1990s, 3.5/4, Action, James Cameron, Review, Science Fiction, Uncategorized

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

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#3 in my ranking of the Terminator franchise.

If I were to judge this film purely on its action spectacle merits, I’d probably love it at the same fulsome level that most of the filmgoing world does. However, there is story to be had, and some of the inelegance holds me back to merely loving it as a very good film overall rather than one of the greatest ever made.

It’s an interesting contrast where the first Terminator film didn’t have a line of expository dialogue for its first forty minutes, but the second Terminator film is almost nothing but expository dialogue for the first forty minutes. The first film was a small film with a very modest budget that easily made back its money and then some. Cameron went off to make the very successful Aliens and the less than financially spectacular The Abyss when a handful of production companies banded together to hand him about $100 million to make this. That’s a long way of saying that the audience who knew The Terminator all that well who were going to go to the theaters to see this new big-budget spectacular was probably pretty small which was probably why Cameron felt like he needed to spend so much time having characters rehash the events of the first film and the future that Reese escaped by going back in time to meet Sarah Conner. Some exposition was always going to be necessary, but here’s the thing about exposition: it doesn’t make for terribly compelling drama.

There’s more to the first forty-five minutes than exposition, like the first big actions scene of the two Terminators fighting each other for the young John Connor from the mall to the explosion that gives them enough time to get apart (a great action scene, by the way), but there’s a lot of explanation of, not only the first film, but of the actions that occurred between the first film and the start of the second. Most of that happens around Sarah Conner’s life in a mental hospital where Dr. Silberman speaks to her, reviews videotape of her, and decides to leave her in the maximum security wing. Another problem I have with the beginning of this film is how the three major sequences with Sarah and Dr. Silberman don’t really cut together very well. Her first view shows her having moved everything around in her cell so she can do pullups with Dr. Silberman explaining things to some students with Sarah looking almost threatening at him and taunting him about the knee injury she caused him recently. The next shows her placid and calm as she explains and lies about how she doesn’t believe in Terminators anymore, hoping that with six months of demonstrated improvement, she’ll be able to see John. Dr. Silberman never brings up the knee injury she caused him, instead explaining that she’s too smart and that he knows she’s faking. She ends by attacking him. The next scene shows her completely docile and unresponsive as police tell her about the kidnapping of her son. I suppose this is supposed to be in response to medication, but we never see that administered and she snaps out of it the second she’s alone. It feels like these three events are supposed to be separated by weeks, maybe even months, but intercut with other footage makes it seem like they’re happening over the course of a few hours. It’s weird.

That’s the bulk of my complaint about the film. In the first act, there’s a lot of exposition (much of which I ultimately find unnecessary) and Sarah’s scenes don’t seem to make much sense when placed next to each other.

After that, though, the movie wholly becomes the action spectacular that it’s known to be. Sarah’s escape from the mental hospital is tight and taut. She uses her gained skills to break out of her room, break the face of the guard (made creepy by having him lick her face in an attempt to make the violence she was inevitably going to visit upon him more palatable to the audience), kidnap Dr. Silberman, and get past the internal security within sight of the exit. Along the way is the T-1000, the liquid metal Terminator, just behind while John and the T-800 coming at her from the other direction to save her. Her sudden breakdown at seeing the T-800 for the first time in about 13 years, filmed mostly in slow motion, is perfect, with her ending up caught between the two Terminators and John guiding her safely away from the threat.

When the trio go south towards Mexico, it provides a similar break in the action as Sarah and Reese going to the hotel in the first film. This is better, though not perfect. My other real problem rests here. Sarah has some voiceover in the film, and all of it feels like a last second addition. Linda Hamilton delivers every line flatly like Harrison Ford’s voiceover in Blade Runner, and it’s all very obvious stuff, reflections of ironies that Cameron should have trusted the audience to figure out on their own, like the Terminator turning into a father figure for John. It is here, though, where Sarah gains a new purpose, taking the “no fate” message Reese had given her from the future John and taking it to a natural conclusion, that she can change the future. With a resource like the Terminator, who has detailed files on what was to come, Sarah can finally firmly strike out against the future to come, so she chooses the lead scientist at Cyberdine Systems, Miles Dyson.

Unable to bring herself to actually pull the trigger on the man, she uses him and the Terminator’s existence to attack Cyberdine itself, bringing in explosives to destroy the office and the broken chip that took them in a new direction in cybernetics that would lead to Skynet. For all the talk of changing fate, there does seem to be a lot of indications that Judgment Day is going to happen no matter what. It seems like Reese going back in time might have been what started the whole thing in the first place.

The fight to beat back the police, the incoming T-1000 threat that evolves into a chase using a helicopter and a police van, and the final showdown at the steel mill are great. The helicopter stunts, flying mere feet off the ground and clearing bridges, are some of the most exciting stuntwork I’ve seen. The use of doubles, the indestructible nature of the T-1000, and the menacing environment help create an incredible action climax.

