This is an update of a previous article I wrote to coincide with the film’s 25th anniversary. Spoilers…
There was a time, if you remember, when James Cameron wasn’t weirdly obsessed with those funny blue aliens over on Pandora. Back in the early ’90s, when Tarantino was paving his way into Hollywood and Spielberg was bringing dinosaurs back to life, Cameron was busy cranking out ready-made classics like True Lies, The Abyss (okay, it was ’89) and, most notably, a sequel to his time-travelling actioner The Terminator (he also made in that decade some movie about a big ship that sinks but I forget the name). These days, a glance at Cameron’s IMDb page sadly yields little more than an endless list of Avatar sequels.
In total its four sequels to a film which arguably doesn’t need one, none of which he’s even begun shooting yet. This will fill up his directorial quota until at least 2023, but if past experience tells us anything, it’s that even if Avatar 5 avoids delays it will be years before anything like Battle Angel (which many hoped would follow Avatar) or dare I say it, True Lies 2, will hit our screens. Remember the twelve-year gap between Titanic and Avatar? And this is all assuming, probably incorrectly, that he won’t just decide to do Avatar 6.
Anyway, it’s up to Cameron how he wants to spend his time, and it’s up to us as viewers to respect that. After all, he did treat us just a bit in the past, and we’ve always got those older films to look back on and enjoy time and time again, like the brilliant and timeless Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Forget the best sequel – as it turns 25, it remains, for me, the greatest action movie ever made. Yep – better than Aliens, better than Lethal Weapon, better than Die Hard.
What really sets T2 apart is a script which devotes so much time to developing characters who we relate to, care about, and root for. As good as the first Terminator is, what it lacks – at least in quantity – is that sheer depth and characterization. Some will disagree, with good reason; I love The Terminator and the relationship which blossoms between Sarah and Kyle is indeed one we lose ourselves in (and offers an interesting slant to the story by revealing that Kyle, the man John sent back to protect his mother, is actually his father), while Sarah in general is a really compelling and well-written female lead. Yet it somehow still pales to the poignant relationship between young John Connor and the T-800.
Judgment Day not only further evolves Sarah’s transformation from waitress to fighter as her determination to prevent the rise of the machines borders on the psychotic, but it develops John from a rambunctious, fight-the-establishment teen to a young man learning the values of camaraderie and leadership through the idea of machines learning to feel. As Sarah evaluates in one of her voice-overs, the T-800 begins to act like a father-figure to John, the guardian he never had, learning along the way how to talk like a human (“Hasta la vista, baby”), how to smile, why not to kill, and why we cry.
In turn this highlights human flaws in the T-800, thinning the line between man and machine. It should never have allowed itself to become attached to John; or more accurately, should never have allowed John to become attached to it, as evident in the finale when John, knowing he can control the Terminator, demands it not to destroy itself (if it had obeyed it could have brought about the war, rendering everything they achieved in the film pointless). The T-800 doesn’t oblige, leading to that eye-watering ‘thumbs up’ ending as another father leaves John, but it could have gone the other way. And that’s the important word: when emotion takes over from logic and science, uncertainty rears its head. Where before the Terminator was a stone-faced, emotionless killing machine, we now see that it has the capacity to think and feel – to become a fully sentient being, for better and for worse. A powerful idea with ominous undertones.
Of course, the scope of these ideas only supplements the film’s prowess as a blisteringly exciting action movie. The truck/dirt bike chase in the storm drains, the shopping mall shootout, the police attack on the Cyberdyne Systems building and subsequent escape make Judgment Day one of the most thrilling rides out there – but it’s all topped off with the introduction of the T-1000.
A new liquid metal terminator that’s more powerful than any we’ve seen before, the T-1000 is genuinely one of the best villains ever committed to the screen. Its determination, relentlessness, ability to drift through objects, shape-shift into other people, mimic voices – the sheer indestructible nature of the thing – make it the crème de la crème. The über terminator. Perhaps Terminator 3’s even further improved T-X model is more powerful, with the same liquid metal exterior over an exoskeleton with built-in weapons and the ability to remotely control machines, but Robert Patrick’s chilling, impersonal performance will always make his T-1000 the best of the bunch. If Cameron’s original crazy wish had come to fruition and Schwarzenegger had played Kyle Reese, I can only think of Patrick as an ideal replacement as the T-800.
The only real snag with Judgment Day, which is really more charming than it is problematic, are the plot holes inherent with a time travelling narrative. Every time travel movie has at least one, some sneaky little idea or piece of information that doesn’t quite add up, because time travel is one of the most mind-bending theories ever conceived (and it’s hard enough piecing together a coherent linear narrative). In Judgment Day‘s case, it inevitably asks the question of, instead of protecting Sarah Connor, why didn’t the humans just send a terminator back to kill Miles Dyson before he could complete his work which led to the creation of Skynet?
In one scene, the T-800 even says, “You know by killing Dyson we could actually prevent the war.” Of course that leads into that old moral conundrum: can you sacrifice one for the longevity of many? (In this case you probably could). Likewise, it also serves up something of a paradox: it’s explained in the film that Dyson’s breakthrough in his research came when he found the broken terminator parts (from the T-800 in the first film), which means that he would never have created Skynet without a terminator, but terminators wouldn’t exist without him creating Skynet…I guess it’s no less confusing than Kyle Reese being John Connor’s dad.
Sans Genisys, The Terminator franchise as a whole continues to hold up after all these years – even the maligned Rise of the Machines has a lot more going for it than many people give it credit for – but Judgment Day is the clear high point. If ever there was a film that doesn’t need a big anniversary to warrant a revisit, it’s this. With pulsating action, inventive ideas, a compelling plot, emotionally powerful story arcs, strong character development, a prophetic narrative, dashes of humour, and a terrific soundtrack, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is basically the perfect movie.
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