Movies & TV / Columns

Dissecting the Classics – Terminator 2: Judgment Day

April 9, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator 2

For anyone who looks forward to this column every Thursday, I apologize for the lateness. During the time I would usually be writing, I was visiting my grandmother, which is the first time I’ve ever seen her and not seen by grandfather. He passed away a few weeks ago while they were taking a trip, at the age of 83. So it wasn’t an unexpected loss, but the emotion has a way of draining my creativity at times. Knowing the kind of person that he was, he’d be proud of me for always making my deadlines and putting my best foot forward. So I’ll be adding that to my list of reasons for doing this column to the best of my ability.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Produced and Directed By: James Cameron
Written By: James Cameron and William Wisher
Cinematography By: Adam Greenberg
Edited By: Conrad Buff IV, Mark Goldblatt and Richard A. Harris
Music By: Bill Fiedel
Production Company: CarolCo Pictures, Pacific Western Productions, Lightstorm Entertainment and Le Studio Canal+ S.A.
Distributed By: TriStar Pictures
Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator
Edward Furlong as John Connor
Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor
Robert Patrick as The T-1000
Joe Morton as Miles Bennett Dyson

What Do We All Know?

After the success of The Terminator and Aliens, James Cameron had skyrocketed to the top of Hollywood’s hot director list. As the 1980’s closed, Cameron decided to revisit the movie that pushed him to megastar status with a sequel that would define the 1990s. The Terminator had been a low budget action movie that achieved greatness through its memorable cast, urgent and screenplay and excellent directing. T2 would be all that, but this time with the benefit of an enormous budget and cutting edge visual effects that could bring Cameron’s “liquid metal” idea to life.

The result was the biggest box office smash of 1991 and a critical success. Judgment Day was the rare sequel that lived up to and in many ways surpassed the original. It elevated the already popular first movie to being truly ubiquitous in pop culture and is the reason studios keep making more Terminator movies. I mentioned last week that I think the original is the superior film, but what do I think of T2? Well, sequels don’t end up on this column by obligation. They earn it.

What Went Right?

The Terminator did not need a sequel. I feel it’s important to emphasize that fact, because the success of T2 is kind of astonishing when one thinks about it. In some ways, it’s a truly perfect sequel, building upon what worked in the original and doing it on a bigger scale. T2 is once again a movie about an unstoppable robot killer, its target and the target’s bodyguard. Yet those pieces are changed so drastically that it feels fresh and new. More importantly, the story finds new and logical places to go based on the mythology, resolves all of its important plot points, and delivers a very different but equally satisfying emotional payoff.

The ingenious creative decision to repurpose Arnold’s iconic role as the new bodyguard is basically a perfect idea. This film took one of the coolest and most terrifying villains of all time and somehow made him even more iconic as a hero. While I have some issues with how this is executed, I cannot deny the power of the final scene of this movie and how it proves the experiment was a success. Something that’s remarkable is that if you somehow managed to avoid trailers, the first thirty minutes of the film are very vague on the T-800’s true intentions. It makes for a very effective plot turn when he warns John to get out of the way of his gun. This is also the best performance of Arnold’s career, as it accentuates his warm charisma without requiring any complex acting.

Arnold may be the big star, but he’s far from the only hero in this film. Linda Hamilton returns from The Terminator as a very different character, having spent several years in an asylum for her “delusions” and building herself into a survival machine. It feels like a very natural extension of the film’s last scene, and Linda probably gives a better performance here. The young John Connor is a bit of a mixed bag for me, but I think Edward Furlong is perfectly fine in the role. Having a kid in the mix is probably one of the reasons this movie attracted young viewers than a typical R-Rated action movie; if the first movie is part horror, than this movie is part “a boy and his dog” story, but the dog is an robot bodyguard.

