Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Directed by James Cameron

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Terminator 2 is a mirror of the first Terminator.  We follow a similar structure, with two nude future people showing up in a ball of electricity, one trying to kill a Connor and the other sent to protect that Conner.  The first time around the villain, the Terminator, was an Arnold Schwarzenegger lacking the Hollywood pedigree he would have seven years later, for the sequel.  This time around he is rewritten (or reprogrammed) to be the good guy, the one sent to protect young John and Sarah Connor from the newer, badder, more flexible Terminator, a stretchy, gooey, shape shifter.

The exposition is clunky, but the movie gets it out of the way early on, and the subsequent action is thrilling and inventive enough for you to just enjoy the ride and not try and figure out how you got on.

Having Schwarzenegger play the hero is understandable from a marketing and filmmaking standpoint, and the movie works well with this transition, but the attempts to explain away the role switch falls a little flat.  What the movie handles much better are the unexpected, though logical, shifts in character for John and Sarah Connor.

We haven’t yet med John, but we know he will become a great and powerful leader of the human resistance against the robots.  When we meet him he is just a bratty teenager, kind of an asshole, really.  This works pretty well, I’d say, because it helps reinforce his transformation into a much more empathetic, well-rounded person, and it also capitalizes on a kind of appealing anarchy that seemed prevalent at the time, at least for kids of a certain age.

John Connor is also the audience surrogate, at least assuming the audience was mostly teenaged boys.  He and Schwarzenegger’s Terminator get to form a buddy duo that’s not unlike Calvin & Hobbes, Hogarth & The Iron Giant or any ordinary boy and his dog.  There’s an unexpected sincerity here and certainly a case of wish fulfillment for every thirteen year-old watching this film and daydreaming about what it’d be like to have your own Terminator at your beck and call.

The (successful) attempt to humanize the Terminator from the first installment seems necessary considering how much Sarah Conner loses her own humanity, understandably.  Her transformation is one of the most noteworthy elements of the film and a sign that for as much as sequels may copy their predecessor, James Cameron wasn’t afraid to shake things up.

Sarah is militaristic, feral with fear and yet supremely confident.  We meet her in a mental institution since no one believes that what happened in The Terminator is real, and once she escapes, mostly on her own, she will then try to hunt down the man who will unwittingly enable the machines to take over and assassinate him.  It’s a far cry from the character she plays in the first film.

Terminator 2 wouldn’t work, or none of this would matter, if it wasn’t fun, and it sure as hell is.  It’s pretty amazing what they were able to accomplish with each action set piece and the practical and visual effects, particularly considering this was 19991.  Using a couple identical twins (including Hamilton’s) as well as computer effects, just about every visual trick in this movie still holds up.  There was an affectionate quality to the limits of the technology in The Terminator, but what was maybe cute and entertaining in 1984 became riveting and horrifying in 1991.

The villain is a new, more advanced terminator, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick).  He’s a truly horrifying, unstoppable force, referred to by Cameron as a Cadillac compared to Schwarzenegger’s tank.  Where the original terminator was all about brute force in plain sight, this one is able to disguise itself as anyone around and turn its arms into long metal hooks and spears.  It blends in like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and feels much more like an alien than a purported robot.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is an inspired sequel, unafraid to borrow what worked about the original (shut up and play the hits) but similarly emboldened to push the characters forward and allow them to change in meaningful ways.

Up Next: The Martian (2015), A Christmas Story (1983), Searching (2018)

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