Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Part 2 of 3 Terminator Franchise Retrospective. (Part 1 / Part 3)
Personal Canon #81 (see full index)
abound but you've had 18 years to see the movie...

Once the big profits for the small budgeted The Terminator began rolling in in October of '84, James Cameron became a hot commodity. He wasted no time on the follow up. Twenty-one months later the release of the much larger sci-fi spectacle Aliens catapulted him from "filmmaker to watch" to the real deal. His current long absence from the multiplex -- Avatar's December bow will end a 12 year drought -- makes this easy to forget but it's true: the director once moved swiftly through the stages of filmmaking if never quite as rapidly as his movies moved through their action. After Aliens, he left outer space for the deep seas with The Abyss (another hit) and having proved himself thrice over, returned to the killer robots that made his name.

"Model Citizen"

The Terminator cost 6 million to make, Terminator 2: Judgment Day would cost 100 million plus. The budget wasn't the only thing exploding: salaries, visual effects, setpieces, ambition, and public reaction were all supersized. Yet for all of this exponential external growth, Cameron smartly kept his focus tight and intimate.

Two early shots. That's your color scheme (fiery reds and steel
blues) and the first John Connor (Michael Edwards) pre-Christian Bale

Sarah Connor's opening narration and the imagery of post-apocalyptic LA it plays over, both review the first movie and download Cameron's game plan for the sequel.
The computer which controlled the machines, Skynet, sent two terminators back through time. Their mission: to destroy the leader of the human resistance, John Connor my son. The first terminator was programmed to strike at me in the year 1984 before John was born. It failed. The second was set to strike at John himself when he was still a child. As before the resistance was able to send a lone warrior, a protector for John. It was just a question of which one of them would reach him first.
In other words, it's more of the same... only bigger (we notice immediately by way of shinier effects and massive fireball explosions). This repeat template is familiar but it won't be comfortable. We're also going deeper. The story structure is varied only enough to reflect the passage of time. But what has that passage of time wrought?

Upgrade U: The original T-800 returns (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and
the leaner meaner T-1000 (Robert Patrick) is introduced

As before... two naked men arriving from the future are introduced first. Once clothes are violently procured, their target is immediately identified by text (a phone book in the first film, a police car monitor in the second). Cut to target: John Connor (Edward Furlong). He's even introduced with a shot of a motorbike just like his mother was in 1984. So far so remarkably similar. This makes the slight tweaks stand out all the more. First, the film is more self consciously "funny" (the "Born to Be Bad" accompaniment to the T-800's intro). Second, both visitors from the future are instantly portrayed as formidable threats rather than as a David and Goliath mismatch. Third... where the hell is Sarah Connor?

Ah, there she is! She's locked up in a mental hospital cuz she crazy... she batshit crazy.
...the usual indicators: depression, anxiety, violent acting out, delusions of persecution. The delusional architecture is fairly unique.
See, Sarah can't shut up about everyone dying and the killer robots. No one, not even her son John, shipped off to foster care, believes her.

Sarah Connor Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Meet her leaner meaner
reincarnation, the T-91 (Linda Hamilton)

If The Terminator (1984) were a debut album, it'd be beloved by rock purists and critics for its raw recorded-in-a-garage honesty. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) is, then, its polished recorded-in-a-studio follow up. With its new moralizing and corny humor it might have been come across as something of a sellout were it not for the astonishing transformation of Linda Hamilton. Whatever savagery the franchise lost with the addition of a snarky pre-adolescent and new sense of humor was regained in Sarah's evolution. Few performers in cinema history have had an opportunity like this. Or, rather, few performers have made this much of their second stab at a character. She's unrecognizable and not just from the new musculature. Her endoskeleton, if you will, has morphed in the years inbetween the movies. Hamilton seems to have devoured every relentless droning beat from the first film and metastasized it for the new Sarah. Her awful knowledge of impending doom and long years of isolation have eaten her alive from the inside.

