Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY

A film that remains sharp despite near pop culture ubiquity.

James Cameron is a master at remolding movies in his current image.

With Aliens, Cameron didn’t envision the Lovecraftian xenomorph as the symbol of violation it was in Ridley Scott’s initial picture (a fact Devin points out on this superlative Canon episode), but rather multiple gallery targets protecting a monstrous queen. Hyper-masculine Space Marines* dreading another “bug hunt” took the place of oblivious intergalactic truckers just trying to make a living. But Cameron recognized what audiences viscerally responded to in the original – namely the intimate moments of unrelenting, claustrophobic horror – and made sure that his film sported similar set pieces (Burke’s Med-Lab ambush of Ripley and Newt with a face-hugger comes to mind). In re-jiggering the monster to fit his own needs, Aliens became a potent mix of re-hash and re-invention that felt fresh, aided in no small part by Cameron’s unique stylistic imprint of blue-hued action heroism.

For Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the massively successful follow-up (BO: nearly $520 million worldwide) to Cameron’s $6 million sensation, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s killer robot from the future is no longer a land shark with a laser-sighted pistol. Instead, the T-800 is now a protector – shielding young John Connor (Edward Furlong) from Skynet’s latest, greatest death machine, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). However, when approaching a follow-up to his own work, Cameron proved that he’d moved past the B-Movie horror approach he took with the original, opting instead to go gargantuan. When coupled with Aliens and The Abyss, it becomes clear Cameron was out to prove once and for all that he was no longer a Roger Corman ladder-climber, hiding his meager resources via a metric fuckton of filmic craft. Hollywood was his – period. Yet the director’s formula remains, as both murderous Skynet beings are re-introduced in near replications of Arnold’s iconic entrance in the original film, all while Brad Fiedel’s repetitive, thumping themes keep the tone of the two pictures coalesced.

Though he’s obviously the centerpiece of both pictures, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance in Terminator 2 contrasts so drastically with his initial T-800 turn that it often feels like a completely different character (which, technically, it is). The famous story revolving around Arnold’s casting in the first Terminator ends with the Austrian Oak firing his agent upon learning the rep turned down the titular part. Arnold originally auditioned to play Kyle Reese – time traveling solder, father and protector of John Connor, leader of the human resistance. When Cameron realized that this would involve Schwarzenegger delivering pages of expository dialogue, he balked, only opting to cast him as the murderous robot after having lunch with the charismatic star (whom the filmmaker had every intention of pissing off at that meal). Knowing his client had been switched due to his tenuous handle on the English language, Arnold’s agent ultimately tried to keep the former Mister Universe off the project. He failed, and what resulted was Schwarzenegger’s silent, terrifying turn.

But by 1991, Arnold was a full-fledged action star, complete with a quipping persona. Films like Commando, Predator, Total Recall and Kindergarten Cop proved that not only was dialogue not a problem for Arnold, he had developed something of a trademark delivery. One-liners like “I lied” and “It’s not a tumor!” turned the former phonebook serial killer into a household name. His second take on the T-800 combines the scary stoicism from the first film with something of a twisted Boris Karloff variation on his “I’ll be back” deadpan. The relationship that develops between the machine and John often plays like an extended riff on the warped bond that forms between The Monster (Karloff) and Little Maria (Marilyn Harris) in James Wale’s 1931 Universal Monster classic, Frankenstein.

Much how Maria demonstrates to the Monster the simple joy of tossing flowers into a pond, John attempts to convey the basics of human emotion to the mechanical beast. But just as the Monster tosses the girl into the water once he’s out of petals, the threat of violence is omnipresent even in the movie’s most humorous moments. Arnold alternates between inhuman slaughter factory and fatherly student as necessary, toying with line delivery and purposeful stiffness for maximum effect. It’s a hell of a performance, and concrete proof of how far Arnold had come as an actor at this point in his career. This is the stuff movie stars are made of, and pays off during the film’s final moments with possibly the most moving scene in both Arnold and Cameron’s respective careers.

The movie’s tiny elephant in the room has always been Edward Furlong. Just as Cameron inexplicably felt the need to insert an annoying moppet into Aliens (Newt is arguably one of the worst screen characters of all time), Furlong’s pre-pubescent squeaks and squawks are often grating, but never overly distracting. He’s a punk kid whose mom fucked him up and dad was never there, leading to a life of rebellion (telegraphed via his Public Enemy tee/Guns N’ Roses affinity) and petty crime. To be fair, Cameron and William Wisher’s script does the boy no favors, as it’d be hard for even Laurence Olivier to sell squarely written, early 90s Bart Simpson youth speak like “no problemo”. Thankfully, Arnold elevates these moments and makes you forgive whatever shortcomings the child actor owned – star-wattage doubling as a helping hand. Though how the kid turned an Atari Portfolio into a device that decodes ATM pins is still an absolute mystery**.

If anyone gets slightly shafted in terms of a character progression, it’s Linda Hamilton. Gone completely is the Sarah Connor from the first film – a naïve waitress in a bright pink diner dress. In the years that passed following her crushing a rabid exoskeleton with a hydraulic press, Sarah and her son have traveled across America; mom passing down survivalist skills to John at every stop. After getting arrested whilst attempting to bomb a computer factory, Sarah finds herself behind bars at a mental hospital, ranting, raving and physically attacking the promoted Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen). Hamilton’s new iteration of Connor is somewhat one note – wild-eyed and sweaty, trying to convince anyone who will listen that the world is about to end very, very soon. Every beat is played at max volume, as paranoia is now the exclusive fuel Sarah runs on.

