#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.