NOTE: This is a review of the original cut of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, as released in 1991. A blog on the extended Special Edition will follow at a later date.
Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
A few years after his mother was targeted by a robotic killer from the future, the young John Connor must go on the run – but like his mother before him he has a protector…
* The cyborg known as a T-800 may be played by Arnold Schwarzenegger (now an enormous star who commanded a fee of $15 million). But this is not the same character we saw in The Terminator. It’s a different iteration of the same factory-produced model. When he arrives in the present in a flash of kinetic electricity, having time-travelled from the year 2029, it’s a scene that reminds us of the T-800’s entrance into the original Terminator film. He then coldly attacks a heavy-set biker in order to acquire ‘his clothes, his boots and his motorcycle’, so we’re primed to assume that this T-800 is bad news like his earlier counterpart. He searches for the child John Connor – the son of the first film’s Sarah, who we know will grow up to be an inspirational leader in the future war with the machines – and randomly spots him after driving around LA for a while. But then the cyborg *saves* John from another Terminator who’s trying to kill him, and we instantly understand the film’s cheeky conceit (admittedly, a plot twist that almost every audience member will have known before going in, thanks to trailers and word of mouth). Schwarzenegger’s T-800 has been reprogrammed and has actually been sent back in time to *protect* John from an assassination attempt. For the remainder of the story, he carries out his mission with unshakable commitment… As with the first film, this role is the finest of Schwarzenegger’s career. It’s true that part of the reason is that the T-800 doesn’t require much emotional acting or many nuanced line-deliveries, things Arnie has traditionally struggled with, but this is not totally a back-handed compliment. The actor’s undoubted presence – not just his size, but his posture and movement and gaze – are simpatico with the character. It’s difficult to imagine anyone playing the part more effectively.
* When the new Terminator – known as a T-1000 – arrives in the present, early scenes make us think of the Kyle Reese character from the original movie (further setting up the twist to come). But we also recognise that something is ‘off’. This guy kills a cop and steals his identity – all the better for tracking down John Connor, detective-like. When he finally does encounter John at a shopping mall, he’s about to strike when the T-800 intervenes and shoots him several times… but each bullet hit is harmlessly soaked up into the T-1000’s chrome-coloured liquid innards. We discover that this Terminator is composed entirely of a durable, pliable and intelligent fluid metal and can metamorphise into any solid object of comparable size – including people. (Writer/director James Cameron came up with a term to explain the character’s base material: ‘mimetic poly alloy’.) Played with granite conviction and actually quite a bit of charm by the hawkeyed Robert Patrick, and sometimes realised by cutting-edge CGI, the T-1000 is an amazing creation. Sequels can’t just trot out the same idea again, and making this film’s threat so different and fresh adds a huge amount of danger and tension to the story. For most of its running time, our heroes have no idea in the slightest how they’re going to stop him.
* John Connor, who we saw being conceived during the first movie, is now a rebellious 10-year-old who talks back to his foster parents and steals cash from ATMs. Estranged from his mother, he’s clearly a troubled lad who likes to ride his bike around the city to the sound of Guns N’Roses. The then-unknown Edward Furlong is really good in the part, largely because he brings no cuteness to it at all. This is a cynical, wise-beyond-his-years character who swears and knows how to use weapons, and Furlong’s sassy attitude works really well. He also has genuine chemistry with Arnold Schwarzenegger once the T-800 has convinced John to trust him…. and especially after John realises that his future self has reprogrammed the cyborg to accept any command John gives him. He even tries to humanise the T-800 by teaching him slang and sarcasm (‘Hasta la vista, baby!’), which works as both light relief and character development. But John also decides on a risky mission: once he knows about the T-1000 he insists that they go and rescue his mother, Sarah, who has been committed to a psychiatric hospital. Once they successfully get her free and evade another murderous attempt from the T-1000, John is disappointed that his mum seems more concerned in his physical state than in an emotional reunion. The latter takes more time, but comes both gradually and believably. (At the beginning of the film, we see a 44-year-old John Connor during a flash-forward to the future war. He’s played by Michael Edwards, a former boyfriend of Priscilla Presley.)
