Monday, June 29, 2015

Zaki's Retro Review: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Click here to read my retro review of The Terminator

Before The Terminator had even finished production, director James Cameron and star Arnold Schwarzenegger expressed interest in continuing the story. Once it hit theaters in fall of 1984 and turned a profit several times over its $6.5 million budget, the idea of sequelizing the sci-fi opus became as inevitable as the dark future it posited. But any efforts in this arena were hobbled by rights holders Hemdale, which had financed the first film but had seen its fortunes wounded by a series of costly bombs in the years afterwards, and was hardly in a position to mount another Terminator that could match Cameron's imagination.

And so, the waiting game began. In the interim, Schwarzenegger marched from success to success like a conquering king, with Commando, Predator, The Running Man and more bolstering his action hero bona fides. Cameron, meanwhile, wrote and directed the Twentieth Century Fox sequel Aliens in 1986 to critical and audience acclaim, and three years later helmed the undersea alien opus The Abyss, which only cemented his growing reputation as one of the most important voices in fantasy filmmaking. Finally, in 1990, after Schwarzenegger helped turn Total Recall into a $260 million smash for Carolco Pictures, the time seemed right to revisit his most iconic role.

Founded by Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, Carolco was an independent production company that had been around since the mid-'70s, but truly came to prominence the following decade thanks to its stewardship of the Rambo trilogy (for which Cameron had penned the blockbuster middle entry). The pair had also built up a pleasant working relationship with Schwarzenegger after he headlined their 1988 hit Red Heat. After Total Recall, the star approached them about relieving the financially struggling Hemdale of their interest in a Terminator sequel, which they dutifully did to the tune of $5 million.

Suddenly, all those long years of patient waiting appeared to have come down to this. Schwarzenegger would never be a bigger star than at this moment. And as the groundbreaking computer effects in The Abyss, including a fully digital water tentacle that presaged some of what was to come in the effects realm, demonstrated, there was little Cameron could envision that couldn't be realized onscreen. Thus, with the two most important faces of the franchise back aboard along with female lead Linda Hamilton, the production team had the wind at its back when cameras rolled on Terminator 2: Judgment Day in October of 1990.

Set eleven years after the events of movie one, Terminator 2 posits a second attempt by the machine intelligence called Skynet to take out its nemesis John Connor. This time, rather than try to wipe him out before he's even conceived, the plan is to kill him during adolescence (when he's played by Edward Furlong). To that end, an more advanced model cyborg called the T-1000, composed of liquid metal (an idea Cameron first had for the original), is sent back to the mid-'90s. Meanwhile, the human resistance is able to capture and reprogram a T-800 model from the last flick, this time to serve as John's protector in the past.

I think it's an open question about which is the superior Terminator entry, the first or the second. I think the first one is probably the better film overall, but really we're talking about a difference of degree, and I fully admit that it's the second that I tend to watch the most often. Terminator 2 (or T2, as it was known in the marketing and the zeitgeist) set off a bit of a sensation when it first came out in summer of 1991. While its $100 million-plus budget (more than ten times that of the original) was the biggest ever at the time, there's no doubting that every cent of that considerable investment is visible onscreen thanks to Cameron's willingness to push the effect and stunt envelopes into heretofore unexplored realms.

Further, so much of what we tend to think of as indispensable parts of the whole Terminator mystique ("Hasta la vista, baby") actually have their roots here in the second film. The biggest among these is Arnold as a good guy Terminator. While that seems like a no-brainer today given the many years of history we have with the idea, back then it was a pretty big paradigm shift (albeit an essential one given his heroic screen persona). And while all the jokes about Schwarzenegger excelling at playing a machine are easy, the fact remains that he conveys an undercurrent of humanity while still preserving the underlying machine-ness of his character.

Also, in Robert Patrick, the director found the perfect actor to embody Arnold's opposite number. In the early goings, if you'd managed to skip all the marketing and had no idea that the "good guy vs. bad robot" premise has been switched up since last time, Patrick has just enough everyman-ness that we can totally believe he's another human time traveler a la Reese. When the character finally does reveal his true nature and begins chasing after the motorcycle-riding Connor on foot, culminating in a three-way chase through a viaduct, it's remarkably unnerving thanks to the robotic affect Patrick adopts.

More than that, though, there's the story itself, again go written by Cameron with William Wisher. As mentioned in my last write-up, the beauty of the original Terminator comes at least partly from the simplicity of its closed-loop. As the title card at the beginning of the first film informs us, this was supposed to be the final battle. The machines had lost, and the time travel play was their Hail Mary. As such, there really isn't a lot of wiggle room to insert a follow-up, but then given Cameron's demonstrated utility with sequels, I guess it's not all that surprising he found a way to squeeze another tale out of the premise, and one that doesn't just feel like a karaoke regurgitation of pre-played beats.

While there are several breathtaking action sequences (including a harrowing freeway chase involving two trucks and a helicopter), it's ultimately the big ideas that draw our interest and hang onto it. Are we locked into a path of self-destruction? Is fate immutable? These questions have so wrecked Hamilton's Sarah (who impressively toned up her physique between movies) that she's been institutionalized since the events of last time, and they're given vivid expression by Joe Morton's Miles Dyson, the computer technologist who is destined to create the Skynet program that will one day sentence millions of people to extinction.

In another one of those predestination paradoxes this series traffics in, Dyson is using the remaining bits of the wrecked Terminator from the last movie to guide his research, meaning Skynet wouldn't exist without the Terminator, even though the Terminator exists because of Skynet. Don't worry, that splitting headache you're feeling right now is perfectly normal. Anyway, out of all the characters in the film, it's Dyson who emerges as the most heroic. He's just a regular guy, but when he hears what's going to happen and hears what needs to be done, he doesn't flinch in following through, even at the eventual cost of his own life.

While the first film was very much girded by the romance between Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn (who is missed here, but does make a welcome appearance in the extended director's cut via a dream sequence cameo), this one is built on the budding relationship between the young Connor and the T-800 that he comes view as a surrogate parent. While there are so many ways it could have gone off the rails and felt fake or cloying, the bond between the boy and his 'bot is given a depth and reality thanks to both performers (Furlong in particular imbues his performance with a maturity that belies his age).

This relationship lends a real poignancy to the closing moments. The seemingly unbeatable T-1000 is defeated. The various wrecked Terminator bits and pieces left over from last time have been destroyed. It appears our heroes have finally succeeded in staving off the impending machine apocalypse (the "Judgment Day" of the title), but one last vestige of this dark future remains. The T-800 understands this, and through the tearful protestations of the child he's been programmed to protect, the child who would day become humanity's last hope, he lowers himself into molten metal and is soon gone.

Of course, you can't keep a good cyborg down. Upon its release over Independence Day weekend '91, audiences and critics greeted T2 rapturously, eventually helping it earn more than $500 million worldwide (not to mention igniting a merchandising flurry). Ever the perfectionist, Cameron had gambled big on his vision, and the world responded in kind. Naturally with a reception like that, talk of another Terminator entry started gaining traction pretty quickly. However, with things having come to a pretty definite end, and Cameron himself saying "T3 without me" during the often strenuous shoot, the question remained whether there was anywhere left to go.*

To Be Continued...

*Fourteen years and two sequels later, a lot of folks would argue there wasn't.

For more thoughts on Terminator 2, check out the MovieFilm Commentary Track, featuring myself and Brian Hall talking through the movie, via the embed below:

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