2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day


Yesterday we talked about the double threat of Robocop and The Matrix, two scifi action movies calibrated to perfect pacing. They move forward, and their stories are concise and satisfying. Terminator 2 is a sequel, and its lengthy, involved set pieces make its structure feel kind of lumpy. The action genre then, is not the issue here. It’s the whole package, no matter what it looks like. Because by the end, it’s about how we feel, and T2 is a jolting, but emotional film.

This is both James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger at their best. It takes the foundation of The Terminator and uses it to build something bigger, something revisionist. It sounds obvious, but The Terminator is essential to Terminator 2, even more than most originals to their respective sequels. It establishes the idea that the Terminator is a robot that kills people without remorse, because it’s programmed. It also sets the idea of fate.

Terminator 2 plays with these ideas to a different end goal. Where the first Terminator movie had none, rather it was the story of a survivor who overcomes an impossible threat, the scale of the sequel is much expanded, and its ending is about ensuring the future of humanity — reconciling our nature and forging improbable peace. Lofty, but that’s why it needed two films to tell this story. T2 had to start in the middle, essentially, hence the lumpiness.

The Terminator becomes an idea, the fatal climax of dehumanization — military programming that turns metal or flesh into determined assassins. Meanwhile, the vision of the original killing machine is being taught not to kill, his experience with a young boy becoming rather educational. And in the end, this contrast too becomes educational, and Sarah Connor becomes the kind of person who effects our Jesus figure.

Of course, the problem with Terminator 2 is that at various points, Sarah Connor will spell out everything that’s going on, theme-wise, in the movie. Or John Connor will look over at two kids shooting each other with toy guns and he’ll say “we’re not gonna make it are we? Humans, I mean.”

It’s not the best writing Cameron has ever done, closer to Avatar than Strange Days or Aliens, but so much can be forgiven. While The Matrix and Robocop are flawless — both completely without flaw, absolutely — Terminator 2 does one better by making up for its flaws. It pushes past them, because for all its preachiness, the message still lands.

More so, it takes shape in incredibly cathartic motions. Again, we have an unstoppable killing machine, this time in the T-1000, who can morph into the appearance of anyone, while also weaponizing the human body. The villain reflects the themes of the movie — he falls in the lava, we know what’s being said. He makes for adversity far outweighing our unlikely band of heroes, so their victory, strained as it is, makes for wonderfully dramatic cinema.

Sarah, John, and the Terminator have to come together to do this, and in that clever economy of storytelling, we get action movie as product of the marriage between character and idea. So even if its construction isn’t perfect, the whole is a beautiful thing. And yet, we zoom in on the micro, and see a Terminator firing a mini-gun at police cars, a T-1000 wreaking havoc, and LA being exploded in a truly chilling dream scene.

This is the last word for James Cameron on this Top 100. In the 90s, he lit movies really well. Colored live-action photography in very blue, very cinematic strokes. He has a great control over image, which made the translation of his direction to the pioneering Avatar filmmaking completely logical. While his future is certain, a fate made by himself and his inspiring ambition, his past was legendary.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a proud sequel, an exercise in cinematic storytelling that may not sound graceful at all times, but makes for a satisfying whole. Thoughtful, thrilling, and humane, Terminator 2 represents everything I love about movies.

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