Cameron #2 – Terminator 2: Judgment Day

(Continuing The James Cameron Project with #2….)

Intro: Wes Craven’s Scream 2 has a self-aware scene in which film students debate the merits of various sequels, struggling to locate one that actually improves on its predecessor. The students dismiss sequels one after another until they reach two films they have no quick answer for. One is The Godfather: Part II, possibly the best sequel ever made. The other is Terminator 2.

Now, I might pick a few nits about Godfather II being better than the original, but I don’t see how anyone can argue against T2. The sequel is a step up in every department, from the miracle screenplay, to the performances, the action, and the pioneering special effects. It’s a near perfect adventure film, has barely aged a day since 1991, and is one of the biggest hits in Cameron’s career.

It’s Judgment Day!

The Movie: (Note: this synopsis is of the extended director’s cut.) It’s been ten years since Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) survived Skynet’s attempt on her life. John Connor (Edward Furlong), alleged future savior of the human race, is a ten-year old delinquent swiping cash from hacked ATMs. To be fair, he’s just acting out because Mom is locked in a looney bin for ranting about killer cyborgs and trying to blow up a computer factory. Sarah, meanwhile, makes the most of her time in the slam. She attends craft time, works on her memoirs, and gets totally stinking ripped.

Well, no, this is Arnold.  But close.

Once we’re past the exposition, two Terminators arrive — one sent to kill John, the other to protect him. This time, the cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the good guy, programmed to battle an even more dangerous machine, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). This new model is constructed from liquid metal, able to shape shift at will and re-form when damaged. The Arnie-bot is clearly outclassed.

Back at the institution, Sarah dreams of John’s father, Reese (Michael Biehn), who warns her that their son is in danger. How he knows is a damned mystery, since he’s equally dead, yet to be born, and a figment of Sarah’s subconscious.

“My brain hurts just being here.”

Still, he’s right, and the two Terminators clash over John at a local mall. After a massive chase down a Los Angeles drainage ditch, John discovers he’s the proud owner of a Terminator, programmed to obey his every command. Command #1: No killing. Command #2: Spring mom from the nuthouse.

“Command #3:  Ignore Command #1 if we can find this guy.”

What follows is an extended chase sequence, as John, Sarah, and Arnold flee the T-1000 at the institution and out of the city, eventually hiding with an old revolutionary acquaintance of Sarah’s. There, John and the Terminator bond, while Sarah dreams of nuclear war and the hell of Judgment Day. Shaken by her dreams, Sarah decides to take action, leaves her son with the robot, and tracks down a scientist named Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), who is on the very edge of launching the Skynet computer that will one day destroy mankind. She plans to terminate him before he does.

John and the Terminator follow, arriving just in time to stop Sarah from murdering Dyson. As a Plan B, Arnie reveals his true nature and recites the tale of Skynet’s war, converting a stunned Dyson to the good guys.

Dyson smuggles the team into his company’s office building, where they destroy any and all material on the Skynet program. The resulting fracas and shenanigans attracts a hundred human cops… and one made of liquid metal. Dyson is killed in all the chaos, but the mission is a success. Skynet is on the ropes.

“Nuh-uh, son.”

The T-1000 still has his sights on John, and the ensuing freeway chase eventually crashes into a steel mill. The two Terminators fight amongst the machinery, with the T-1000 briefly taking the advantage before the Arnie-bot blows it up with a grenade launcher. Grenades aren’t fatal to the T-1000, but it stumbles and falls into a vat of molten steel, which for damn sure is. It melts away to nothing, followed by the last of the bits from the Skynet project… and the remaining Terminator, who has decided he must be destroyed for the threat of Skynet to truly end. John cries, Arnie gives the thumbs up, and Sarah lowers the bot into the steel. In the last shot, as a car drives down an open highway to an unknown future, Sarah wonders that if a Terminator can learn the value of human life, can we?

Nope.

The Scene: Against my better judgment, I’m going with a crowd pleaser. As the freeway chase crashes into the mill, a liquid nitrogen truck explodes, drenching the T-1000. He freezes solid, cracking and breaking all the way.

