Film discussion

Terminator 2: Judgment Day – Looking back at James Cameron’s second cyborg movie

Following the mixed commercial and critical reception to The Abyss, James Cameron would return to the world that he had made his name with. 1991 would see the release of the long-awaited sequel to The Terminator and with it the first of many uses of the term ‘the world’s most expensive film’ whenever a new Cameron film rolled around.

The rights to Terminator were in somewhat of a quagmire before a sequel made its way to the screens. Those rights would continue to be in such a quagmire for years after the success of T2 – as it would be referred to – with every subsequent Terminator sequel being made under the eyes of a different production company.

The second Terminator would come from the stable of Carolco Pictures, the famous mini-major studio that came from Mario Kassar and the late Andrew Vajna. Kassar and Vajna had made ripples when they produced First Blood in 1982, which would lead to the creation of Carolco Pictures, with the company subsequently producing major blockbusters such as the increasingly expensive Rambo sequels First Blood: Part II and Rambo III, Total Recall and Basic Instinct before coming undone when they bankrolled the double whammy of disasters that were Cutthroat Island and Showgirls.

Ironically the company would bankroll Stargate which would become a massive success and lead to a major franchise, but that film would subsequently be bought out by MGM when Carolco went bankrupt and it would be MGM who would enjoy the spoils of the box office and subsequent television spin-offs that came of the back of the Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich film.

However, in 1991 Carolco Pictures was a major force. A similar set up to the infamous Cannon Films, Carolco sometimes felt like Cannon Films done correctly, with films that were incredibly expensive and done well with high production values.

Terminator 2 and James Cameron were probably the best fit for such a production outfit. Everything about Terminator 2 had the feeling of no expense being spared; the film was rumoured to be the first to cost $100 million, and while that wasn’t the case, the actual budget was very close at $94 million. Arnold Schwarzenegger was reportedly given an $11 million Gulfstream Jet as pay, while Cameron himself was paid at least $5 million for his work as writer and director.

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On screen the film would deliver incredibly complex and large scale action sequences which still impress to this day with their use of in-camera stunt work. And following the early use of CGI in The Abyss in 1989, the Terminator sequel would go even further with the use of Computer Generated Imagery to bring its iconic villain, the T-1000, to chilling, glorious life, the effect being that it reinforced and enhanced Robert Patrick’s chilling, iconic performance rather than distracting from it.

A big part of the T2‘s publicity was the idea of Schwarzenegger not playing a villain this time, but instead, the T-800 being reformatted into the role of protector. With Linda Hamilton returning as Sarah Connor and getting into considerable shape for a more darker, less victimised iteration of the character, the film would have some glorious callbacks to the original Terminator in the shape of its action sequences and staging, but would feature a new character to protect in the shape of a young John Connor (Edward Furlong). Its emotional backbone would be centred, as is always the case with Cameron’s film, on a love story, and like his other classic sequel Aliens, Terminator 2 is all about parental dynamics.

The first film had kept John Connor at bay: a character who is frequently mentioned but whom we never see. With the sequel we get a glimpse of him at the start in the film’s brilliantly mounted future war sequence which lets you know right away that this is a more expensive concoction than the 1984 film, but we spend most of our time with him in the shape of Edward Furlong, discovered by casting director Mali Finn at a Pasadena Boys and Girls Club from amongst hundreds of choices.

The first Terminator spent time with Sarah Connor before she became a stronger person and one capable of training her son to become a great military leader (a line that recurs throughout the film). So there’s something wonderful about the idea that in the only Cameron-directed Terminator film to spend the majority of its run time with John Connor that we do so with him as a young boy with a bad attitude towards his foster parents, a rebellious streak, and a complex relationship with his mother, and who finds emotional common ground with a machine that has been reprogrammed by him from the future and who represents the very threat against his life.

The majority of the film, especially once we get more into the middle stretch of its run time, spends a large part with the troika that is the T-800 (later christened Uncle Bob), John, and Sarah as they go on the road in order to escape the T-1000. As in Aliens, there is a wonderful sense of dysfunctionality to them. Sarah is closed off and cold, and John tries to reach out to her but feels rejection and instead opts to make the T-800 more open to emotions and humanity.

This is without a doubt Schwarzeneggers’s best performance. Yes, the character has less of a horror vibe than in the first film, but that’s understandable, and his eventual emotional connection to John and the subsequent journey they make, right through to the eventual soul destroying final moment between them, is one of Cameron’s greatest ever works as a storyteller.

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It may be looking too much into it, but given that Cameron never got to make a sequel to his own instalment of the Alien franchise, and the family unit he created in that film’s final moments was going to be destroyed in the opening moments of Alien 3, you get the sense that Cameron used T2 as a proxy of sorts to explore a similar dynamic to the one he created at the end of Aliens.

