Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) / Action-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, gore and language
Running Time: 137 min.
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick, Joe Morton, Earl Boen, S. Epatha Merkerson, Danny Cooksey, Castulo Guerra, Jeanette Goldstein, Xander Berkeley
Director: James Cameron
Screenplay: James Cameron, William Wisher Jr.
Review published March 4, 2008
Arnold famously said, in one of his few bits of dialogue from 1984's The Terminator, "I'll be back". Seven years later, his words would prove true, as the sequel to the hit low-budget flick, which gained enormous popularity in the home video and cable market, returned, and this time, with over 15 times the budget (becoming the most expensive film made up to that point). Though superseded by many of today's big budget studio releases in special effects, for its day, these were the most stunning visuals around, with revolutionary techniques that blended with the live action in a near flawless fashion.
Hamilton (Batman Beyond, Dante's Peak) returns as buffed out Sarah Connor, the mother of humanity's future savior, now holed up in a mental institution for her claims that the world is going to end in an apocalyptic nuclear war instigated by a sentient advanced computer system. That savior, John (Furlong, Pecker), is a rebellious teen living in foster care who soon learns his mother isn't a crackpot after all after being chased by a cop who is actually a shape shifting, liquid metallic artificial entity (Patrick, Cop Land) sent from the future to kill him. John's own savior is a T-800 cybernetic organism (Schwarzenegger, Kindergarten Cop) identical to the one sent to kill Sarah years before, only this time, his future self reprogrammed one of them to send back and protect the boy and mother. However, the older model is barely a match for the nearly indestructible, futuristic killing machine, and a chase ensues that sees Sarah and company trying to stay alive while destroying the path to humanity's downfall, the advancements learned through the finding of the chip and hand remnant from the previous T-800 machine.
There are many that consider T2 the superior of the Terminator flicks, and while I can understand why from an eye-candy standpoint, and perhaps a depth of characterization standpoint, I'm not quite willing to concede the point. I think my preference partially stems from the fact that I was a kid who watched the first film endlessly for the seven years prior to T2's theatrical release, and it became one of my all-time favorite films (still is), so expectations were high enough for me to naturally scrutinize. Perhaps a more important reason is that, with the exception of the budgetary restrictions on special effects, there is nothing I would change about the first film, whereas there are several things I wish could be better, or at least different, in the mega-budget sequel. Some are lesser preferences, such as Edward Furlong's casting (in addition to his seeming to labor to act on occasion, only seven years have passed, but John on the verge of teen-hood? Not to mention, at one point it is revealed that Sarah is 29, which means, assuming John's age is 12, she was 17 in the first film -- ridiculous), the far too human nature of the "good" Terminator, and some moments played for humor that feel a bit forced (the early mental institution scenes are particularly overdone). For the largest drawback, I'm thinking more along the lines of contrivances in the story that, while making for some cool moments, seem too convenient to swallow, such as the appearance of a liquid nitrogen truck (how common are these?) that just so happens to appear when needed, immediately followed by a scene at a metal foundry. How convenient that the only two plausible ways to stop the T-1000 would present themselves right at the climax of the film?
Regardless of whatever weaknesses one can ascribe to the film, this is, nevertheless, once of the best sci-fi/action flicks ever made, with some truly breathtaking scenes of action that should leave any who watch it with mouths agape. James Cameron (Aliens, True Lies) may not be the best screenwriter when it comes to dialogue, but he's a phenomenal craftsman when it comes to mounting big-time, big budget action set pieces, especially in keeping momentum up through shrewd editing and tight pacing. He also knows his characters well enough to give them room to breathe within the construct of his thrill ride, filling in the in-between moments with actual character development, philosophical explorations, and bits of drama that have emotional resonance. Although his premise is similar to the first film, he pulls off the feat without copycatting much else, actually delivering moments that mirror its predecessor by building on the themes without ripping them off. A Terminator vs. Terminator battle gives us a fantastic showcase for special effects-driven action, but also with a surprising amount of pathos. He also works well with his group of actors, drawing out Hamilton's best performance in any film, and working well through some difficult moments with first-time actor Furlong.
The symbolic touches are well developed, and they stay true to form without taking us out of the moment. John Connor wears a "Public Enemy" t-shirt, wholly appropriate for a young teen to wear in the early 1990s, while being chased by the representation of a policeman in the T-1000, which is equally appropriate in giving the machine a power to walk in and out of situations, gaining access and right of way, without being called into question. Playground motifs abound, a place where life is just beginning for many people, but as shown in a horrific dream sequence, where life ends, with all humanity eradicated in a fiery display where all that's left is the metal constructs we've built, paralleling the future where humans are also on the brink of extinction to agents of metal.
Above and beyond the action and special effects, the film is also quite humorous at times, especially during such scenes as the young John Connor teaching the T-800 to start using slang to fit in better ("Affirmative" should change to "No problemo"). Schwarzenegger's penchant for one-liners is second to none for his era, which gives him the ammunition he needs to deliver more funny moments later. It's also surprisingly affecting; the ending in particularly provides a tearjerker moment that will leave a few eyes misty. For such a robust film that strives for hearty machismo, it's surprisingly adept with showing a kinder, softer side. Cameron and co-screenwriter William Wisher (Judge Dredd, The 13th Warrior) have made sure that what could have been just a film that delivers on technical brilliance is also a humane and emotional experience, not dissimilar to the way that the T-800 is defined -- an unrelenting, artificial construct with an unexpected core of human emotion.
T2 is a spectacular motion picture experience that will probably knock the socks off anyone who doesn't eschew anything with violence. It's one of the best sequels ever made, building upon the first film without complete recreation, giving us more of what we want, a great deal we don't expect, and building up to a powerhouse ending that actually delivers.
-- Followed by Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Also followed by a television series, "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles".
©2008 Vince Leo