In one of the movie's earliest and most fascinating sequences, she tries to fool her psychiatrist into believing she's had a sudden change of heart. It's a simple enough scene on the page but onscreen it multiplies in complexity. The cameras varying points of view end up reflecting both Sarah's changes and the franchise's preoccupation with time travel. We're essentially watching a calm present tense Sarah watch past tense Sarah frothing at the mouth about doomsday while wordlessly strategizing a future escape. Simultaneously her smarmy psychiatrist is watching these competing versions of Sarah and correctly seeing them as the same: calm or wild, past or present she's only ever mentally locked up in the future.

If that weren't heady enough, our view then widens tilting slightly to the left and then pans and slowly zooms out to the right (I've smooshed it all together for you above). It does all of this very calmly until what we're looking at is a whole roomful of people watching present Sarah watching past Sarah whilst being recorded (another past to study in another future!). This is the best part... to complete its quest to take everything in, the camera slowly zooms back in on yet another monitor of present tense Sarah (located to the far right). We're now a few layers removed from the physical Sarah. The Sarah we once knew is an abstraction. New Sarah is a shell who happens to be playing a shell game.

When she realizes she's lost the game, her calm facade shatters and she attacks the psychiatrist. The camera, formerly serene observant, crashes back in on the action again. The guards have pinned Sarah down. The rescued psychiatrist turns to the camera within the camera to deliver the completely unfunny punchline.

"Model citizen"

He may be an asshole but, you know, he's right about Sarah. Her present and past have merged again. Note how snarling Past Sarah presides over thrashing Present Sarah. Past or present, this woman is only ever a ball of fury hurtling towards a future oblivion that she alone is privy to. The one thing she is no longer is the waitress we once knew. It's a bold but authentic feeling reinvention of the character and the movie sells it for all it's worth.

Now that the unfamiliar new Sarah has the audience on edge, it's time for the film's first real action sequence. In keeping with the sequel's more mainstream tone, the collision of the two future warriors with their unsuspecting target (one aiming to kill, the other to protect) happens in a brightly lit mall rather than a dark night club. Cameron's skills with action have only grown from 1984 to 1991. Some action movies grind to a halt for their setpieces in the way that weaker musicals sometimes trip up on that "we're going to start singing now" pause. Cameron's action is always organic. He builds tension and dread from each scene until the setpieces burst out of the narrative like some H.R. Giger alien exploding from its human host.

Another remarkable thing about Cameron's gift for action direction is how much he's able to cram into the showstoppers without weighing them down or causing visual clutter. There's wordless exposition like the slow reveal of the T-1000's powers (a little bit more each battle... even the malfunctions in the last battle are shown rather than told), funny asides like the T-1000's wary glance at a doppelganger mannequin and even fun subliminal set design -- I've never noticed this before but the video game signs framing John Connor when his friend warns him about "the cop" (i.e. the T-1000) looking for him read "RESCUE" and "CAUTION". Most importantly, the action scenes display major invention during their requisite stunts, thrills and scares. Much of this emanates from the absolutely genius villain that Cameron has concocted in the T-1000. Even the way the actor Robert Patrick rounds corners or adjusts his walking or running speed is both freakishly menacing and wildly entertaining.

To continue the musical simile, let's just say that the action scenes have so many flourishes and movements that they're just like orchestral pieces or maybe pop songs. Consider the mall sequence: It has an opening verse (interior foot chase), repeated chorus (T-800 vs. T-1000's short bouts of gun play) a catchy bridge (the parking lot chase) and a second verse (exterior vehicular chase).

Mall surveillance photos supercharge Sarah's escape plans. If her
psychiatrist doesn't cooperate he's getting a liquid rooter injection

No sooner does that "pop song" end than we launch into a veritable symphony at Pescadero. This entire sequence, from Sarah's brutal hostage-taking through the T-1000's ultra alarming shape shifting (that floor move -- sick!) to the final escape is genius. The transcendent peak comes with the oddly horrifying reunion between the T-800 and his former target (We know that the T-800 is now a good guy but she doesn't. And Hamilton has sucked us into Sarah's hair wire personality so vividly, we're both scared of her, for her and with her throughout) and then the collision of all four principles. All three heroes are finally stopped in their tracks, face to face with the T-1000 who walks liquidly through the bars separating them, only to be stopped momentarily by his non-liquid gun which has audibly caught on the bars. It's a wonderfully dischordant idiosyncratic note and we've reached lift off. Terminator 2 rockets from great action movie to great cinema, period. Right there.