The movie looks great, evident from the very beginning prologue set in the dystopian future. Cameron creates a frame with an eye towards depth of field that presages his jump into 3D, making it an obvious candidate for a 3D upgrade, which Cameron oversaw a few years ago. The framing of objects in the background with the endoskeleton of the Terminator walking into frame is simply great to look at. There’s a cool, machine like feel to most of the colors that blends well with the futuristic characters.

The movie really is an action spectacular when it finally gets around to it. The first act isn’t really bad, but it’s kind of plodding and jagged in design. I think it’s enough to keep the film from actual greatness, but the rest of it really is great.

Rating: 3.5/4

7 thoughts on “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”

  1. I think I hate this movie, actually.
    I saw it in theaters, back in the day, and loved it. I went back the very next day to watch it again…and it started to sour.

    What the movie does very well is spectacle. The chase scene in the Los Angeles River, the fight with the massed police, the T-1000 effects/concept, the final fight…these are all incredible set pieces and filmic quality.

    I even like the performances of Patrick and Hamilton quite a bit. I have a real thing for fit, sexy, dangerous women and Linda Hamilton is almost a Platonic ideal of that bundle.

    However the movie fails for me in the writing and the conceptual levels, so much so that…again, I sorta hate it.

    First of all, I hate what they made John Connor into. A punk ass kid, not a figure of admiration. Hell there are more admirable kids in The Fantastic Mister Fox. Part of this for me has to be the performance by Edward Furlong. Yeah, I know he had a rough set of cards to play, drugs booze and getting passed around like a fleshlight at a gay orgy, but I’ve never enjoyed him in a movie. Not once.

    Second, this movies begins the process of turning Swartzenegger into a joke. You can’t feel intimidation or admiration towards someone you laugh at. This movie begins the deconstruction of the ‘Terminator’ as a character. And a Terminator that doesn’t kill anyone? Fuck that. That’s weaksauce. That scene with the police, where he has a minigun and a grenade launcher and NO ONE gets killed? Rage.

    Third, they rob Sarah Connor of the courage of her convictions, by setting up the assassination of Miles and having her fail. This undercuts Sarah, it’s not like she had doubts about her reasons, like maybe worrying that she might indeed be crazy. The stakes are the fate of billions and the movie yanks her decision out of her hands, in effect.

    Fourth, the T-1000 is ‘too good’. It peaks too early in the franchise. You give us a blob of sentient steel that can shapeshift, absorb damage and IS a literal living weapon…and there’s nowhere to go from there. The T-1000 needed a design flaw and one that doesn’t involve a blast furnace.

    I could probably find more nits to pick, as is often the case when a movie rubs me the wrong way. Any one of the big four above would cause me problems, but the mass of them undercuts the technical accomplishments. See also, the Star Wars prequels.

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    1. Cameron obviously embraced irony in his approach to his sequel. You expect the bad guy from the first movie to be the bad guy in the second, so he switches it up (that Arnold has never gone back to being the bad guy at any point in the franchise since save for a brief moment in Dark Fate, is kind of ridiculous). John was made up to be this great leader, but he’s a little punk as a kid. It’s a cute idea, but depends on the execution.

      The Terminator turning good doesn’t really bother me because he turns good at John’s insistence. John may be a punk, but his punkishness ends up being a facade to a certain extent. He acts nihilistic, but he doesn’t actually want to hurt anybody. I think I would have more problems with him if Cameron had written John to be a proto-leader at age 12. He’s a messed up kid, but he’s still got the moral base.

      Regarding Sarah pulling back when trying to assassinate Dyson, I saw it less as her not having the courage of her convictions, but that for all her training and preparation, she’s still not a killer of people. She hates the machines and the people who made it possible, but not in any sort of tangible form. Suddenly faced with actually pulling the trigger on a man on his living room floor, she realizes that she can’t do it. This is the dramatization of the “we can’t become them” speech that gets thrown around a lot in movies (and actually does end up being said explicitly in Salvation). Maybe it was to help prevent her from becoming a full-on monster, but that could have also been done by making Dyson a monster himself.

      And the T-1000 really is the perfect design. Watching it this last time, I imagined Robert Patrick playing him twitchy. If the T-800 was the top of the line, and the T-1000 was experimental, then he shouldn’t work perfectly. I wanted him having, bare minimum, little facial tics that, despite Robert Patrick’s rather generic looking face, made him stand out more from a crowd.

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  2. The biggest logical flaw of the Terminator films is that Skynet thinks like a human. “All humanity needs to be destroyed? Fine, I’ll send out an army of robots to shoot them one by one.”

    More likely a machine intelligence would do something similar to the world of the animated “9” movie–just release a toxic gas that kills everything. Unless Skynet is thinking “We need to kill all the humans, but not the bunnies and the flowers.”

    Which I guess begs the obvious question: what is Skynet’s ultimate aim? Ending all wars? Well, it did that.

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    1. I think one of the appeals of the first movie is how Reese sells the idea that the machines were so completely desperate that the Terminator back in time gambit was the only thing they had the resources to do in the final moments of the future war. It implies a very quick change in the war that turned everything upside down, led by myth of a man John Conner. The sequel robs the original of that urgency, saying that they were able to send multiple through.

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