But good heroes need an equally great villain, and thankfully we have the T-1000, as played by Robert Patrick and a host of twins as the situation requires. Patrick gets across the danger of the robot but is a very different beast than Arnold’s terminator. I don’t know if he’s necessarily better, but he’s just as cool. Cameron had thought of the liquid metal gimmick for the first movie, but neither the budget or the technology would have allowed for it to be realized in any meaningful way. This time around, he had the resources necessary to facilitate his creativity. This movie featured groundbreaking special effects, most of them revolving around the T-1000. What’s nice is that CGI was still expensive enough that its use had to be justified with truly memorable scenes, and all of the ideas behind the special effects are insanely cool and hold up even though the effects themselves no longer do.

Fortunately, the vast majority of this film is not dated CGI. That was icing on the cake, and most of the cool stuff in this movie is made up of impressive practical effects. The Terminator had some very cool shots of Arnold in robot makeup, but they are infinitely more convincing here. The shot where he cuts his own arm and reveals the metal underneath is basically perfect, and there are a ton of great makeup effects in the film’s finale. Oh, did I mention the action scenes yet? Because this movie kicks a ton of ass. The T-800’s scene in the bar is perfect. The first car chase where both terminators are trying to get to John Connor first is one of the best action scenes ever filmed. The T-1000 trying to get our heroes in the elevator is brilliant, the Skynet sabotage heist is a lot of fun, and the Terminator’s zero-kill attack on the police force is the kind of well-directed explosion-fest that Michael Bay wishes he could do.

Speaking of that Skynet sabotage heist, it’s one of the things that differentiates this movie the most on a narrative level. I described The Terminator as being barebones, and what I mean by that is that it is essentially a 100-minute chase scene with occasional exposition in the margins. Judgment Day is a full half hour longer and it has time to throw in wrinkles in the plot. John and the T-800 stop running in order to carry out a rescue mission, and they all become proactive in trying to stop Judgment Day all together. Sarah’s attempted murder of Miles Dyson and the break-in to Skynet is something very different from the original movie, and it works. Mostly because it is narratively justified and when it’s over, it removes any narrative need for further sequels. James Cameron made sure that this series had a definitive end with this movie. It’s a shame nobody else will allow it to die.

What Went Wrong?

As spectacularly awesome as Terminator 2 is, I don’t consider it as perfect a movie as its immediate predecessor. I alluded earlier to the liquid metal effects not quite holding up, and while I am not one to knock groundbreaking effects that don’t stand up over time, I do think it deserves some mention when the practical effects in the first movie hold up a little better. Not much, mind you, but enough. I also think that the movie lacks the visceral tension of the first movie, and while that’s not a flaw per se and it more than makes up for it by being a whole lot more fun, I do know it’s a contributing factor to me preferring the original. White-knuckle anxiety is just a more emotionally arresting feeling for me.

But if I had to pinpoint the one thing that seals the deal, it’s John Connor. Now, I said earlier that Ed Furlong does a nice job with what he’s given and he’s a big part of why the movie works. But he’s also the part I enjoy least. My least favorite scene in this movie is when John Connor realizes that he can control the T-800. While it’s easy to rationalize his initial reaction to the Terminator not wanting to rescue his mom, the rest of the scene is just annoying. I hate the way he treats the guys who were just trying to help him out, I hate the “stand on one foot” thing, and I really hate how smug and obnoxious he is with “Did you call moi a dipshit?” Considering the whole movie is based on protecting this kid, I shouldn’t want him to get punched in the face.

And In Summary…

The Terminator may be more consistent, but T2 has highs that are hard to match. While every other movie in the franchise has fallen flat, it cannot be overstated just how much fun these two movies are. They are top tier action sci-fi movies, and one of the best one-two punches in cinema. I love Terminator 2: Judgment Day as much as I love the original and I enthusiastically recommend them to anyone who grew up with them or never got the chance. You cannot go wrong with these movies.

Next week? Something different.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator

Follow Me On Letterboxd!
I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include Ready Player One, The Birds and Captain America: Civil War.