Does the movie ever come back down again? Not really.

There are two breaks in action: First, a trip into the desert for healing and weapon acquisition and the second, a talky planning and exposition scene. In these two sequences we ponder the film's famous message "no fate but what we make" and its moralizing philosophy (the human race is self destructive). Neither of these "breaks" derail the movie's exquisite sense of danger. Sarah Connor carries it with her.

In her sad, furious and failed assassination attempt on Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) -- she knows his future scientific breakthroughs will lead to doomsday -- the film reveals its master stroke: T2 has not two terminators but three. Sarah has gone from hunted to hunter. The film even borrows and perverts 1984's sickening moment when Sarah Connor had a red target light on her forehead. This time she's the one training the deadly red dot on an innocent man, execution style.

Mother superior (Hamilton) and the Father who didn't know best (Morton)

Cameron is savvy enough in his direction to let his heroine battering ram her way into unlikability and there's a pitch perfect moment of overkill with Sarah as moralizing hypocrite. She really can't help herself, she's so tightly wound.
Fucking men like you built the hydrogen bomb. Men like you... all you know how to create is death and destruction. You think you're so creative. You don't know what it's like to really create something, to create a life... to feel it growing inside you.
She knows from death and destruction herself and she's hardly been a model of matronly warmth even if she did give birth to our future savior. The punchline of the scene, John Connor shouting "MOooom!!!" in embarrassment and 'let's get back on track' pleading is perfectly timed. It cuts the tension just enough to allow the movie to pull back from its philosophies and ideas and put on its final battle gear.

One last reminder that we've got three terminators. The T-1000 morphs
into Sarah Connor. He doesn't seem any less scary that way.
It's not visual
effects trickery. It's Linda Hamilton's twin sister.

The rest is an attack on the Cyberdyne corporation (which is holding the chips... literally) and a molten lava finish in a steel mill. It's all adrenaline, blood, explosions and deeply satisfying arias of action.

Though T2 frequently references its predecessor it never rests on its laurels. It's a hard working piece of cinema. Respect came far more easily than it had to the original. It proved an immediate success with critics, audiences and even Oscar. The Academy usually has to warm up to genre fare and seven years of growing respect for the original killer robot sleeper did the trick. The sequel won four Oscars and even two additional tech nominations (cinematography and editing) that are often reserved for Best Picture players. Sadly, no prestigious honors happened for Linda Hamilton. It's a shame. Despite the revolution in visual effects swirling all around her, Sarah Connor's transformation gave T2's its enduring muscle and heart. Liquid metal was new and eye-popping in 1991 but nothing ever beats the timeless spectacle of flesh and blood. A

Your thoughts and personal experiences with T2 are welcome in the comments.

PART ONE: Tech•Noir (The Terminator)
PART THREE: Terminator Salvation Chat


Fernando Moss said...

A great article for a great movie!

adelutza said...

It is actually that good that it almostmade me want to see the movies.Almost

Wayne B. said...

Amazing article; insightful and funny. I love that you called major attention to Linda Hamilton's performance; one of the greatest action film performances ever! Her absence was a major discredit to the third movie.

SusanP said...

Awesome review, Nat.

This line in particular really nails the difference between the first and second Terminator films:

"If The Terminator (1984) were a debut album, it'd be beloved by rock purists and critics for its raw recorded-in-a-garage honesty. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) is, then, its polished recorded-in-a-studio follow up."

Well said! I completely agree with your assessment and reading this only makes me more excited that James Cameron finally has a new film coming out. He's definitely among the finest action directors ever. Never noise and explosion for the sake of noise and explosion.

