Retro Review: Terminator 2 (1991)

Terminator 2 is a rare sequel that lives up to and in some ways even exceeds the original. Whereas THE TERMINATOR was basically a neat, efficient little sleeper, TERMINATOR 2 is a full-scale blockbuster. At the time of its initial release, the film garnered much press attention because its budget surpassed $100-million -- a first in Hollywood history. Yet rather than a bloated behemoth, T-2 is almost as neat and compact as its predecessor: the movie never stops dead to showcase its massive budget, yet you really feel you are seeing $100-million worth of action. In a sense, it plays out like the most expensive Roger Corman movie ever made: director James Cameron (who early in his career worked for low-budget producer Corman) never falls prey to excess; he efficiently uses the resources at his command and keeps the film zipping from one exciting thrill scene to the next, without allowing the explosions, gunfights and chase scenes to bog down the narrative.

The story cleverly plays with and overturns audience expectations, reprogramming Schwarzenegger's cyborg assassin as an ally of the heroes, while John Connor (Edward Furlong), supposedly the future savior of mankind, is seen as nothing but a troubled teen, who thinks the stories his mother (Linda Hamilton) has told him about a future machine-made apocalypse are nothing but delusional ravings. Into this mix comes a new Terminator, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), which has a chameleon-like ability to change its appearance.

The screenplay by Cameron and William Wisher, Jr., does a good job of creating a dramatic, involving story, with strong characters that appeal to a wide selection of the audience. (Thanks in large part to the mother-son relationship, this is not an action movie made just for teenage boys.) And there are numerous clever touches: for example, Hamilton's Sarah Connor realizes the Terminator is the perfect surrogate father, because it will always be there for him, under any circumstances.

Visually, the film is an awesome experience, filled with extensive chase scenes, explosions, motorcycles jumping into helicopters, helicopters smashing into trucks, and of course the eye-popping computer-generated effects that morph the T-1000 into a variety of shapes. Cameron may not be the most stylish action director; in fact, his camera coverage is pretty straightforward. In a sense, he's no gourmet cook, but his meat-and-potatoes approach has an undeniable, muscular strength that creates something substantial (unlike, say, Luc Besson, whose work tends to be all icing and no cake).

Terminator 2 review

Unfortunately, in his attempt to cook up something more substantial than standard action fare, Cameron falters slightly in terms of advancing his stated theme -- which is interesting but a little heavy-handed and not clearly worked out. Traumatized by her knowledge of the future extermination of humanity, Hamilton's character has almost given up her humanity in order to fashion herself into a hard-hearted fighter who will do anything to save her son: when she sees a chance to avert disaster, she sets out to assassinate a scientist responsible for the future "Rise of the Machines"; in effect, she becomes a human "terminator." However, the film wants to preach an "anti-violence" message, so she has a last minute change of heart -- a message further emphasized by having Schwarzenegger's Terminator not kill anyone in the film.

Unfortunately, for all the moralizing, the film actually endorses violence - as long as it does not spill over into homicide. In one of the script's worst jokes, Schwarzenegger casually shoots a security guard in both kneecaps. When Sarah Connor objects, the Terminator deadpans, "He'll live." Perhaps, but even if paramedics arrive in time to stop the bleeding, will he ever walk again? The film doesn't seem to care, and suggests we should not either, because the ends justify the means.

Thematic fumbling aside, the film works on almost every other level. In retrospect, you have to give Cameron credit for not over-doing the Terminator-versus-Terminator aspect of the story (the two cyborgs share little screen time together), instead saving it for a few key scenes. To some extent this is a bit disappointing on repeated viewings -- especially the first confrontation, which basically consists of two guys pushing each other around a hallway. But it prevents the film from de-volving into a gratuitous robot wrestling match and helps to keep the human element in the foreground (unlike, say, TERMINATOR 3).

There are some who still insist that the original TERMINATOR is better as a piece of narrative structure, and of course its story had the advantage of being new. Yet whatever its minor flaws, TERMINATOR 2 is an excellent example of science-fiction film-making writ large on the big screen. It's a huge, exciting wild ride that somehow never goes so far overboard that we want to get off. It's Hollywood at its best: millions of dollars worth of technology and production values wedded to a strong story filled with interesting characters, and all the elements wielded together by a director who knows how to make great crowd-pleasing entertainment.

Trivia

Although James Cameron's previous film THE ABYSS had utilized computer-generated imagery for the famous "water tentacle" effects, TERMINATOR 2 represents the real breakthrough in the use of CGI. It's not simply that the computer could morph Robert Patrick's Terminator 2 into different shapes (similar effects had been achieved in the past with other techniques). The real breakthrough was that these effects could be achieved absolutely seamlessly, with no clear distinction between the live-action footage and the special effects footage. Up to this time, savvy viewers could often spot when a film cut to an effects shot because there were tell-tale signs (such as blue "fringing" that outlined elements added optically in post-production). In Terminator 2, almost every shot looks convincing enough to be taken for live-action footage.

Terminator 2 Rating
4

Bottom Line

Bigger and maybe even better than the original, Terminator 2 is the most expensive low-budget movie ever made – which is to say, it uses all its resources to the fullest extent, putting every dollar on the screen.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Carolco Pictures, 1991). Directed by James Cameron. Written by Cameron & William Wisher Jr. Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick, Earl Boen, Joe Morton, S. Epatha Merkerson. 137 minutes. Rated R.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.