“Four billion human lives ended; August 29th, 1997. The survivors of the nuclear fire called the war Judgement Day. They lived only to face a new nightmare: the war against the machines”.
Out of all the films I’ve seen in my lifetime, and I like to think I’ve seen a few, perhaps none is as indelibly printed in my memory as James Cameron’s magnum opus, Terminator 2: Judgement Day.1
Though I missed it in cinemas – I was one-year old at the time – I later discovered it in my early teens and spent hours poring over the Special Edition DVD up in my room. It was my first foray into science fiction, really, and every element of Cameron’s sci-fi actioner seems design to perfectly capture the imagination of a teenage boy.
Now, well over a decade on, twenty years to the day of nuclear apocalypse predicted in the film, T2 has returned to cinemas.
From the rubble-strewn, bone-littered battlefield of Los Angeles, 2029 to the shining chrome figure of a Model 10 Terminator emerging from the flames2, the film’s future prologue remains to this day perhaps the definitive post-apocalypse. Where the relatively low-budget original3hewed closer to sci-fi horror,4 the sequel took a major leap towards the mainstream5 while managing never to compromise on Cameron’s clear vision about the dangers of technology.
For one, it took the revolutionary step of transforming one of cinema’s most chilling villains into a hero: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800. The emotionless machine that had made such an impression on audiences back in 1984 was reinvented as a mini-gun-sporting, catchphrase-spouting surrogate father figure to the future saviour of humanity.
Meanwhile, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who had been so terrified by the cyborg’s predecessor, honed into a defiant warrior; lean, mean, and currently institutionalised for attempting to blow up a computer factory. The long-awaited, would-be messiah, John (Edward Furlong), turns out to be a floppy-haired, ten-year-old rebel; coolly ignoring his foster parents and cruising around the L.A river basin on a moped with his best buddy Tim.6 According to the Special Feature DVD – I knew all that studying of it would pay off eventually! – the then-unknown Furlong was discovered literally poolside by casting agent Mali Finn, who saw in him the exact blend of cockiness and insecurity that would make John’s early-stage douchiness seem understandable7
All of this would mean nothing, though, without a suitably menacing antagonist; which the film found in Robert Patrick’s laser-focused T-1000. By setting the musclebound T-800 against a newer, far deadlier model – a lithe, shape-shifting silver humanoid most often seen in the chillingly banal form of a charmingly polite Midwestern cop – Cameron succeeded in cementing Arnie’s new status as the good guy.8
Then there are the rightly famous, “ground-breaking special effects”, for which the T-1000 provided limitless opportunities and challenges. The sequence in which Sarah escapes the hospital alone contains three iconic CGI moments in quick succession9 Not only does this serve to emphasise the nature of the threat – the seemingly unstoppable liquid metal demon in pursuit – but it is, for want of a better word, utterly fucking cool.10
The scene where Arnie exits the biker bar11 is arguably the coolest scene in cinema history: from the moment his boot descends on the first step to the opening chords of “Bad To The Bone” to the moment he snatches first the shotgun then the sunglasses out of the bar owner’s pocket.
If that were all T2 had going for it, though, it would long since have become an artefact, but the film has heart and brains going for it, too. Case and point: the character of Miles Dyson, the computer programmer most responsible for the birth of Skynet. A devoted, if somewhat distracted family man12 his decency shines through; largely due to Joe Morton’s subtle performance. As soon as Dyson learns of his role in mankind’s forthcoming destruction, he agrees to help forestall it. His ultimate sacrifice13has always stuck with me; his breathing growing ever more staccato until it finally stops.14
There were facets of the film that I’d forgotten, too; like the surprised expression the T-1000 makes when it freezes in place after the big rig it’s driving, full of liquid nitrogen, crashes.15 While certain minor elements didn’t hold up quite as well for me on the big screen, as opposed to being sat on my room, watching the film on a portable DVD player – for instance, the healing of the shotgun blasts in the T-1000’s chest aren’t as seamless as I recalled, though the re-release does implement a few neat “fixes” – a couple of scenes were all the more impactful.
Sarah’s dream sequence, where she witnesses the horrors of the nuclear holocaust, hit home for me in a way it never had before – capturing the impact on both L.A. and its occupants – while that last bit of hand-to-hand combat between the T-800 and T-1000 was, strangely enough, harder-hitting when shown in full surround sound. Cameron’s 3D remastering16 actually has me looking forward to the inevitable ten-year re-release of Avatar in 2019.17
To be nitpick-y, the theatrical cut of T2 is not my preferred version; insofar as it’s not the one I grew up with. It’s a bit choppier than the Special Edition and is missing the scene where Sarah and John reboot the Terminator, so they can set its chip to learn. While being an impressive feat in its own right18, it also justifies the machine’s newfound capacity to learn, to change, with more than just a throwaway line. It makes, in my opinion, all the buddy stuff between him and John – the high-fives, the musing on humanity’s inherent self-destructiveness – feel more earned.19
While I know some who, utterly defensibly, prefer the more bare-bones narrative of the original Terminator film, I think T2 is an unbeatable blockbuster; perfectly combining all-time great action scenes and set-pieces20 with a compelling narrative. Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines provided plenty of popcorn-munching spectacle, but was a touch too goofy otherwise21, despite the committed ending. The dour Terminator Salvation went in the opposite direction. Terminator Genisys was, simply put, a generic mess22 that squandered its single point of interest.23
With the prospect of nuclear annihilation consuming headline space, it seems that our end might come not from the cold, merciless survival instinct of artificial intelligence but rather human ego and stupidity on a hereto unprecedented scale.24 Instead of tearing down walls, Mr. Gorbachev, we’re putting them up, breaking away from long-time trading partners and allies; the countless different blocs and factions that make up the world becoming ever more fearful and insular.