I think I need to schedule a T1/T2 double feature. I'll be interested to see what you have to say about T3. I personally found it enjoyable, but don't consider it to be "canon." (I have a similar feeling about the SC TV show--entertaining in parts, but not really part of the "myth.")


Susan -- i remember next to nothing about T3 but T4 has been fading fast since i saw it (especially having rescreened the classics)

wayne be -- exactly. it wasn't just the loss of Cameron that caused trouble for the series... it was the misguided notion that John Connor should be the focus. I'm not sure the "savior" character should ever be the exact focus of narratives. I much prefer the sideline players in destiny. It's far more suspenseful for one because you don't always know what will happen to them. You always know that the abstract savior of it all will survive everything.

Katey said...

You mean Linda Hamilton's poor sister also had to get into that crazy shape just for the one scene??

Derreck said...

Katey - haha, i never thought about that. that's hilarious.

But yes, i love this movie. Just filled with action and progress on the theme of technology destroying us from the first movie. Linda Hamilton made this movie. Poor Lena Headey from The Sarah Connor Chronicles had a giant act to follow. Hamilton was just super-kickass. I just love seeing strong women who can kick ass in movies. I think the scene where she cocks and shoots her shotgun with one arm to kill Robert Patrick's Terminator gave me a little pleasure stroke. a definite "you go, girl!" moment. lol.


Derreck... if my dvd was working properly i was gonna use that as an animated gif. Hamilton: the badass of female badasses ;)

but i had to draw the line somewhere. that article was getting super long.

katey... i'm assuming she's in the background out of muscle tone focus ;)

Agent69 said...

That was Linda Hamilton's twin sister?????
I had no fracking idea.

SusanP said...

Nat: My expectations aren't very high for T4, but I'm also pretty forgiving when it comes to this series. I think that's because even though nothing compares to the first two, I still can't help but eat up anything Terminator-related that's offered. The first film--and to a large degree the second--helped make me into the film fanatic I am today.

And yes, Linda Hamilton is awesome.

Jordan Wellin said...

It also has the best trailer of all time. Period.


re: Linda Hamilton's awesomeness. what happened to that career? did she just put it on hold to play Mrs. Cameron? there did seem to be a break for a few years after this movie.

...or was it just not happening outside of Terminator?


Cinesnatch said...

Cameron got Weaver and Winslet noms. Too bad he didn't the same for Hamilton and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Oh, how on earth did Bette Midler (God love her) get nominated for that awful For the Boys???!!!


Vince... the same way SALMA HAYEK got nominated for Frida: labor of love that the actress pushed and pushed through production.

Dimi said...

I love how all of the Terminator movies seem to have an obsession with large vehicles during central chase sequences. I mean, T-1000 could very easily have stolen a station wagon instead of the liquid nitrogen tank that would soon delay his quest momentarily. Instead, Cameron insists upon largeness and loudness. Note: I am NOT complaining.

wordsworm said...


I guess that would be like asking the question, "Why didn't the terminator just pick up a sniper rifle and wait for the right moment?"

As a film prof I had back in the day said, it's all about suspension of disbelief.


wordsworm... my only "suspension of disbelief" problem comes with the T-1000 asking Sarah to call for John. He himself can call for him (and later does) by mimicking her.

it's a weird moment.

no suspension of disbelief problems there ;)

wordsworm said...

Just wanted to add...


This would be the other side of the fence: humanoid machines which take the preservation of man out of mankind's hands for the benefit of mankind.

Cluster Funk said...

Linda Hamilton totally deserved that Oscar nomination -- if only for that videotape scene, "...and they fall & break apart like leaves..." [sigh]

How on earth Bette Midler (or even Laura Dern) got nominated over her is beyond me. She got her revenge though (via endless repeats).

Glenn Dunks said...

