I remember the summer of 1991, when Terminator 2: Judgment Day landed in movie theatres with all the fuck-you noise, power, and momentum of a Ford Freightliner crashing from an L.A. thoroughfare overpass into a concrete spillway below. It was the year of Operation Desert Storm and the ending of the Cold War, the year LAPD officers were videotaped beating Rodney King. With the release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” still a few months away, latter-day cock-rocker Axl Rose still led the most popular band in America. It had been a pretty good year for women in film, even if the material was grim — Jodie Foster helped open The Silence of the Lambs at #1 in February and Davis/Sarandon kick-started a thousand feminist (and anti-feminist) thinkpieces when Thelma & Louise arrived in May. But the main movie event of the summer was the testosterone-laden sequel to The Terminator. Serenaded by a hit single from Axl’s Guns N’ Roses, heralded as the most expensive movie ever made, and stuffed with apocalyptic imagery, T2 roared onto screens, smacked you upside the head, and stole your lunch money, then smirked about it as it strolled away.
That’s how I remember it, anyway. In that era of genre filmmaking, James Cameron was the tough guy to George Lucas’s nerd or Spielberg’s starry-eyed dreamer, and his Alien sequel, which replaced its predecessor’s working-class heroes with a small army of space marines, had all but crushed twerpy Ridley Scott’s glasses under its combat boots just a few years before. I never warmed to Cameron’s approach to the Alien universe, which literalized the first film’s dark metaphors for motherhood (the details of alien biology, the chestburster “birth” scene, and an adversarial computer named “Mother”) as an adorable child saddling a now motherly “Ellen” Ripley, as if Cameron couldn’t imagine a space-faring female hero without a strong maternal instinct. I had, however, enjoyed The Terminator, Cameron’s 1984 breakthrough feature. It was a clever showcase for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was looking to modernize his beefy Hyborian Age persona. Where other directors used Arnold’s affectless screen presence as a blunt instrument, Cameron presented his pneumatic body as frightening but also fascinating and used such innocuous phrases as “I’ll be back” as performance leverage. Coupled with the actor’s grimly noncommunicative visage, the thick Austrian accent through which Schwarzenegger wrestled with certain English-language sounds was suggestive of a machine just learning how to speak.
Aside from its merits as a star vehicle, The Terminator was an interesting time-travel yarn that posited an assassin (Schwarzenegger’s cyborg Terminator) sent back from a post-apocalyptic future to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), mother of the as-yet-unborn John Connor, who would grow up to become an especially nettlesome and heroic resistance fighter in the humans’ war against a robot army controlled by the same AI that triggered World War III. Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) was a human soldier sent back by the rebellion to protect her; in a paradoxical flourish, he ends up impregnating her. Terminator 2 promised more of the same, but with twice the action, twice the production values, and twice the Terminators. In the sequel, Schwarzenegger — who had by now supplemented his action-movie regimen with titles like Ivan Reitman’s Twins and Kindergarten Cop — is the good guy. He’s a Terminator, model T-800, who’s been reprogrammed with a mission to protect Connor’s now-teenaged son, John (Edward Furlong). John Connor is in foster care because his mom is an industrial terrorist who rants prophetically about a coming nuclear conflagration called “Judgment Day” and has thus been institutionalized. The threat comes from the T-1000, a newer, sleeker Terminator model (played by lean, mean-looking Robert Patrick) forged from shape-shifting liquid metal, rendered digitally using processes that pushed computer graphics to their limit. Rudimentary but pioneering, Industrial Light & Magic’s CG work built on the water effects it had already created for Cameron’s The Abyss, updating them to show the T-1000’s body taking on different forms or sporting injuries that reveal the metal substrates beneath its skin. In one shot, we actually look through a hole in the T-1000’s head–a common enough effect these days, but one that was genuinely new at the time, and thus startling.
Yet the material that has held up best over the years is the practical effects work. Terminator 2‘s opening sequence depicts the War Against the Machines, a midnight-blue tableau of hovering military vehicles, hot-pink laser blasts, and grinning, gleaming death’s-head cyborgs stomping their feet into the rubble of human skulls and bones; Cameron’s storytelling instincts may have been partly informed by pulp sci-fi paperbacks, but his aesthetic was more heavy-metal LP cover. It had to be heavy, as those opening scenes give T2 its gravitas, illustrating the violent prophecies that plague Sarah Connor’s dreams. To underscore the point, there’s also a brief but terrifying vision of a large-scale nuclear blast later in the film. It was executed in miniature by Robert Skotak’s 4-Ward Productions and years later achieved meme status thanks to animated GIF versions on the Internet. The picture’s first half is beautifully paced, envisioning pretty much everything from Schwarzenegger’s arrival on the scene to Sarah Connor’s rescue from the state hospital as one long, barely broken-up chase scene. One of the neatest gimmicks is Patrick’s super-fast running style, a bold sprint made more threatening by percussive accents from composer Brad Fiedel. And the film’s single most famous action sequence is a peach–a chase scene, full of astonishing stunt work, that begins in a shopping mall and ends in a concrete flood control channel where the T-1000 crashes a semi truck in pursuit of the T-800 on a motorcycle with John Connor in tow.