As for Schwarzenegger, it goes without saying that he is someone that many critics don’t regard as a great actor, but his work here and in the first film is a lot trickier than at first glance. To take a character who was one of the greatest villains in movie history and turn him into a someone audiences cry over in the final moments when he self terminates (but only after realising why it is John Connor cries), is one of the most emotional moments in all of science-fiction blockbuster cinema.

Then there is Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor. If there is a theme to be found in T2 it’s that people can change, and things can change. Our heroes are constantly trying to find ways to change the future and yet nobody has changed more here than Sarah. She is someone who has gone from the ‘final girl’ of the first film, albeit one who is hunted throughout as opposed to just the final stretch, but who is now an emotionally darker and far more bitter character, irrevocably changed by the events of the first film.

The first time we see her in Terminator she’s just a girl with her whole life ahead of her, trying to make ends meet as a waitress, and whose only source of drama comes from having a pretty neglectful boyfriend. The first time we see her here she is doing pull ups using her torn apart bed and having to navigate her way through abuse and mistreatment at the psychiatric hospital she is locked up in, with her main doctor being a manipulative, career-oriented Dr Silberman (Earl Boen, returning from the first film).

Once again, we’re presented with a character who has changed from the first film and must go through changes yet again during the course of this narrative, a change navigated in one of the film’s most chilling and provocative scenes. Upon discovering the creator of Skynet, Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) and his whereabouts, Sarah effectively becomes a version of the machines herself, opting to execute Dyson before he has fulfilled his destiny and instigating a terrible home invasion armed to the teeth with any gun she can get her hands on. Her eventual realisation of her actions and her emotional breakdown and reconnection with John are some of the best scenes of the film.

That this level of emotional undercurrent and storytelling, not to mention legitimate consequences, happens in a film populated with large scale action sequences involving trucks, explosions, helicopters and the use of CGI, once again shows that at his peak Cameron was ahead and above those who were in the business of crafting large scale R-rated/15 or 18 rated action films.

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T2 works in the manner that it does because of character, storytelling and emotion. Deservedly so, it ended up being the biggest film release of 1991, grossing $519 million worldwide and earning a plethora of rave reviews from critics. Like The Abyss and Aliens, a special edition followed two years later which actually had some added value and worthy content, including a cameo appearance via a dream sequence involving Kyle (Michael Biehn), followed by a tease to the horrific nuclear bomb nightmare later in the film. There is also a key moment involving Sarah and John tinkering with the chip in the T-800’s head and a debate in which they argue if they should destroy it or not and whether they really need it.

There are other smaller moments dotted throughout, and thankfully they never take away from the film. It has been well served in all home formats and has been released several times on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray, with both versions usually occupying the disc space. In the UK, when the film made its debut on DVD with the Ultimate Edition, the 153-minute special edition was the only version available, which probably explains why this reviewer favours it over the theatrical cut. It’s the one I’ve seen the most and the version I have the most fondness for. Like Aliens, the special edition never outstays its welcome and actually makes for a richer more fuller viewing experience, the extra content never once feeling like it’s a distraction from a better cut of the film.

A third version was also available for completists, which featured an extended coda set in the future which sees Sarah and John living happier lives, all set at the park that Sarah keeps having nightmares about, but the truth is the film works better with its ending involving the camera following a road into the night and Sarah’s voiceover on how we could learn the value of human life.

It’s an incredibly effective end to the film and the series, but alas in Hollywood, franchises never stay dead, and twelve years later Terminator would return to our screens, without the involvement of Cameron, in the Kassar and Vajna backed Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Schwarzenegger returned, with the backing of Cameron, but the franchise and story always felt as if it reached a natural endpoint here.

It is without a doubt one of modern cinema’s greatest ever follow-ups, and along with the first Terminator makes for one of the most brilliant and sacred texts that blockbuster cinema has ever given us. They may be both different feeling films in a way, and made under very different circumstances (one is more horror, the other more action, one lower budgeted, the other as expensive as it got at the time) and yet you can never have one without the other. They are a complete set and as a brilliant as genre cinema and Cameron has ever gotten.

Cameron and Schwarzenegger would collaborate again, another R-rated action film, but one with a vastly different tone and style to the films they made their names with, and an enjoyable one at that, but for Cameron, things would become different beyond that. While his films have always been at the forefront of mainstream culture, they had always felt like grandiose genre pieces made by someone well versed in the genre, and revelling in bringing great storytelling and visions to the screen.

Beyond this, Oscar glory and the highest grossing films of all time would beckon. Titanic and Avatar are brilliant films for sure, but things would feel different, and alas, this would be the last time we would see Cameron play in the R-rated pool of genre film. More’s the pity.

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