Watching Linda Hamilton here makes you wonder just how exactly Sigourney Weaver got nominated for Aliens. Hamilton is this film, despite it's many MANY other A-grade assets. As you say, that moment where she comes face to face once again with Arnie is, perhaps, her finest moment. Shows a completely different side, her original side, that we don't get to see ever again.

The action scenes! Wow. Those action scenes are immaculate. My favourite being the asylum escape, but, honestly, take any of the others and I wouldn't be able to argue against it.

Aagh! This movie is just so fantastic. One of the small number of movies I would give an A+ to. I honestly don't think it has a single flaw.

I wrote a review for Star Trek yesterday and I noted that James Cameron would've made it a better movie because he'd make sure what was happening on screen was interesting enough to not need to shake and spin and zoom the camera about all over the place with colour flares and all the mumbo jumbo that movie had just to create the illusion of excitement and tension.

Moasey said...

I loved this movie when it came out and I loved it a few weeks back when it was on T.V.
Linda Hamilton was AMAZING - kiss ass!

A decade ago when I worked at stabucks here in Toronto, Linda was filming a made for t.v movie (or something) and she used to come in early mornings before filming. She was the nicest lady you would ever want to meet. She knew all of our names and even came out for smoke breaks with us. A lovely lady for sure.


Moasey... what a great story. I wonder how she feels about those Cameron years now?

Glendon said...

I watched this movie for the first time maybe a few years after it initially was released. Having just seen The Terminator and having seen no marketing of Terminator 2, it was quite the shock when Arnold is revealed to be the good guy. Up until that point, the movie itself makes no inference that he's the good guy. They even dress Robert Patrick deceivingly as a police officer. So when both have their guns drawn at each other with John in the middle, and then Arnold shouts "Get down!", shoots Patrick, who and then revealed to be a machine and the actual villian...that's movie magic. That kind of twist that early in a movie can never be kept secret in a big studio movie anymore.

Glendon said...

who is* then revealed to be a machine and the actual villian


Unknown said...

it's even better than the first one... and actually a model for actioner / scifi for the ages. And further proof of how Linda Hamilton was robbed an Oscar and how iconic Gobernator once was. An essential film in movie history for soooo many reasons. Even if I personally think Aliens was even better.

Mike z said...

Eh... I hate do be a stickler, but the syringe is full of some kind of liquid rooter.

I don't think needles would fare well with liquid nitrogen in them. Awesome article, though.


Mike z -- YOU ARE CORRECT. oops. it was the truck that had the liquid nitrogen in it.

you know i even had a screenshot i didn't use that shows "liquid rooter" i was going to title it something like. 'ways you'd like to treat your psychiatrist' or some such

Dom said...

Hey Nathaniel-
I've been a follower of your blog for the last few years, and always find it to be an enjoyable read. However, after reading your Terminator reviews and your article on musicals, I just wanted to tell you how great your writing has become. Please don't mistake me on this - your writing has always been good, but you knocked these latest two pieces out of the park! Keep it up!
I also just re-watched the first Terminator, having thought for the past 8 years that it paled in comparison to T2... boy, was I wrong.


bond. thank you...

i've been out of it since this article but [ahnuld voice] i'll be back

predator said...

Predator was a much better movie than Terminator. At least, I liked it better.

ak said...

I feel like I am the lone voice here because I liked T1 >>>>> T2. I watched them back to back, both for the first time, a few weeks ago. I was blown away by T1. The sci-fi elements, the plot, the grittiness...it was all beautifully done.

I wanted to like T2. I really did. And I think your music analogy holds, but that is the same reason why I didn't like T2. If you release one album, and then seven years later you just remaster it, add in a few songs and release it again, is it really all that much better? Sure T2's special effects and Linda Hamilton badass-ness was infinitely greater in the second movie, but the plot was a rehash of the first one. I wish they had done something new. My mind was not blown, but my eyes sure did like what they were seeing.

Unknown said...

Terminator series is really great movies. I always love to watch terminator series specially terminator 2. Because in this part Arnold style and acting is really good.He is great performer and the story is perfect i like your blog. I have site also where you can Watch Action Movies Online.