Today brings us to the final installment of the summer-long Cameron Curriculum, this blog’s examination of all James Cameron’s movies from 1984 through 2009. The subject of today’s review is Terminator 2: Judgment Day, an immensely popular 1991 genre film that even twenty years later boasts a very positive reputation.
I still vividly recall seeing this film theatrically in 1991 and being blown away not just by Patrick’s steady, focused performance, but also by the elaborate and confident special effects presentation of the character.
Patrick carries his strength not merely in his narrow, athletic form (a far cry from the bulging, overly-muscular Schwarzenegger) but in his predatory, all-seeing eyes, which showcase enormous power and drive.
If Robert Patrick were not completely convincing in his role, this movie wouldn’t work, plain and simple. But he’s up to the task, and thus creates a classic villain. A true testament to his powerful presence is the fact that throughout the film, Arnold truly seems imperiled and outclassed by his enemy. Given Arnold's size and weight advantage over Patrick, that's an astounding accomplishment.
In terms of mechanics, the T-1000 was created through the twin techniques of morphing and warping. Morphing is described as the "seamless transition" between two images or shapes, and generally uses points in common (like the shape of a nose, or a mouth...) as the basis for the transition.
And once more, this lesson fits in with the film's real life historical context: 1991 was the year of the first Gulf War, the first televised war which saw the deployment of precision or "surgical strikes" on enemy targets. Underneath the impressive Defense Department briefings on the War -- replete with stunning camera imagery of bombs striking targets -- the truth was evident. Our automated weapons had made a quantum leap forward in accuracy and destructive power since the Vietnam War Era. The Terminator (and Sky Net too) thus did not seem so far out of reach, given the (automated) tech we saw deployed in Desert Storm. Today, we are even further down that road with our automated Predator drones and the like.
This time, however, the attacking machine is even more advanced than before: a T-1000 (Robert Patrick) made of "poly-mimetic" alloy and a machine that can assume the shape of any human being it physically "samples."
The T-800 is programmed not only to defend Connor from the T-1000, but to obey the ten year old's (Furlong) every command. This quality comes in handy when the T-1000 attempts to "acquire" Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), now incarcerated at the Pescadero mental hospital, and John orders the T-800 to mount a rescue operation.
Sarah attempts to kill Dyson in cold blood to prevent the dark future from coming to fruition, but John and the Terminator stop her and propose a different course. They will destroy all of Dyson's working, including the prototype chips (left over from the 1984 Terminator).
The mission is successful, but Dyson dies in the attempt. Finally, the T-1000 re-acquires the Connors, and the T-800 must put his life on the line to stop an opponent of far greater strength and abilities. At stake is the future of the human race itself.
For instance, as in the first film, this sequel opens with two men appearing from the apocalyptic future. One is thin and lean, and very human-looking. The other is the pumped-up juggernaut Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Because of the earlier film, viewers are conditioned to expect Schwarzenegger as villain again, and look for the Michael Biehn-ish Robert Patrick to be a sympathetic hero. Of course, the opposite is true instead. Our pre-conceived beliefs are used against us.
Here, Sarah sets out to murder a man named Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) before he can complete SkyNet, the system that ultimately destroys mankind and births the terminators. In essence then, Sarah is adopting the approach of the machines she hates so much; killing a person BEFORE that person actually commits a crime. Just as SkyNet sent back a Terminator in 1984 to murder Sarah before she gave birth to John, so does Sarah endeavor to kill Dyson before he gives birth, in a very real sense, to SkyNet.
The implication of this approach, of course, is that Sarah -- in preparing for the future -- has sacrificed the very thing worth fighting for, her humanity itself. Terminator 2 very much concerns Sarah's loss of humanity, and her opportunity to re-discover it, in large parts due to her son, John. As the movie begins, Sarah is lost and overcome with pain about the future that awaits mankind. But John ultimately teaches Sarah that it is okay to hope again, that the future is "not set," and that there is "no fate but what we make."
Like so many horror films of the 1990s, Terminator 2 also concern the American family and the modern changes in the shape of the American family. Sarah Connor comes to the conclusion that instead of providing her boy, John, a flesh-and-blood, human father figure, the Terminator played by Arnold is the sanest answer in an insane world. The Terminator won’t grow old, won’t leave, and will never hurt John. He will always be there for the boy, she realizes, and in vetting this idea, the movie states something important about men and machines.