With a deadpan “Hasta la vista, baby,” Arnie-bot aims, fires a round, and shatters the T-1000 into a million little pieces. Amazingly, the scene gets better. The heat from the molten steel thaws the frozen pieces into little puddles, which then lump back together, allowing the robot to reform completely.

Pictured:  a bad-ass waste of time.

This scene is really cool. It’s also beyond stupid. Why do the good-guys wait until the damn thing has gotten up to start running from it? They just stare, no doubt transfixed by the special effects. In the extended edition, the T-1000 struggles with shape shifting after reforming, but this was cut from the theatrical version. So, literally, there is no reason for the scene except that it looks cool. I usually pick a scene here that really impacts the film, but I have to confess that this piece of eye candy is my first thought when I hear the title Terminator 2.

The Line: Arnie’s Spanish lesson results in the film’s most famous line, but I think the best is the sneaky message of the entire film – “There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” It resonates with us, not just as Reese’s words from the first film, but as the one shining bit of hope in a grimly pessimistic series.

The Production: A sequel to The Terminator was an easy sell to the studio, but it took considerable time to pull together. Schwarzenegger was now a bankable star, and the notoriously career-minded Austrian had vowed to play no more villains (not named Mr. Freeze), while Cameron focused his energies into his ambitious epic, The Abyss. Ironically, although The Abyss severely delayed production, its innovations in computer technology helped bring T2 to life.

“You look like Destro.”

Cameron first envisioned a shape shifting, liquid enemy while writing the first film, but the budget and technological limits ruled it out. Then along came the water tentacle from The Abyss, proving that a digitally animated creature can stand up in a live-action film. Suddenly, the T-1000 looked possible.

The triumph of T2 is how high Cameron set the bar, while still sailing over it. If the water tentacle didn’t work, the scene was expendable. If the T-1000 didn’t work, that’s what we call a “$100 million dollar oops”. T2 was the most expensive movie ever filmed at its time, and the entire production hung on whether or not that effect worked. That, and a 10-year old with no acting experience holding his own against Arnold. And the script – written in only six weeks – not totally sucking. And an audience accepting Arnold as another Terminator when he was so clearly destroyed in the first film (that was an actual concern at the time.)

Little wonder, then, that Cameron allowed his stress level spill to over on the set. By this point, there’s no use in listing his crew’s complaints; we’ve heard them all. Instead, I’ll just publish this amusing quote from Bill Wyman at Salon.com: “…a sound man says Cameron, dissatisfied with a strangled scream on the soundtrack, ended up personally providing a presumably more suitable one. It’s all told with a sort of forced joviality; but you don’t have to listen too closely to get the sense the guy wouldn’t have minded inducing the scream from Cameron himself.”

A James Cameron Film: Just as in the first Terminator, the heroes are saved by machinery in a working factory, using tools we control to destroy tools we’ve lost control of. As usual, this seems to suggest that the answer to humanity’s problem isn’t “no technology”, but “technology in balance.” Of course, the theme of nuclear holocaust carries over from the first Terminator. Also, Sarah Connor has now evolved into a more typical Cameron heroine, tough, no-nonsense, driven. A super-mom. Plus, Arnold Schwarzenegger and (in the extended cut) Michael Biehn.

Lasting Impact: The impact of Terminator 2 is still now being felt. Digital characters have advanced far enough to merit Oscar discussion (Andy Serkis as both Gollum and King Kong), but my impression is that most of the digital critters out there are still trying to replicate the success of the T-1000. The total digital effects in T2 add up to only about 3 ½ minutes worth of the 2+ hour film, yet very few digital villains have approached the same level of awe. A lot of that is Robert Patrick’s note-perfect performance, but credit also belongs to Industrial Light and Magic and the mind of James Cameron. The film is simply a landmark of spectacle cinema, as much a high-water mark as The Matrix would be nearly a decade later.

Reason for Ranking: While critics and fans alike praise the movie for being a near-perfect action film, it’s still only James Cameron’s second best sequel. The top film on this list so clearly earned its place that, for all its merits, T2 could only ever be #2. See you at the finish line, in the future, where no one can hear you scream.

The James Cameron Project:

1. ???

2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

3. Avatar

4. Titanic

5. True Lies

6. The Terminator

7. The Abyss

8. Ghosts of the Abyss

9. Piranha II: The Spawning

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