Terminator 2: Judgment Day – “A James Cameron Film” | Review

James Cameron’s sense of his own mission seems to be growing as fast as his production budgets. Terminator 2 is less a sequel to The Terminator than a benign revision of the earlier film.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Director: James Cameron

by Tony Rayns

Some ten years after the arrival of a T-800 Terminator cyborg from the future on an unsuccessful mission to kill Sarah Connor (see The Terminator, MFB, February 1985), a more advanced T-1000 Terminator arrives in Los Angeles to kill Sarah’s son John, destined to become leader of the human resistance in the 2029 war between mankind and ‘intelligent’ machines. The T-1000 is narrowly preceded by another T-800, programmed and sent back by the adult John Connor to protect his childhood self. Sarah is now incarcerated in Pescadero State Hospital as a dangerous paranoid schizophrenic in the care of the unsympathetic Dr Silberman, while John is a ‘problem child’ in the care of foster parents Janelle and Todd Voight.

Clothing themselves as a biker and patrol cop respectively, the T-800 and T-1000 independently search for the young John Connor and clash for the first time when they locate him in a video-game parlour. John flees with both Terminators in pursuit, and eventually accepts the T-800 as friendly; realising that it is programmed to obey him, he orders it to stop killing people and insists (over the T-800’s objections) that they must free his mother. The T-1000 (which is composed of liquid metal and able to take on almost any organic or inorganic form) kills and impersonates John’s foster mother in a failed attempt to lure the boy home. It then heads for the hospital, intending to kill and impersonate Sarah.

Before it reaches her, she manages to escape from her cell and gets away with the help of John and the T-800. They drive south to the homestead of Sarah’s friend Enrique Salceda, who guards a munitions cache, and the T-800 explains what the future will bring. Cybernetics genius Miles Dyson will soon develop the super- computer Skynet, using a microchip salvaged from the first T-800 sent back in time; Skynet will become ‘self-aware’ in 1997, launch a nuclear war and then mastermind the subsequent war to wipe out all remnants of humanity. Brooding on this information, Sarah strikes out alone to kill Miles Dyson at his home, pursued by John and the T-800.

Sarah devastates Dysons home but cannot bring herself to kill him. But when the T-800 proves that it is, indeed, a cyborg from the future, Dyson agrees to lead them to his lab to destroy his research. There they run foul of security guards and are forced to shoot their way out; Dyson dies a hero, ensuring that his work to date is blown to pieces. The T-1000 hears of the fracas on police radio and gives chase, cornering Sarah, John and the T-800 in a steel foundry. After a series of violent clashes, the T-1000 is terminated in a vat of molten steel. The T-800 insists that it, too, must be terminated so that its controlling microchip can never be misused. Sarah and John tearfully lower it into the molten steel.

* * *

James Cameron’s sense of his own mission seems to be growing as fast as his production budgets. Terminator 2 is less a sequel to The Terminator than a benign revision of the earlier film, a parable in which Arnold Schwarzenegger’s matchless T-800 is transformed from an unstoppable killing machine into man’s best friend and an ideal father figure. This transformation is, of course, in line with the shift in Arnie’s image from macho action star to potential Republican candidate and family favourite, but it has been clear since The Abyss that Cameron is a writer-director who takes his messages very seriously. Here he gives Sarah Connor an occasional voice-over narration that points up the moral of the story as preachily as anything in a 30s social-problem picture: “If a machine can learn the value of human life”, she gasps, “then maybe we can too”.

If the original film flirted with the idea of a secular alternative to New Testament myth, Terminator 2 goes the whole hog by subtitling itself “Judgment Day” and introducing a redeemer-to-be with the initials J. C. The film sentimentally rhymes the T-800’s ‘personal growth’ with the boy John Connor’s discovery of his social conscience as he moves from skateboarding, video-game-playing and petty crime to filial piety. Like much else in the movie, this is accomplished with economy and a fair measure of wit. When the T-800 starts trashing an innocently obstructive bystander, the boy intervenes: “Jeez, you were gonna kill that guy”. “Of course”, intones Arnie, “I’m a Terminator”. From this point on, the T-800 goes out of its way to avoid terminating anything except its implacable foe, the T-1000.

This caring sensibility extends even to the embittered Sarah, who vengefully clobbers her way out of captivity in the asylum but then cannot bring herself to kill the black scientist Miles Dyson when she discovers him at home in the bosom of his Cosby Show family. Sarah’s incarceration, incidentally, is one of several non-sequiturs from the original film (she is locked up for babbling on about Terminators and impending nuclear devastation, as if no one else had seen the old T-800). But she is none the less a clear descendant of the heroine of Aliens — another in Cameron’s gallery of strong and resourcefully maternal women. The price she has to pay for her independence, inevitably, is exclusion from the tremulous male bonding between her son and the T-800; it’s hard to project her role beyond the final fade-out.

The element that enables Cameron to reconcile his conviction that human life is sacred with the more profane demands of the genre is the appearance of the T-1000, without doubt the most sophisticated monster so far in screen history. The T-1000 marks the point where computer-generated imagery equals and overtakes the protean effects achieved with lower-tech resources by the Rob Bottin crew for John Carpenter’s The Thing. The T-1000 is essentially a puddle of liquid metal capable of taking on human and mechanical forms instantaneously, resulting in both a series of ingenious physical transformations and numerous shots in which the actor Robert Patrick appears part-human, part-metal.

There’s no disputing that its quaint morality earns Terminator 2 the label “A James Cameron Film”, but there is equally no doubt that it represents another triumph for corporate film-making. What price the auteur in the days of five-minute credit-title sequences? Maybe the Academy should introduce a new Oscar for the Camerons, Burtons, Verhoevens and McTiernans of the New Hollywood: Best Ringmaster?

Sight and Sound, September 1991


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