Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Terminator Week: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

"The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too."

- Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

While never quite the lean, ruthless thrill machine that its blockbuster 1984 predecessor was, Terminator 2: Judgment Day boasts other delights and virtues.  For one thing, it continues  the story of the frequently imperiled Connors with stirring intensity and amazing pyrotechnics and stunts. 

And -- perhaps more significantly -- it provides the genre one of its most amazing and influential villains: Robert Patrick as the T-1000, a shape-shifting, CGI-morphing leviathan.

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, super-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. 

In the early 1990s, these visual fx techniques became the de rigueur effects in genre films, appearing in such efforts as Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) and Sleepwalkers (1992). Although morphing can apparently be traced all the way back to the 1980s and ILM work in The Golden Child (1986) and Willow (1987), Terminator 2: Judgment Day represents, perhaps, the finest and most meticulous utilization of the pioneering technique, again placing Cameron at the vanguard of technical achievement.

Comparing The Terminator to Terminator 2, one can see that the sequel -- while still a serious film obsessed with fate and man's self-destructive tendencies -- is remarkably less bleak in tone. As the quotation at the top of this review indicates, a sense of " hope" permeates the sequel. 

Notably, Cameron also mines the Terminator character (Arnold's, I mean) for laughs. The T-800 is the proverbial fish-out-of-water, unable to understand key aspects of the human equation, including how to smile, or why human beings cry. This set-up fits in very well with Cameron's career-long obsession with the outsider; the person unfamiliar with a world/class system who steps in and attempts to navigate it, all while simultaneously pointing out its deficits. The outsider can be social gadfly or observer, and reveal a new perspective about the film's dominant coalition (Ripley as the non-marine/non-Company exec in Aliens; Jack a Dawson lower-class passenger on the Titanic, etc.).

Although much of the  material involving Arnold's new Terminator character is indeed very amusing, particularly the actor's gloriously deadpan delivery of modern colloquialisms ("No Problemo," "Hasta la vista..."), some of this fish-out-of-water material feels very much like left-overs from Star Trek: The Next Generation. 

It's not so evident today, but at the time of Terminator 2's release, I was shocked at just how much the Terminator's journey towards humanity appears to mirror and reflect Lt. Data's (Brent Spiner) odyssey on that TV series, which ran from 1987 - 1994. It's a very intriguing dynamic: Gene Roddenberry acknowledged that Data's spiritual parents were Questor (from The Questor Tapes) and Bishop in Cameron's Aliens (1986). Here, turnabout is fair play and Data is certainly a spiritual predecessor to the T-101, only one assuredly less prone to bloody violence. 

Yet, interestingly, Star Trek: The Next Generation never rigorously established a thematic motivation behind Data's obsession with the human race, and becoming "human."  Audiences were left to infer that the character felt this ongoing fascination because his creator was human, or because he served with humans in Starfleet. Data wanted to more like those he was "with," in other words, a fact which raises the question: would he feel the same way for Klingons if they had built and/or found him? 

By contrast, in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the T-800's "learning" mechanism (his method of becoming more human) is utilized by Cameron with laser-like precision to transmit a very specific thematic point:  If a Terminator can "learn" the value of human life, than there's hope for us conflicted, self-destructive humans in that regard too.

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 SkyNet 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.

In terms of theme and vision, Terminator 2 also appears obsessed with the idea of forging a positive future for the planet Earth. Not necessarily for this generation, perhaps, but certainly for the children of the 1990s. John Connor (Edward Furlong) is only ten years old in this film (which makes it set in 1994), and he very much becomes the focus of two distinctive parental figures: Sarah Connor, and the T-101. Accordingly, Cameron frequently showcases images of children in the film, either fighting with toy guns, or seen at a playground that becomes -- terrifyingly -- the setting for a nuclear holocaust.

Ultimately more complex, if less driving and focused than The TerminatorT2 also derives significant energy from audience expectations; playing ably on our preconceived beliefs about the series. 

And again, Cameron was on the vanguard of a movement in cinema here. The 1990s represented the era of the great self-reflexive genre movie, from efforts such as John Carpenter's In The Mouth of Madness to Wes Craven's New Nightmare and the popular Scream saga. Part of this Terminator sequel's appeal rests strongly in the creative fashion that it re-shuffles the cards of the Terminator deck to present new outcomes, and new twists and turns. The film gently mocks the franchise and the cultural obsession with "political correctness," transforming the Terminator into a "kinder, gentler" model who only shoots out kneecaps.

"It's not everyday you find out that you're responsible for 3 billion deaths."

Facing defeat and destruction in the 21st century, SkyNet sends another Terminator into the past to destroy resistance leader John Connor.

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."

Fortunately, General John Connor manages to send a protector for his younger self through the time displacement equipment too, in this instance a re-programmed T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

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.

After John, Sarah and the T-800 flee the sanitarium, they must make a decision about how they intend to stop "Judgment Day," the occasion in August of 1997 when a self-aware SkyNet precipitates a nuclear war.  Key to Sarah and John's decision-making process is Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), the man working at CyberDyne Systems who develops SkyNet in the first place.

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.

I know now why you cry. But it's something I can never do.

Although overly-long and somewhat heavy-handed at times, Terminator 2 still works nimbly as a self-reflexive thriller that dances a veritable ballet on the audience’s knowledge of the first film.

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.

Secondly, Terminator 2 takes the unlikely but clever step of transforming Linda Hamilton’s character, Sarah Connor, into a Terminator herself. I’m not referring merely to her amped-up physique, either, but rather her very life philosophy.

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."

This sequel to The Terminator is also fascinating for the manner in which it incorporates the dominant social critique that “these films” (meaning the films of Schwarzenegger and Cameron, I suppose) are “too violent.”

In Terminator 2, young John makes Schwarzennegger’s emotionless machine promise not to kill any more humans, and the compromised Terminator spends the remainder of the film shooting up cops’ knee caps. This is quite funny, and it’s deliberately on point with what was happening in the culture of the nineties. In other words, it's inventive, unconventional and politically-correct all at the same time.  It's not the eighties anymore, and Arnold has, in a sense, been domesticated. At least a little...

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 TerminatorT2 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 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.  

T2 is a bigger film than its immediate predecessor, and more ambitious in many ways. It isn't however, quite as hungry, quite as lean as the 1984 original. There's a sense here that the movie knows it is a blockbuster, and doesn't have to deliver on quite the same visceral level. Still a great film, of course, but these days I prefer, at least slightly, the first entry in the franchise.


  1. Anonymous5:35 PM

    I say this all the time but Terminator 2 is the best action movie in my books. Perhaps it has something to do with having seen it first time at age 10. I can remember the playground nuclear apocalypse scene haunting me even at my early teens.

  2. Although I do like the film, but have some pet peeves about it. The pioneering CGI effects still hold up very well today. Especially amazing considering how far we have come since then. But some of the practical make up FX I felt were surprisingly weak. The fake head of the security guard who is killed via the eye stab and the head of Arnie that gets crushed by the T 1000 always struck me as being extremely poor. I also got tired of the film's hackneyed peace message (and I am a pacifist, btw). On the other hand, great action with an awesome final act. I still for the life of me can't understand how Robert Patrick didn't become a huge star after this.