When more and more American families were drifting towards divorce in the 1990s or outsourcing child care to nannies and day-cares, it’s not that odd that a woman should wish for the “ultimate nanny” – an unstoppable robot – to protect her son. This also fits with the crisis in masculinity played out in films of the era, including Brian De Palma's Raising Cain (1992). Men of the 1990s were supposed to be sensitive and masculine, strong and sympathetic, peaceful and -- in a single instant -- relentless protectors of the family unit. Arnie's character dispenses with such contradictory input and sticks to his programming. He has no conflict about what he should be, even if others impose on him their own set of rules. Still, he manages to get the job done.
Although it spends relatively little time in the post-apocalyptic future compared to The Terminator, T2 is nonetheless haunted by the specter of nuclear war, another familiar Cameron obsession.
In this case, no less than five views of a playground are featured in the film. The playground is seen at peace (before the war, in Sarah's dream), in flames (during the war), and ruined (after the war), behind the prowling, murderous Terminators.
The pervasive playground imagery reminds viewers again and again what is at stake if humans take the unfortunate and unnecessary step of rendering this planet virtually uninhabitable: the innocent will suffer. Children do not boast ideologies or political parties, and do not care about issues like nationalism. They are collateral damage in any such bloody conflict, and the prominent placement of the playground -- the domain of the child -- throughout the film makes this point abundantly plain.
At one point in the film, the T-800 also gazes upon two children fighting with toy guns and notes that it is in our nature to destroy ourselves. The idea seems to be that as children grow and develop, these tendencies towards competition and aggression emerge fully, and move off the proverbial playground into matters of politics and international confrontation. That may be the root of our problem.
It's interesting and also telling that Cameron has the T-800 make this observation about man in relation to children, and then later has Sarah Connor voice the conceit that males only know how to destroy, rather than to create life. This seems a little like the pot calling the kettle black given Sarah's hardcore actions in the film, and yet one can't really deny the truth of the observation, either. Women have simply not been afforded the reins of power as frequently as have men, historically-speaking, so guilt must fall upon the male of the species more heavily for our legacy of war and destruction. It's an unpleasant truth, but a truth nonetheless.
But yet again, that sense of hope sneaks into the movie. John Connor -- a male child -- proves able to curb the killing instincts of Sarah Connor and the T-800 here, paving the way for what ostensibly should be a positive future. In almost all genre films, children universally represent the opportunity for a better future or better tomorrow, and T2: Judgment Day adheres to that trend. It is possible to change, to correct our course, but sometimes it isn't this generation, but the next that sees that potential.
I'll now state the obvious in regards to the film: The action sequences here are truly exceptional. The film’s first major set-piece, involving a truck, a motor-bike and a motorcycle in motion, is a high-point, featuring stunning stunts and seamless cutting.
The finale, in a factory and lead works also proves highly dynamic, with the T-1000’s death scene seeming like an homage to Carpenter’s The Thing.
But of course -- as we know from Cameron's other films -- the magic of the director's films occurs not just in the staging of the action, but in Cameron's capacity to make the action stirring. He makes the action affect us on an immersing, emotional level. Here, we have characters we truly come to care about (Sarah, John and the T-800) and so we feel heavily invested in the narrative's outcome. I'm not ashamed to admit it, but when the T-800 sacrifices himself in the lead works, I always get a bit misty-eyed. For John, he is losing a father and a best friend. And the T-800 has finally learned what it means to be human, and in doing so come to the conclusion that self-sacrifice is necessary. It's a great, even inspirational ending, if one sadly marred by the cheesy "thumbs up" gesture that accompanies the beloved character's demise.
And yet, we've seen such sentimental, perhaps even over-the-top moments throughout the Cameron Curriculum, right? This is a director who clearly works from both the heart and the head, and who, as a direct consequence, has given us some of the most exciting and most emotional moments in modern genre cinema.
I don't know about you, but I can't wait to see what he comes up with next...
Next Friday: We begin our look at The Matrix films!