Progenitors: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Film and TelevisionBecause of that other Terminator film recently released, trying its best to soil the name of a once-mighty franchise.

James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day is not the film its predecessor, also directed by James Cameron, was. For largely the same reasons that James Cameron’s Aliens is not the film its predecessor, not directed by Cameron, was. 1984’s The Terminator is a more urgent film than 1979’s Alien, but they share a similar sensibility: relentless, unforgiving, nihilist, purposeless terror always lashing out at you, married to perfect filmmaking that traffics in both show-not-tell and not-showing-is-scarier-than-showing. Alien is an outright horror film masquerading as a sci-fi film, and although The Terminator is more comfortably an action film masquerading as a sci-fi film, it trades much closer to horror than you might expect.

If Aliens saw Cameron move further away from horror, splitting the difference between galvanic action and slimy terror, Terminator 2: Judgement Day goes berserk with the former, and for all its strengths, it is a touch disappointing that big-budget Cameron could not muster any of the perverse audio-visual tension and psychotic sexual subtext of Aliens for Terminator 2. The slow-shift over decades from “startlingly merciless secret-horror-director James Cameron” to “startlingly melodramatic secret-Action-Soap-Opera-director James Cameron” is a bit of a shame all around, and T2 sees him right at the mid-point of that transition. The jean-jacket punk-rock sensibilities and alley cat nastiness of the original Terminator film is nowhere in Terminator 2, and that makes it an undeniably less special, vituperative beast.

That out of the way, we can get to championing Terminator 2: Judgment Day for what it is, rather than criticizing it for what it isn’t. Admittedly, what it is isn’t without flaw either. Because Terminator 2 invites the criticism, it is startling how ineffective Cameron is in Judgment Day at recreating a theme from his own Aliens: the relationship between children and alternative, non-birth parents. Ellen Ripley and Newt in Aliens were a humane, melancholy, even sinister couple infused with all the difficulties of parenting you might expect for a film that primarily derives its horror through rape imagery. The “T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) functions as a sort-of father for young John Connor (Edward Furlong)” sub-plot of Terminator 2 is fairly close to a disaster, indulging in Cameron’s worst schmaltzy tendencies and marrying them to a pair of actors who probably do not fit anyone’s idea of a compellingly raw, honest “father-son” relationship (Furlong, for his part, is terrible from beginning to end, but what can you do).

Excise that bit from the film, and you’ve got an enormous, monumental, colossal treasure-trove of action-movie credentials firing full-bore to bask in, beginning with a trio of perfectly realized characters. Starting with the titular mounds of metal, we have the robotic T-800 (as mentioned, Ahnuld himself in full glory), who here returns from the future to protect young John Connor (who will grow up to lead the human revolution against the ensuing rise of the machines). Arnold Schwarzenegger is, charitably speaking, not the most gifted of actors, but his stilted features are essential for breathing an awkward form of life into the concrete slab that is the T-800. Especially pertinent are the subtle, off-kilter mannerisms Schwarzenegger brings to the character, woodenly creating a machine trying to understand how to become a human, barely registering the slightest tick of emotion whilst conveying that he is only just beginning to grasp what those emotions might mean.

But what must the T-800 protect Connor from? Why, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), also a machine from the future sent by to kill John. And as we can tell by the bigger number and our hefty, substantial understanding of modern science, bigger probably means more advanced killing techniques. It turns out we were right, and how right we were. The T-1000 turns out to be some unholy automaton of liquid metal that can resolidify and reform at a moment’s notice, a nifty trick that doesn’t make a lick of sense but allows for the much more important benefit of serving as a truly unforgettable movie villain, as barbed and silent as a slasher-villain and far more implacable. The sleek, angular form of the character contrasted with Schwarzenegger’s bulky, heaving machismo is, in particular, a treat throughout, making the T-1000 out to be a far more serpentine creation.

Arguably better still is Linda Hamilton returning as John’s mother Sarah Connor. Having successfully thwarted the original T-800 when he came back to kill her years before (yes, friends, Arnold was the villain in that one, and he is the hero here, but we all know that by now), she has been reduced to a hyper-competent, hyper-hysterical automaton of persistent psychosis and a bruised, hurting need to find and secure the safety of her child. Equal parts pulsing, vigorous human and walking-non-human who has become more robotic than the Terminators due to the trauma of her past experiences, Hamilton is functionally perfect in the role, a figure of unmatched soft tenderness, heaving fire, and bitter frost all formed into a supremely complicated modern female.

Then there’s Cameron, always behind the camera, always pushing the film forward until its momentum becomes omni-present and all-powerful. It isn’t a masterpiece of craft, but it is exceedingly sharp craft nonetheless, boisterous and brash and supremely well-mounted if not exactly the stupendously grungy anti-art of the first Terminator. In 1991, Judgment Day was a monster of a film commercially and in terms of spectacle, a true claim to the throne of AO Scott’s wonderful designation “most movie”. In 2015, it certainly weighs a little less; it’s been outdone time and time again as far as “bigness” goes, but certainly not in terms of craft.

Still, it’s the structural details of the film that shine brightest today, like the way that the early portions carefully balance the entrance of the T-800 and the T-1000 into the film’s present-day, not nominally giving away any particular information as to which is the hero and which is the villain. Sure, even then everyone knew Schwarzenegger was to be the hero, but the meticulous assembly of the early moments are still a treasure as far as parallelism and genre mechanics go. The climax, meanwhile, is unimpeachable, a true collision course of raw physicality, Adam Greenberg’s grainy, high-contrast cinematography, and sheer brutality gathered together in a lively mesh-work of metal, a truly great movie location. All these years later, T2 is no longer a special film. But then it doesn’t need to be. It is a very good film, and that’s almost as good.

Score: 8/10


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