Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Now don't take this the wrong way, but you're a terminator, right?

You have to hand it to James Cameron. He knows how to spend money. Not only did he spend $300 million on Avatar without blinking, but he was the first to sink $200 million into a picture, that being Titanic. Even before that, T2 was the movie to break Hollywood’s $100 million cherry. Considering the results, none of that money was wasted, but do we really want to keep encouraging this sort of behavior? What happened to the James Cameron who could make the first Terminator movie for less than the loose change he found in his sofa?

It’s hard to argue with the results when they look like this. Terminator 2 takes the lean, stripped-down muscle car that was the original and straps on a couple of booster rockets from the space shuttle. It’s sci-fi action filmmaking at such a level of relentless professionalism that it just wears you down and makes you hand over your skepticism like it was your lunch money.

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Taking place 11 years after the original, the sequel finds future savior of the human race John Connor (Edward Furlong) as an alienated 10-year-old delinquent living in a foster home. His mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton) is consigned to a mental hospital for believing that killer robots from the future are trying to kill her.

In reality, the killer robots from the future are trying to kill her bratty, fatherless kid, sending a gleaming new model, the shape-shifting T-1000 (Robert Patrick), back in time to finish the job. To act as a bodyguard for his 10-year-old delinquent self, future John Connor sends a re-purposed copy of the T-800 model (California’s future Baby-Daddy-in-Chief Arnold Schwarzenegger) that tried to kill Sarah 11 years earlier. All parties converge on mom’s current nuthouse and Sarah finds herself on the run from the police as an escaped mental patient. She reluctantly has to depend on the machine that almost killed her 11 years ago to keep her free and protect her and her son from a seemingly invincible blob of mercury that can be almost anyone it wants to be.

Arnie 2.0 has some more bad news. His previous bad self wasn’t completely destroyed. The surviving parts are in the hands of Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), the computer scientist who will eventually develop Skynet, the supercomputer that will cause a nuclear war in less than two years and enslave the surviving human race.

There’s so much awesomeness on screen that it feels pointless to point out the bits that don’t quite work. These are mostly the result of Cameron’s ham-handed attempts to shove bits of kumbaya peacenik sentiment into the story, as if to apologize for all the good parts where shit blows up and the T-1000 uses people for pincushions. I have no philosophical issue with pacifism, except when it feels out of a place in a violent R-rated action movie where the good guys pack more firepower than two average SWAT teams.

This film works for two good reasons. Number one, Linda Hamilton throws herself totally into the role of the desperate, unhinged survivalist who only wants to save the human race from itself, and is branded insane for her trouble, a futuristic Cassandra figure. She is a logical extension of Ripley’s “mother warrior” role in Aliens, extending the fierce, if warped, maternal instinct she feels for John over the entire species.

Reason number two is the villain: T-1000 is a novel and, within the story, plausible extension of the Terminator concept. Implacable, apparently invincible and not inclined to negotiate, it creates a palpable sense of a threat even when not on the screen. Cameron needed a bad guy who could be a danger to the previously indestructible Arnie in order for the danger to seem credible. With Robert Patrick’s unflappable poker face always lurking, it’s easy to believe that the good guys can’t relax for a second.

The relatively low-tech effects of the first film give way to highest of high tech. After sticking his toe into the CGI waters for The Abyss, Cameron wades in a little deeper to create the liquid metal incarnations of T-1000, as well as the transitions from one impersonation to the next. While still primitive compared to what we saw two years later in Jurassic Park, T2 represents a necessary evolutionary step between water tentacles and cloned dinosaurs.

High-tech gizmos aside, Terminator 2 works as a human story, showing how an alienated youth can find the strength to be a leader from the most unlikely parents: a soulless machine and a well-armed and unhinged mother, who also rediscovers her ability to trust from that same bucket of circuitry. This may be the strongest story in Cameron’s filmography. He certainly hasn’t topped it with the films he’s made since then.

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