Like Ripley in Aliens, Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 has been widely lauded as a feminist icon, although Cameron earned himself some blowback last year when he started complaining about Gal Gadot’s “objectified” Wonder Woman. (My feeling is there are many different kinds of feminist characters, but the mother-soldier hybrid Cameron gravitates towards is particularly well-aligned with patriarchal interests.) Cameron claims Sarah Connor is nobody’s sex object, though Terminator 2 is acutely interested in her physical form. She’s introduced here like one of those bodybuilding inmates in a prison film — she’s wiry and tightly-wound, her bare shoulders and arms rippling with muscle, and she’s turned the frame of her bed on end so she can do pull-ups in her cell. She’s come a long way from the carefree 1980s college-age girl seen in The Terminator. Cameron keeps her in a thin tank top for the first part of the film to emphasize the leanness of her physique, which symbolizes her newly paranoid, survival-focused state of mind. Her incarceration is cruel because it keeps her isolated from a son she no longer knows, and her escape from the asylum is intensely satisfying, thanks to Cameron’s portrayal of her caregivers as insufferably condescending and even predatory. Like Ripley, she’s another Cameron supermom, but her son isn’t just her son. He’s the last hope for the future survival of the entire human race. So she leads a guerrilla mission to take out the mastermind behind the AI technology that led to Judgment Day and leaves the parenting to the Terminator. “Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one that measured up,” she muses in unsubtle voiceover as she watches John play with his cyborg surrogate daddy. Maybe Cameron put Hamilton on a fat-melting training regimen before shooting began because muscling her up made her a more credible partner with Schwarzenegger, she the irretrievably damaged PTSD sufferer and he the beefy killer robot with the heart of…well, whatever Terminator hearts are made of. (Actual sample dialogue: JOHN CONNOR: “Jesus! You were going to kill that guy!” THE TERMINATOR: “Of course. I’m a Terminator.”)
Before long, John makes the Terminator swear not to kill anyone–already a humorous meta-commentary on the way movies like this excuse wanton violence by suggesting, improbably, that no innocent bystanders were killed in the mayhem–and so the T-800 immediately incapacitates a hospital guard by shooting him brutally in both kneecaps. As the man writhes on the ground wailing and sobbing, the Terminator assures Connor, “He’ll live.” In a way, it’s the most hilarious one-liner of Schwarzenegger’s career, not just because the joke is so mean but also because it acknowledges the illusion of bloodlessness that Hollywood blockbusters rely on for effect. (If you’re bummed out by the idea that an anonymous state employee will never live another day without pain because a cyborg sociopath shot his legs out from under him, well, you’re watching the wrong movie, buster.) As Arnold sneers before ripping up a parking lot with a Minigun, sending first responders scrambling frantically out of the frame in a hail of bullets: “Trust me.” Cameron even hectors his own audience by having the camera linger at one point on a couple of kids playing a shoot-’em-up. John asks the T-800, “We’re not going to make it, are we?” And the robot responds: “It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves.” That’s a hell of an observation from a film that makes such potent fetish objects out of guns, fists, and bombs.
In a similar vein, Cameron’s mooting of the T-800 as the Platonic ideal of a surrogate father for a delinquent pre-teen would come across as dark humour if Cameron and Schwarzenegger didn’t seem so sincere about the notion. Terminator 2 is genuinely reverential towards Arnold, gazing raptly upon his physical form and elevating his lack of affect to something like a Platonic ideal of masculinity. There is, for me, an uncomfortable smugness to the whole early sequence where naked Arnold, his body displayed briefly like an Olympic athlete in a Riefenstahl documentary, storms a biker bar, breaking bones and throwing men through windows and onto skin-searing stovetops in order to steal street garb and a Harley Fat Boy. The iconic shot of Schwarzenegger leaving the premises fully dressed, cued to the most obvious needle-drop in the world (George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone”), is clearly an endorsement, suggesting that, because he is powerful (and because he looks good in leather), he deserves this gear more than the dumb rednecks he stole it from. Might makes right, I suppose. Other casualties include Aliens‘ Jenette Goldstein and Xander Berkeley as John Connor’s inferior foster parents (they’re “kinda dicks,” we’re told), who are cruelly dispatched by the T-1000 in chrome-plated slasher mode, and computer scientist Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), who dies for the cause after Sarah Connor bullies him into submission, first by having the T-800 describe his culpability in future history, then through straight-up mockery. “You think you’re so creative,” she sniffs. “You don’t know what it’s like to really create something, to create a life, to feel it growing inside you.” Cameron justifies her mood simply because she’s right about everything–she’s seen the future, and it involves the hot death of three billion people, and she knows who’s to blame. But you could make a pretty good revenge thriller about Dyson’s wife and daughter tracking down the Connors decades later with murder on their minds.
Meanwhile, the T-800’s belligerent-jock behaviour is mitigated only by fealty to the needs of a child. Cameron is determined to make this a movie about mothers and fathers, and Schwarzenegger’s big daddy is the sole character with real growth. (Basically: #notallterminators.) As sad robots go, this one’s screen demise falls short of Roy Batty’s “Tears in Rain” speech in pathos but greatly exceeds it in corniness. The last we see of him, he’s being lowered into a pool of molten lava, giving the thumbs-up as he disappears under the blazing orange surface. The T-800 isn’t (just) an übermensch. He’s Big Jesus with big guns, heaven-sent, sacrificing himself to balance out all the failure and inadequacies of mankind–a cartoonish exaggeration of Reagan-Bush era masculine ideals presented as tear-jerking religious allegory. Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a master class in action direction, yes, but it’s so efficient and tense that its tone remains oppressive throughout–relentless, aggressive, self-satisfied–and its main characters are assholes. Like a Terminator, it’s a little hard to love.