Hamilton’s sinewy makeover (she’s introduced doing pull ups in her cell) continues Cameron’s fetish for hardened women. Much how he transformed the naked femininity Ripley displayed at the end of Alien into a power-loading mama bear, the Sarah Connor of Terminator 2 is now scheming, crafty and quite handy with any number of firearms. This isn’t a negative, mind you, just an auteurist fixation Cameron exhibits that defines the women in his films. Yet no matter how steely his female characters become, they retain their maternal instincts, as Ripley cares for Newt in Aliens and Sarah watches as John adopts a robot for a father figure. It’s a rough and tumble physical performance that is only marred by some seriously on the nose voice over (that unfortunately feels the need to spell out the movie’s themes). Still, Hamilton does her damndest to mold herself to fit her new beau’s vision (the actress moved in with Cameron in 1991 following his divorce from Katherine Bigelow), and the new Sarah Connor fits in nicely amongst a roster of Cameron’s hardcore women of action.

In the wake of his rather lucrative career as a character actor (including replacing David Duchovny’s iconic Agent Mulder with the mysterious Doggett on The X-Files), it’s difficult to recall a time when Robert Patrick wasn’t a near omnipresent “that guy”. But the T-1000 was only Patrick’s ninth role, with which he was able to instantly insert himself inside of our pop idiolect. The liquid-metal-morphing apparatus of annihilation is one of cinema’s more awe-inspiringly horrific monsters, and Patrick owns the creature’s chameleonic nature. The only humanity injected is in service of the hunt, as the T-1000 truly lives up to its status as an “upgraded model”. Conversely, Joe Morton (who just recently killed on a weekly basis as Scandal’s Rowan Pope) finds the wounded core of Miles Dyson, a Cyberdine engineer who is unwittingly destined to demolish the world. Morton has always been a consummate commodity, adding sagacity to every role, no matter how minor. With Dyson, he does a ton of heavy lifting in only a few scenes, selling the existence of an everyman who suddenly finds himself thrust into a Twilight Zone episode equipped with heavy artillery.

For the entire hullabaloo surrounding the groundbreaking, Academy Award-winning CGI usage in Terminator 2, Cameron still understands (maybe better than any director) how cutting edge effects still needs to be integrated with tangible practical work. Yes, the moment where the T-1000 bursts through a helicopter window only to reform next to the pilot is still stunning almost twenty-five years on, but that’s nothing compared to jumping a tractor trailer into the LA River. Hundreds of blood squibs, as opposed to digital blood (which would later become an off-putting genre staple), makes the audience feel the often-brutal gun violence. The climactic helicopter chase, where the craft literally flies under an overpass, was reportedly so dangerous that a cameraman refused to film it, leading to Cameron manning his own rig. While $51 million of the move’s budget may have gone to special effects, it was the stunt men and “gut boys” on set who were truly selling the picture’s often-insane action.

The seams of Judgment Day show in a rather playful way. Cameron isn’t afraid of utilizing what resembles old time rear projection photography during several of the exposition-heavy driving scenes. 4-Ward Production and its two-time Academy Award winning team of Robert and Dennis Skotak are responsible for the movie’s most traumatic moment – Sarah’s infamous radioactive dream of apocalypse. The Skotaks studied hours of nuclear test footage before building dozens of miniature buildings. The 4-Ward team then destroyed their new model using air mortars, lending palpability to the end of the human race. It’s old school movie magic augmented with revolutionary tech – a lesson often forgotten as CGI glut took over big budget effects movies in the picture’s wake.

Cinematographer Adam Greenberg (The Terminator, Near Dark) captures Cameron’s favorite blue steel hues and thick black tones with ease. Meanwhile, production designer Joseph Nemec III layers detail into each frame, creating spaces that each have a unique texture for Greenberg’s camera to peruse (compare the post modern Dyson household to the sweat stained wood of the opening’s biker bar). Possibly the most remarkable aspect of Cameron’s blockbuster is that it feels natural instead of manufactured. While Terminator 2 certainly exists in a heightened “action movie” arena, the viewer never doubts it’s established reality for a second. Cameron is a master at industrial tinged elegance. Just as the original film luxuriated in neon punk and The Abyss made you feel the claustrophobic pressure of a deep-sea oil platform, Terminator 2 creates a concrete LA Hell, complete with its own inferno at the end.

This odd grace is not only what helped catapult Terminator 2 to the top of 1991’s box office, but also what’s lent it an air of timelessness. Sure, there are period details that smack you in the face***, but the combination of practical and computer generated effects is still impressive on nearly every possible level. Where the first Terminator is still a harrowing horror movie, the adrenaline rush of its sequel hasn’t been watered down by oversaturation, parody or multiple plays. That’s the true sign of a damn good movie – it’s resistance to becoming a dull blade via pop culture ubiquity.

*…who would be recycled for his divisive Avatar.

**Yeah, yeah – I know there’s a “my mom taught me this” throwaway line. Still don’t buy it.

***If I had time machine, I’d go back and destroy every copy of George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone.”