Film Discussion

Terminator 2: Judgment Day – Throwback 30

Some of the biggest movie studios have been a seemingly permanent fixture in Hollywood and the film industry as a whole over the years, to the point where it’s hard to even contemplate never seeing the Warner Brothers shield or Disney castle adorning a film. One might have at one time said the same thing about the 20th Century Fox logo, and while a version of it still exists, it’s no longer one displaying Fox.

The history of the industry has also given rise to smaller mini studios that delivered work of varying qualities, but the image of their logos on iconic (and not so iconic) older films means that to see them is to be hit with a wave of nostalgia. Orion Pictures. Cannon (sometimes followed by an audience shudder). And, in the case of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Carolco. The swirling blue laser forming to make a metallic elaborate C shape was the first thing that one saw when viewing some of the biggest films of the late 80s and early 90s, but whose considerable fortunes fell quite spectacularly when they bankrolled two of the biggest commercial disasters of the mid-90s: Cutthroat Island and the even more notorious Showgirls.

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In 1991, they happened to produce the biggest film of the year, and arguably something that still remains a pop-cultural juggernaut.  It’s also emblematic of not only a time when Carolco was a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood – T2 would be sandwiched between the Paul Verhoeven smash hits Total Recall and Basic Instinct, which made the flop of Showgirls dreadfully ironic in a way – but also when a James Cameron-directed sequel was something to await and look forward to than something on which to disdainfully project the prospect of failure.

You can’t move on social media today without someone making fun of the prospect of so many upcoming Avatar sequels, but also on the so-called lack of pop cultural impact the first film made. Just to clarify for certainty, we are talking about the most commercially successful film of all time here.

Thirty years ago, Cameron getting the band back together to make a sequel to the film that pretty much launched his career, his second film as director following the disastrous Piranha II: The Spawning, was an eagerly awaited event. And even today, despite the disparaging expectations concerning his upcoming slate of films about the Na’vi, T2 and its predecessor are still talked about in somewhat revered tones, as if the two films are the Hollywood blockbuster equivalent of sacred religious texts.

© 1991 Carolco Pictures

The movie might be a sequel to a low-budget cult sci-fi film of the 80s that made a star of the future Governor of California, but everything about T2 would be bigger and, arguably, better. Sure, the first film has a darker, meaner streak to it more reminiscent of a well-made slasher film (and certainly plays more like a combination of horror and sci-fi than a direct action film), but its sequel is pure blockbuster brilliance.

The first film to be made with a reported budget of $100 million, although some estimates put it closer to $88 million, the film represents a peak for the era of 80s action films, a carryover from the bombastic stylings of the decade before, and is the biggest film that Schwarzenegger would star in, while at the same time also representing a peak for the Carolco company.

The studio had been behind many of Schwarzenegger’s films in the 80s, as well as Sylvester Stallone’s – having produced the first three Rambo films plus Schwarzenegger’s Red Heat – and was very much flying the flag for the type of muscular action film that was the genre’s hallmark during the 80s. Only the year before Terminator 2 did the company also produce the aforementioned Total Recall, Verhoeven’s collaboration with Austria’s favourite son that proved to a potent combination of Philp K Dick, paranoid sci-fi and the blood-drenched action film that was the cult director’s staple. The 90s would prove to be a somewhat mixed decade for Schwarzenegger after the highs of the 80s, but at least the decade started superbly for him what with Total Recall in 1990 and T2 the year after.

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While Recall revelled in blood-filled action with a paranoid bent, T2 would be a more epic affair. Like Mad Max sequel The Road Warrior, Cameron and co-writer William Wisher would effectively replay the first film’s chase narrative on a bigger canvas, with a larger budget and more epic set-pieces which played within the pool of the original’s combination of chase scenes and the loudest gunfire you’d ever heard in a film. But, amazingly, amidst all that spectacle, the pair would never lose sight of things like character, plot and an emotional undercurrent.

Certainly, there is a touch more humour to the film, the interactions between the now reprogrammed T-800 and his father/son dynamic with a young John Connor giving the film an almost Amblin-like feel at times; a boy and his robot comedy that has a more intense level of threat and suspense given that this is R-rated and the violence and explosions are more in tandem with what you would expect from a film starring Schwarzenegger.

With Arnold now on the side of the angels, the film was going to have to up the ante in terms of the villain and that was something Cameron and Wisher worked out beautifully. Robert Patrick’s T-1000 must surely rank as one of the most imaginative antagonists concocted for a Hollywood blockbuster. The use of CGI to create the abilities of the character were truly groundbreaking at the time. Terminator 2 was not the first film to use the technology, nor was it even the first Cameron film to do so, that honour falling to his previous underrated masterpiece The Abyss.

© 1991 Carolco Pictures

However, this does feel like the first film where audiences and critics genuinely took notice of the developing technology. The abilities of the T-1000 make for one of the most truly formidable villains to appear in a film. Patrick brilliantly conveys a threateningly blank persona for the character, a more believable presence compared to Schwarzenegger that perhaps harkens back to Cameron’s original conception for the T-800 in the first film when the likes of Lance Henriksen and O.J. Simpson (yes, really) were considered for the role.

The imagery of a villain dressed as a police officer is just as prescient today and, given that T2 is set in LA and was filmed just prior to the assault on Rodney King and in the shadow of the LA Riots, cannot help but give what might have been easily dismissed as a ‘killer robot’ film considerable power. That power even applies to the characterisation of Sarah Connor, whose perception of her son as nothing but a militaristic mission and who judges Skynet creator Miles Dyson (a quietly powerful performance from the great Joe Morton) in a similar manner to the way the machines have done to her are amongst some of the most thematically powerful scenes in a Hollywood blockbuster.

Cameron didn’t just up the ante in terms of the action and spectacle to this sequel, he also upped the emotional quotient, the epic sweep and the thematic resonance. It is amongst the very finest sequels ever made, right up there with The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part II and is a favourite amongst films fans and nerds on the social media sphere.

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Yet, whenever the name of Cameron is evoked now, he is seen as a figure of ridicule and someone whom many are cheering against in light of his comments on the Marvel Cinematic Universe and upcoming influx of the (increasing amounts of) Avatar sequels. There appears to be myopia that has set in against him because, like Scorsese, he doesn’t like Ant-Man movies. Admittedly his comments on Wonder Woman left a little to be desired, but he is someone that blockbuster cinema owes a great debt to and films like this, The Abyss, Titanic and Aliens are among the greatest blockbuster works that Hollywood has ever produced.

They are great rollercoaster rides as films, and you get the sense of Cameron the filmmaker really going to town with the action and spectacle. T2 features some of the greatest action sequences ever put to film, where the special and visual effects, stunt work and emphasis on story and character gel together masterfully. Yet, for all the ways that many make fun of him on Twitter and the criticisms levelled at Avatar for not having any pop cultural footprint, he is still amongst the greatest director of Hollywood blockbusters, a name worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Spielberg and Lucas (all males, regrettably, but still). Say what you want about the MCU, and they are very entertaining films, but do any of them compete with the brilliance of T2? Possibly not. Then again – what does? Not even the later instalments of the Terminator franchise could compete with it.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day was released in the UK on 16th August 1991.

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