* It’s clear straightaway that Sarah Connor has undergone a *massive* change since the first film. Not only is she institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital, but as her opening close-up emphasises she’s now muscular, intense and serious. The former happy-go-lucky waitress been diagnosed with acute schizo-affective disorder – delusions, depression, violent outbursts – which we realise has been brought on by the fact she knows the world is due to end in 1997. So we’re presented with a beloved character who is now radically different and yet who we still recognise as the same person underneath. It’s great writing from James Cameron, but it’s also undeniably great acting from Linda Hamilton: this is a blistering performance of primal power, full of aggression and complexity. When refused permission to see her son, Sarah begins a daring escape of the prison-like hospital… and due to Hollywood storytelling, her attempt comes on the very night that John and two Terminators are converging on the building looking for her. The moment when she first sees the T-800 – which of course instantly terrorises her, due to her experiences in film one – is shot with nightmare-evoking slo-mo and is hugely effective. (‘Come with me if you want to live,’ he says, significantly quoting Kyle from the first film.) But after her initial shock, she learns that this T-800 is on her and John’s side. Very slowly, she even begins to trust and genuinely befriend him. The last third of the movie is then kicked off when Sarah learns from her new ally how Judgment Day will come about. A scientist called Miles Dyson will develop a revolutionary new micro-processor that will eventually lead to sentient machines who want to do away with humanity. So without telling John or the T-800 she suits up with some weapons, and heads off to kill him…
* John’s foster parents are a working-class couple called Janelle (James Cameron regular Jenette Goldstein) and Todd Voight (Xander Berkeley). She seems to be trying to do a decent job, but Todd is a pessimistic layabout. When the T-1000 needs to find John, he kills Janelle and impersonates her while he waits for the boy to call home. When John does so, Todd’s bitching gets so irritating that the T-1000 simply kills him too.
* John’s best pal is the ginger-mulletted Tim (Danny Cooksey). A savvy little kid, he lies that he doesn’t know John when a cop (ie, the T-1000 in disguise) asks after him.
* Dr Silberman (Earl Boen) returns from the first film; Sarah has become something of a career case for him, though he still assumes that all her talk of robots and time-travel and the end of the world is delusional nonsense.
* Miles Dyson (Joe Morton, terrific) is the director of special projects at the Cyberdyne Systems Corporation. The company has in its possession a microchip and a mechanical arm recovered from the first film’s T-800 and Dyson is leading the research into this radical technology. (The implication, which was explicit in a scene cut out of 1984’s The Terminator, is that the factory where Sarah killed the cyborg in that movie was Cyberdyne property. Hashtag bootstrap paradox.) He’s not a selfish, careless mad scientist but rather a decent family man. After Sarah’s conscience prevents her from murdering him, he’s aghast to be told what his work will lead to, so offers to help destroy all the evidence.
Where: We’re mostly in Los Angeles again. John’s foster parents’ house and the shopping mall where he encounters both Terminators are in the San Fernando Valley neighbourhood of Reseda. Later, after her break-out from the hospital, Sarah, John and the T-800 flee the city. ‘Just head south,’ says Sarah, and they drive into the desert. They eventually hook up with a Mexican family who Sarah and John know of old.
When: The ‘present’ story begins at night, carries on through the following two days and ends before dawn on the third – so takes place over not much more than 48 hours. The first movie had internal evidence that its main storyline took place in either 1983 or 1984, and the latter year is confirmed here in both a voiceover from Sarah and when we see John Connor’s date of birth on a monitor screen (28 February 1985, which means he was conceived the previous May). But John in this film is clearly not six years old so we’re obviously not in 1991, the year of Terminator 2’s release. John is now 10 (which is just about plausible: actor Edward Furlong was 13 during filming) and the story is set in 1995. There’s a continuity error, however, when the T-800 tells Sarah what is due to happen in the coming few years. Our terminus ad quem – or to put it in a less pretentious way, the date before which this story must be set – is 29 August 1997, which Sarah says is when the upcoming apocalypse will occur. Despite that being only two years away, the T-800 explains that Cyberdyne will start to supply the military with computer systems in three years’ time. (In real life, incidentally, 29 August 1997 was the day Netflix launched as a DVD-rental service. So when your on-demand service tries taking over the world, you can’t claim the clues weren’t there.) We also see 2029 in a brief flash-forward to the war.