“No fate but what we make”, the words Kyle Reese taught to Sarah Connor back in 198425, is basically the motto of the Terminator franchise; even if for all the protagonist’s efforts if often seems like mankind is doomed. It’s not just a motto, though: it’s a responsibility.
And maybe it’s not all hopeless. After all, as Sarah Connor narrates in the film’s final moments – a black highway night spooling out before us, that guiding yellow line the only visible colour in the dead of night – “If a machine, if a terminator, can learn the value of human life; maybe we can too.” It’s the sort of sentiment that makes an impression on a young teen, and what better vehicle for the message than this?
To misquote Siskel and Ebert: two thumbs – one sinking into molten metal – way, way up.
- That opening narration? I used to know it all verbatim.
- The very image, first seen in a nightmare, that inspired Cameron to come up with the whole franchise.
- The smoke that issues from the compactor when the Terminator’s skull is crushed comes from a cigarette; the dying red eyes is an LED.
- The interaction between a corpse-like, bullet-pocked Arnie, alone in a seedy hotel room, and his landlord, outside, has a macabre humour to it – “Buddy, you got a dead cat in there?” – that wouldn’t seem out of place in An American Werewolf in London.
- As well you might expect from a $100 million summer blockbuster.
- And has ever a character so epitomised the turning point between the ‘80s and ‘90s as poor, old denim-clad, red-mulleted Tim?
- Check out deadly sarcasm that drips from every syllable when he utters the immortal line, “She’s not my mother, Todd.” Poor Todd (Xander Berkeley). All he wanted to do was put his feet up and watch the game.
- While giving us the phrase “mimetic polyalloy”, which can only be truly appreciated when heard spoken in Arnie’s glorious Austrian accent.
- The T-1000 passing straight through the bars of the security door, only to catch the grip of his pistol, still on the other side; the T-1000 crowbar-like hands separating the lift doors; and the T-1000’s head being blasted in two by Arnie’s shotgun.
- It also has the great, now-retired Earl Boen as the unfortunate Dr. Silberman; the police psychiatrist from the first film, who’s there the night that the Terminator massacres a police station, and who now finds himself running a psychiatric hospital where yet more time-travelling robots turn up causing trouble. He makes an appearance in Terminator 3, too; arriving at a crime in progress just in time to watch Arnie bust his way out of a mausoleum, carrying a coffin and armed with a mini-gun. Forget the rest of the guff: Terminator Genisys’ greatest crime against cinema was not finding a way to have Earl fucking Boen in it.
- The bar where he’s memorably just dissembled half the occupants and stolen one unfortunate’s clothes – his clothes, those boots, and shortly his motorcycle; to be exact.
- The Special Edition expands on this somewhat, too, and give S. Epatha Merkerson as his wife ever so slightly more to do than just scream, “Oh god!”.
- Holding a broken piece of a model microchip over a detonator so that when he dies it’ll set off the bomb and destroy the Cyberdyne laboratory
- And boom!
- Conveniently at exactly the sort of place that’s perfectly suited to destroying a liquid-metal man: a smelting factory.
- Bless him, he’s still trying to prove it’s not a gimmick.
- A movie that is, ironically, only enjoyable in 3D.
- Making clever use of Linda Hamilton’s twin sister in the “mirror”, so as to obscure the necessary use of a model Arnie when the T-800’s head is sliced open.
- I missed the glitches, too, after the T-1000 returns to liquid form after being frozen; only to discover it’s not quite functioning at 100% capacity.
- The scuffle in the Galleria; the moped-vs-big rig canal chase; Arnie and the mini-gun mowing down police cars with 0.0 casualties, etc.
- Arnie coming out of the (gay) bar at the beginning and, instead of those iconic Ray Bans, putting on a pair of star-shaped, Elton John-style sunglasses.
- It’s inadvertently revealing that the only film in which Jai Courtney holds any interest for me is Suicide Squad; in that he’s not required to play a cardboard-cutout leading man. Otherwise, he’s just a blander Sam Worthington.
- Vis-a-vis John Connor (Jason Clarke) becoming a Terminator.
- It’s basically the Cuban Missile Crisis if everyone had just watched Dr. Strangelove, mistaking it for a how-to guide for crisis management.
- Which she would later teach to John and he to Kyle, creating a perfect circle: a paradox.