco to make cheap-ass figures from a few other titles. So here’s “T-1000 Morphing Liquid Metal Terminator with Special Weapon Accessory,” with packaging that makes it look like it comes from a cartoon. They also had “Endoskeleton, Not a Man – A Machine with Phase Plasma Rifle” and “The Future of Law Enforcement Robocop The Series with M-16 Battle Rifle,” and I actually have one like this for “Rambo, Champion of Liberty with Crossbow.”
When the T2-3D: BATTLE ACROSS TIME movie ride arrived at Universal Studios in 1997, Kenner repackaged six of the figures for that. They also made a funny looking battle damaged Terminator 12” doll and I’m sure there were plenty of trinkets just sold at the theme park. I never experienced the ride, but it apparently had two new robot designs they could’ve made toys of if their hearts were really in it. Instead, I learned from ebay, they made cheap shit like this badge that says “Police Officer” and then (if available) your name and then “T-1000TM.”
I was a teenager when T2 came out and wasn’t really aware of most of this stuff. So now as I’m searching ebay and checklists on Terminator fansights and marveling at all the junk they made (some of which, honestly, I wouldn’t mind having), there’s one thing that’s really striking. This movie was a merchandising empire for most of a decade, with lots of effort put into coming up with different gimmicks to add to the Terminators to make new products, and making up new characters for them to fight. And in all the dozens of trinkets I’ve come across I don’t see one god damn picture of Sarah Connor. Obviously she’s in the trading cards, but not on the package. She didn’t get an action figure until decades later, when they started being made for nostalgic adult collectors. They needed to save space on the shelves for Cyber-Grip and Kromium, I guess.
Obviously this has to do with the way toys were sold and marketed at the time. They were divided into boy and girl toys and they believed that boys didn’t want to buy toys depicting girls. The lines that did include female characters would usually make fewer of them and they would become the most desirable for collectors (Angela for Spawn, Catwoman, Poison Ivy and Phantasm for Batman: The Animated Series). With T2 it may have been reasonable to assume that boys would be more interested in rocket-firing robot characters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if John Connor was the character they sold less of. But I think it still says something about the changing times that one of the three heroes, and the one that comes to mind first when I think about what is special and groundbreaking about this movie, is completely absent from the marketing and merchandising. Who’s on the poster and newspaper ads? Only Arnold, and that held for the video releases, until they replaced him with a robot skeleton. (Man, the blu-ray cover sucks.)
The only exception i could find was a special edition 2-tape VHS set that came in a big box that used a collage of the T-101, Sarah and John and the T-1000 in the background. Other than that you gotta wait for 2017, when the 3D-converted re-issue gave Sarah her own poster. And I’ve really enjoyed that the t-shirt company Cavity Colors made two different officially licensed Sarah-centric designs. Maybe it took a bunch of Terminator sequels without Sarah for the culture at large to start thinking of T2 as her movie.
And that tells you something about what was going on in our culture in the summer of ’91 and the baby steps (get it, WHAT ABOUT BOB?) we’ve taken since then. We talked in the THELMA & LOUISE review about how shocked some people were by the simple act of a movie glorifying some women deciding not to put up with any more shit. Perhaps the sci-fi trappings shielded her from bullshit like anti-THELMA & LOUISE weirdo John Leo, but she definitely captured the zeitgeist. And she’s another waitress turned fugitive pushing the needle forward on how women can be depicted in Hollywood movies. Escapee of a hospital where guards pointedly call her “sweetheart” and lick her face while she’s supposed to be drugged (an inspiration for KILL BILL?), where Dr. Silberman shows her off to visitors like a zoo animal, joking about her condition and (correct) beliefs, and forces her to pretend she thinks she imagined the things she’s experienced, only so he can tell her he doesn’t believe her and can’t recommend the transfer she wants. But the fate of the human race literally depends on her, so enough fuckin around, she fights her way out with cunning, fearlessness and brute power. Something we might not have believed coming from 1984 Sarah Connor, but 1991 Sarah Connor – yes, absolutely we do. And we hadn’t seen anything quite like it in a movie of this size.
Maybe they didn’t think that character (the lead of the movie this is a sequel to!) could sell an action movie, or toys, but even without advertising she became an icon to people around the world.
For this viewing I had to go with the theatrical cut, not the 15-minutes longer special edition, for historical accuracy. But I did watch two deleted scenes on the blu-ray that I don’t remember seeing before. One has the T-1000 entering John’s bedroom and scanning for information by running his fingers over everything. Kinda weird. Anyway I wanted to mention it just because it shows us that John hides his box of photos and letters from Mom in the wall behind a Fear of a Black Planet poster. So it’s not just the t-shirt, this kid really is serious about Public Enemy.
The other one is an alternate epilogue that picks up in the future, 30 years after Judgment Day didn’t happen in ’97. The L.A. skyline is futuristic (pictured: Gameboy rendition) and she’s back at that playground from her nightmares, watching grown up John (same actor from the future war scenes, Michael Edwards [SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STAR]) peacefully pushing his kid on the swings. On a commentary track Stan Winston says he’s glad they didn’t use it because he’s not happy with Hamilton’s old lady makeup, but man, they have all this ridiculous BACK TO THE FUTURE 2 type fashion on the background characters, it’s just so silly. I really wonder how much it would’ve affected our feelings about the movie if they had stuck with this! We would’ve had to go back in time to stop it.
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY was one of those movies that defies the common belief that there’s a huge divide between critics and regular moviegoers on blockbuster movies. It was 1991’s highest grossing movie, with almost $40 million more than ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES at #2, but it was also widely praised by critics. For example Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader said it had “All the virtues of the original – intelligent postmodernist irony, spiffy special effects, effective action, tons of destruction, and Schwarzenegger in the nonhuman role he was born to play.” Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, who Cameron later weirdly feuded with over his multiple pans of TITANIC, called it “one hell of a wild ride.” For laughs, I did manage to find a couple of negative reviews from the time. Terrence Rafferty in the New Yorker called it “lumbering and monotonous” with “a heavy-handed anti-nuke message.” Ralph Novak in People Magazine called it “shamefully sadistic, achingly dull and totally predictable.” David Sterritt wrote in the Christian Science Monitor that “TERMINATOR 2 has little to do with culture, or even civilization, in the higher senses of those terms. It’s a monument to nothing but high-tech frivolity and a regrettably shallow conception of visual entertainment.”
At the time, and now 30 years later, and at every point in between, I would have to respectfully disagree.