I’ll be back: Since the first Terminator movie, Arnie had playfully quoted his catchphrase in some unrelated films. Along with his bulk and his accent it was a key part of his Hollywood persona. The first instance came in 1985’s endlessly enjoyable action film Commando (‘I’ll be back, Bennett!’), then over the next few years it was alluded to in violent cop movie Raw Deal (‘I’ll be right back’), media satire The Running Man (‘Killian, I’ll be back!’), likeable comedy Twins (‘If you’re lying to me, I’ll be back!’), entertaining sci-fi thriller Total Recall (‘I’ll be back!’) and so-so comedy film Kindergarten Cop (‘I’m back!’). So when reprising his most famous role, it was obvious that he would also reprise his most famous line. But where would James Cameron fit it in? We actually have to wait quite a way into the film, over 90 minutes. While trying to escape the Cyberdyne offices, Sarah, John and the T-800 are trapped in a lift. Cops have arrived and flooded the lobby with teargas, meaning no escape. But then we realise that the T-800 doesn’t need to breathe. ‘Stay here,’ says Arnie with a slight smirk. ‘I’ll be back.’ He then leaves the lift, deals with the cops, and returns for his human colleagues in a van.
Review: James Cameron had form for this kind of thing. Not long after making the original Terminator film, he had been hired to write and direct a sequel to another recent sci-fi classic. Aliens, his 1986 follow-up to Ridley Scott’s stratospherically wonderful Alien (1979), was at least the equal of its predecessor – some would say it surpassed it – and Cameron achieved this by doing something very clever indeed. In essence he repeated the first film’s premise (a monstrous threat terrorising humans), but now played it out in a different format (a war movie rather than a horror). The resulting film is absolutely related to its forebear spiritually and thematically, but it also has its own unique attitude and style. So, when it came time to create a sequel to The Terminator, Cameron used the same trick. Intense, pacey and thrilling, T2 is unquestionably in the same vein as the first film. It has the same slick, precise storytelling, the same apocalyptic concerns, the same attention to character. But it’s also bolder, deeper, larger in scale, and quite obviously made on a bigger budget. Cameron had actually started his career in frugal filmmaking, cutting his teeth on Heath Robinson-like Roger Corman productions, but here he is spending $100 million (a record movie budget in 1991, some of which was paid for by sprinkling the Pepsi logo throughout many scenes!). All this means that, instead of the first Terminator’s thrilling rawness and punky edges, we now get an unparalleled Hollywood sheen. This is a supremely confident film, made by a skilled crew going all-out to do their best work. The revolutionary computer-generated special effects, for example – which build on similar images on Cameron’s previous film The Abyss – threw us back into our seats in 1991 and are still enormously impressive today. Crucially they’re deployed sparingly, surgically, and are always focused on telling the story. It’s not just the CGI used for the fluid movements of the T-1000; there are also numerous in-camera techniques such as prosthetics, puppets, models and rear-projection screens. Just generally, the movie is a visual marvel: the action is tough and huge and powerful and visceral, everything is photographed beautifully (check out the blues hues for the night scenes) and the editing is unimprovable. But all of that only goes so far, of course. A great film needs great characters and a great story – and T2 exceeds in these areas too. In another echo of Aliens, this script neatly builds a family unit for us to follow and root for: instead of Ripley, Hicks and Newt as the parents and child, we have Sarah, the T-800 and John. Watching their triangular bond develop as the film progresses is a genuine joy, and more importantly the process increases how much we care about them. If all that wasn’t enough, the whole enterprise is also founded on one of the best reversals of expectation in genre-cinema history. Arnold Schwarzenegger – an embodiment of terror and savagery and brutality in the first film – is now playing a protective good guy. What a brilliant coup.
Ten thumbs-up out of 10