Film Review: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)


The most important films in history of cinema usually aren’t those that are considered the best. This could apply even to the films that were extraordinarily successful and have a special place in hearts of hundreds of millions of fans. Of course, not being the best doesn’t mean that the film can’t be very good, just like in the case of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991 science fiction spectacle directed by James Cameron, a sequel to classic The Terminator, which ultimately became one of the most commercially successful films of all time.

The film begins with a prologue set in 2029 Los Angeles, city ruined in nuclear war called Judgment Day which had been initiated by Skynet, artificial intelligence in charge of US nuclear defence, on August 29th 1997. It is a battlefield between Skynet and his robots on one and remnants of humanity led by John Connor (played by Michael Edwards) on other side. Humans are winning and Skynet in desperation uses time travel machine to send human-like killer robots or “terminators” to kill John Connor before he can become a leader. In 1984 one such Terminator nearly killed Connor’s mother Sarah (played by Linda Hamilton) before she conceived John. In 1995, when plot begins, she is deeply traumatised by experience and haunted by upcoming nuclear apocalypse and, since nobody heeds her warnings, ends in psychiatric hospital. Her young son John (played by Edward Furlong) considers her mother crazy, lives with foster parents and spends much of time hanging out at malls and committing petty crimes. Soon he realises that her mother’s stories about Terminator were true when two Terminators start to look for him. One is T-1000 (played by Robert Patrick), advanced prototype made out special liquid metal alloys which make it almost indestructible and able to take shape and look of various individuals. The other is older model T-800 (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger), which had been actually reprogrammed by John Connor and sent to protect John. Young John and T-800 come to rescue Sarah from hospital and later plan a raid on Cyberdine, company which developed advanced chip that would be used to build Skynet.

Many people argue that Terminator 2 is better than the original. In any case, James Cameron couldn’t have complained about lack of financial resources to reach that aim. Terminator 2 with nearly 100 million US$ of budget was the most expensive film by its time. This budget is quite evident in the film and Cameron used it to make spectacular action scenes that feature superb stunt work and combination of awe-inspiring special effects. But the most impressive of Cameron’s achievements is use of CGI graphics to depict T-1000 and its shapeshifting ability. Although such effects, based on the pioneering work in Cameron’s earlier film The Abyss, are used only in small segment in the film, they are so good that they look great even now, It could be only imagined how they looked to the audience three decades ago and it could be argued that Terminator 2 represented another major milestone in history of special effects, rivaling only the new standards established by Star Wars decade and half earlier. Cameron enhanced this impression with his perfectionist and meticulous methods of direction, aided by excellent cinematography by Adam Greenberg which employs sharp contrast between blue and orange tones to create both melancholic and heart-warming atmosphere. Composer Brad Fiedel also enhances film by building on the theme made for previous film. With such talents behind it, popular star like Schwarzenegger in main role and with relentless advertising campaign, Terminator 2 was bound to become great hit. It actually exceeded most expectations and became third most commercially successful film in the history of Hollywood by that time. This achievement was supplemented by rave reviews and four Oscars in technical categories (including, of course, special effects).

This technical triumph was, however, achieved due to the large budget that also became a double-edged sword for Cameron, especially from the perspective of creative freedom. The Terminator was low budget film which created technical problems, but allowed Cameron more freedom in terms of content, making the plot more compact and consistent in its seemingly complicated, but effective time travel premise. With Terminator 2 Cameron had to aim for much broader audience which, despite adult “R”-rating, was supposed to include teenagers and children. As a result, Terminator 2 became much lighter film, far from the bleakness of the original that dealt with issues of predestination and nuclear apocalypse. The apocalypse is depicted in this film with some disturbing images, but only as a vision of deeply disturbed Sarah. Protagonists, instead of being faced with unstoppable killing machine, have one such machine on their side. Arnold Schwarzenegger, at the very zenith of his popularity, has the same look as in one of his most iconic roles but plays completely different character. Not only does he protect instead of trying to kill John Connor, but he actually refrains from killing any other human. The violence is significantly toned down and body count is much lower. Furthermore, the script tries to focus on the relationship between young John and his robot protector who ultimately serves the role of boy’s father (which is even explicitly said by character of Sarah in her narration). Cameron and his co-writer William Wisher try very hard to show that their heart is in the right place, arguing against violence and instead preaching diplomacy, common sense and powers of persuasion. An example can be found with the character of Miles Bennet Dyson, a man responsible for future development of Skynet. Instead of being portrayed as mad power hungry scientist, Dyson, brilliantly played by Joe Morton in relatively small role, is depicted as dedicated family man who reacts with remorse and disgust after learning what his actions might lead to in the future.

The cast in the film is superb. Schwarzenegger might have limited acting skills, but here they are put to excellent use. Character of T-800 is very cleverly given ability to learn and adapt to human behaviour, which allows Schwarzenegger to subtly but effectively display gradual changes from cold mission-oriented robot to someone who can smile and be a true friend. Linda Hamilton plays arguably the best role of her career, playing same but completely transformed character. While she was mostly helpless damsel in distress in the first film, here she is tough feminist action heroine in the same league as Ellen Ripley in *Aliens, while at the same time driven to near madness by traumatic experiences and knowledge about certainty of apocalyptic future. Robert Patrick delivers another iconic performance in the role of relentless and cold assassin who is made even more dangerous by looking more ordinary and human than Schwarzenegger’s Terminator; even more effective is his disguise as policeman. Patrick excelled in this tough and physically demanding role, but it later led him to being typecast as villain. Edward Furlong in his film debut is also very good; he portrays young John first as a spoiled child, but later very convincingly transforms into something of a film’s moral anchor.

In the end of the day Terminator 2 is inferior to the original. The reason is again in commercial considerations that led to the ending being not only happy but significantly happier than in The Terminator. And the only way to do this was to disregard Grandfather Paradox and abandon fatalistic notions of past and future being set. Sarah tries and ultimately succeeds to change the timeline and prevents Skynet and nuclear apocalypse. Yet, despite all the plot holes and head scratching this might cause, Terminator 2 still works as stylish piece of science fiction cinema and example of Hollywood at the height of its creative power. Sadly, many films tried to repeat its formula without Cameron’s talents and vision, resulting and endless stream of bloated overproduced and over-advertised blockbusters which included number of completely unnecessary sequels to Terminator 2.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)

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