There’s a contemplative moment in James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and humanity’s last hope, John Connor (Edward Furlong), are watching children play with toy guns.
The kids are gleefully “shooting” each other, and Connor and The Terminator observe these happy children with an especially grim viewpoint. John asks, “We’re not gonna make it, are we?” The Terminator replies, “It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves.”
That moment encapsulates everything that is so transfixing about this franchise, particularly the outsized blockbuster that is widely known as “T2”: Cameron is not here to hold our hand and tell us everything is going to be okay.
In fact, as this small but pivotal exchange indicates, even the best intentions of humankind can’t prevent the doomed outcome of planet earth. Grab your popcorn and have fun, kids, because this is the summer movie ride that begins with the fall of the human race and concludes with a young man losing the only true father figure he ever had.
Somehow, this brilliant, depressing work of visionary sci-fi wound up 1991’s biggest hit.
Linda Hamilton returns as Sarah Connor, the former waitress who managed to escape a killer cyborg from the future aiming to murder her, because she would one day give birth to John Connor, the savior of the human race. While she escaped in the prior entry, Connor is now locked in a maximum-security institution, while her son, John, drives around on his bike, getting into trouble and ignoring the exasperation of his foster parents.
When The Terminator re-appears, he isn’t there to assassinate Connor but to protect him from The T-1000, a far leaner, more advanced killer from the future (Robert Patrick). The super villain isn’t merely an android pretending to be a human but a vicious, unceasing mimic made from liquid metal.
The normal feel of nostalgia we get from a sequel’s early moments are squashed immediately. The dour, mesmerizing opening credits prolog (complete with a robot stomping on a human skull) reminds us of the battle between robots and humans that will turn the world into a war zone.
This starts off in Los Angeles of 2029, illustrating the scale of destruction that was brought on by the turning point of August 29, 1997, Judgment Day, in which the robots have revolted and largely won their battle against mankind. Before the title literally clanks together on screen, we get the searing image of a robot skull, encased in fire, grinning at us.
John is an arrogant, uncontrollable kid and his mother is like a restless caged lion in captivity. Hamilton’s introductory scene showcases an unsettling monolog, in which she angrily lets everyone in the room know that “You’re all dead.”
Everyone noted that Hamilton “buffed up” for this movie; the discussion should have been that Hamilton’s ferocious, heartbreaking performance was Oscar worthy.
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Schwarzenegger, perhaps rejuvenated by his surprise success in two hit Ivan Reitman comedies (“Twins” and “Kindergarten Cop”), fully embraces the deadpan humor of the role. The Terminator is now a domesticated pet for John who is ordered never to kill. It gives Schwarzenegger, who has killed more men on screen than most modern-day action heroes, to send up (albeit in an ultraviolent manner) his image as a conduit of carnage.
As an action movie, awesome doesn’t even begin to describe “T2.” There is a precision in every shot, a control and purpose in every scene. The blend of still-stunning, groundbreaking CGI and practical, even old school special effects (like the tin bullet wounds on The T-1000) are seamless.
The fantastic mall pursuit/motorcycle chase that comes early and sets the story in motion would have been a great, roaring climax for most ’90s action movies and here, it just the opening act.
It may have been downright crazy for the once flourishing Carolco to give Cameron $100 million, the biggest movie budget ever at the time, to make a gigantic sequel to his Roger Corman-sized original, but the director never steps wrong.
Moments that could have been throwaway visuals (like a playground on fire) have a haunting visceral clarity. Even the reverse angle of Schwarzenegger putting on sunglasses for the first time is iconic.
FAST FACT: “T2” opened to a brisk $31 million opening weekend en route to a $205 million final tally.
The film’s sole flaw isn’t Cameron’s fault but a problem at the marketing level: we’re meant to be surprised when The Terminator reveals himself to be a protagonist and not the villain, which the trailers ruined for everyone.
Like “The Terminator,” “T2” isn’t a horror film but often feels like one (just recall the nightmarish moment that justifies Schwarzenegger announcing, “Your foster parents are dead”). The screenplay by Cameron and William Wisher is propulsive and carefully builds its epic story, but also earns the right for narrative pit stops, like the devastating home attack on Miles Dyson (movingly played by Joe Morton).
This scene, which is ruthlessly violent and perhaps the hardest in the film to watch, is a crucial turning point for Sarah and the plot itself. A harrowing home invasion becomes a thoughtful discussion on how to change the world for the better — neither Cameron’s approach to this detour nor anyone in the cast overdoes the earnestness of the scene, one of the few instances where the film allows hope to permeate.
Once we get to the final showdown, the outcome is fittingly harsh: defeating the villain is a clear objective but what happens if another T-1000 (let alone an army of them) is sent later on?
Doing the right thing and ensuring the events of the future means the hero must commit an act that is heroic but does not feel like a “win” at all. Few “happy endings” are as sad as this one (and no, that “thumbs up” we get doesn’t help, either).
Another aspect of this to take in is “You Could Be Mine,” the rousing, ear-splitting anthem from Guns and Roses, off their “Use Your Illusion” album, which served as this film’s theme song. The tune was a massive hit, played throughout the film’s release and sported a memorable music video where Schwarzenegger turns up and nearly kills Axel Rose.
Here’s the thing that gets overlooked: the song has nothing to do with the movie, as those lyrics (“…because you could be mi-ine, but you’re way out of li-ine.”) aren’t about the T-1000 trying to nab Connor. In fact, it’s about a band member’s ill-fated relationship with an ex-girlfriend. Fittingly, nothing involved with “T2” is typical popcorn fodder.
Cameron assures us in the final scene that “there’s no fate but what me make for ourselves” but really kids, we’re doomed. Have some more popcorn. Try to forget about that burning swing set.