Episode 101: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Introduced by Matt

Discounting Piranha II: The Spawning—from which James Cameron claims to have been sacked, in a shrewd attempt to distance himself from, and disown it—and his underwater documentary work, he’s only actually directed eight films, and for me, only three are worth your precious time: The Terminator, Aliens, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It’s an underestimation, and plain insulting to say they’re merely worth your time, though—they’re nothing short of some of the most iconic, pop culture-defining movies ever produced.

The quality of this era—Jim’s finest work, only muddles matters in terms of his hit-and-miss filmography. T2 is peak Cameron—pre-king of the world, but undisputed, reigning king of the hi-tech, best sequels ever. What on earth happened? At a glance, even in 2023, it appears this is still his modus operandi, and remains his major preoccupation—he’s still unequivocally a top flight filmmaker, but there are levels, especially when you’re the bloke behind the might of Judgment Day. Is anyone in their right mind weighing the validity and credibility of T2 against something like Avatar: The Way of Water? Perhaps after a filmmaker births a picture as strong as Terminator 2, there’s really nowhere left for them to go. Plumb the depths of the ocean instead, perhaps, in search of new treasures and life distractions? Granted, T2 was also an unadulterated popcorn action movie, but it simultaneously housed such deep, disturbing themes, and disappointingly, now represents the last bastion of the old Cameron; the Jim with a nasty, sullen edge—an edge sadly left behind, never to return. ’84-’91 was his capsule of greatness, neatly bookended by his original two Schwarzenegger-starring Terminator entries. Some might say the signs were always there, with Jim having a keen eye for flashy effects dating way back to the Battle Beyond the Stars Corman days, and throughout his early filmography, but in 1996, T2 3-D: Battle Across Time—an immersive attraction ride at Universal Studios, represented a switch; the first step towards shallow, gimmicky engagements, and away from authentic, story and character-driven films.

Cameron never made another film as solidly dark and dense as Terminator 2, but credit where it’s due, T2 was a technical cinematic accomplishment beyond all others, and has aged like a fine wine. Although I don’t care for the crowbarred-in, wannabe Bond action, flamboyant misogyny, and desperately infantile humour of True Lies, it was really 1997’s self-serving vanity project, Titanic and his deep sea diving doc horseshit like Ghosts of the Abyss, and Aliens of the Deep, when his pictures weakened and waned. Compared to Judgment Day, his Avatar sequels are, and will continue to be, a fuck off; a waste of time. To me, they’re blatantly ego-inflating, cynically designed, money making ventures, and nothing more.

“If a machine; a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”

Sarah Connor, Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Naturally, mature work tends to emerge towards the completion of a career. Most directors are comparatively grown-up as they enter their late sixties. Jim should be knee-deep in thematic concerns by now. Instead, he’s regressed beyond hope, and it was such a shame to witness a preeminent director, visionary, and one of my all-time filmmaking heroes get so lost in his own extravagant nonsense. Admittedly, he’s a lesser offender than the Marvel and DC lot (not you, Nolan)—mostly due to having so much in the bank with film-goers. Cameron has nevertheless become the cinematic embodiment of out of touch infantilism at a time when he should be maturing as an artist, and spearheading modern storytelling by tapping back into the ballsiness of his Rambo: First Blood Part II, Point Break, and Strange Days script contributions, and skewing films back into Aliens and T2-toned adult territory (not like that—sex scenes are hardly Jim’s strong suit), and not megalomaniacal, worldbuilding pissing contests, George Lucas worship, and Peter Jackson mimicry.

Where were Cameron’s peers at 68? Sir Ridley was readying American Gangster, Spielberg—with Bridge of Spies and The BFG, had one foot in a commercial camp, and the other in more fully fledged, contemplative work, as he has done so cleverly throughout his career with side-by-side productions like Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park in ’93, and later on, Munich and War of the Worlds. Scorsese also mixed maturity with a youthful sensibility as he simultaneously made Shutter Island and Hugo at that age. What was another seemingly weary genius, Stanley Kubrick, filling his dwindling days with? Eyes Wide Shut (he’d be dead just two years later, aged 70—there’s a lesson for Jim: time is short, directing films is a privilege not owed to many, and as ten films max, Quentin Tarantino, often preaches—every film in your filmography counts). Cameron could make literally anything—look at Coppola’s current self-funded magnum opus, Megalopolis. Instead, we get five Avatars. It’s evidence of a businessman, not an artist. It remains to be seen if the entire Avatar series pays off commercially—never doubt Cameron when it comes to dollars, but it’s sad—mournful, really, to witness such an artistic decline. Put the Marvel-minded child’s play down—enough with the blue people, let’s get serious again; aim higher. But I don’t think Jim’s capable of it. He’s been characteristically frank on the recent Avatar: The Way of Water press tour, confessing he’s making movies to fund his extracurricular activities, and it shows. 

Take T2’s creepy, cheek-licking orderly, Dougie—it’s all beyond disturbing. I mean, if that’s what he’s up to, what else is he tonguing when the patients are sedated? As unsettling and icky as that fleeting moment is, it’s here; it’s included, and I don’t believe that part of Cameron exists anymore. Age, diminishing testosterone levels, and to a degree, boredom with the medium, have stamped it out. Consider Sarah’s attempted assassination of Miles Dyson, where she obliterates half the house with automatic machine gun fire, strides in fearlessly in a tactical vest, clutching a handgun—Dyson crying, bleeding on the floor—his petrified family pleading for their lives; for her mercy. She cryptically threatens, “I’m not gonna let you do it,” before collapsing into a heap—everyone in floods of tears. Put that in your FernGully smurf sequel, Jimbo.

“Easy money.”

John Connor, Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Soon came the shoddy Terminator sequels, and who’s there to sign off on ’em all? To convince fans they’re canon? To promote the tat for kickbacks, and backend in his back pocket to fund more ostentatious journeys 20,000 leagues under the sea? Ol’ J.C.—appropriate for a chap with a messiah complex. One thing I despise about the relentlessness of poor sequels is that they have the potential to undo the importance of the events depicted in the original.

The grandest insult in these phony follow-ons, and the most insulting in terms of the desecration of the plight of the Connors, is 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate, in which the two Cameron entries are jiggered with so badly, the events of The Terminator and Terminator 2 end up cheapened and diminished by unarguably inferior installments. Without doubt, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation, and Terminator Genisys, were varying levels of abysmal; misjudgment days, if you will—but main offender, Dark Fate marked a new low; a personal insult to anyone with a modicum of investment in Jim’s duo. I want to see human beings—not computer renderings of exhumed actors, long since bloated and wrinkled. The arcs of these characters are complete. Don’t be digging up their graves, just to crudely and disrespectfully whack John Connor in the first five minutes, in what resembles a dreadful, video game cut scene. I couldn’t even stomach the forged, yet relatively subtle, execution of The Irishman‘s de-aging methods, so Dark Fate was always going to fall short in my eyes.

Subsequent faffing persisted, and it’s obvious to anyone with eyes, and a brain in their head, that all that messing devalues movies—potentially irreparably. I truly believe even the greatest, most iconic work can be diminished—even undone, if the culprits’ intentions are impure and incompetent enough. Talk about The Phantom Menace ruining childhoods—you’re telling me everything in The Terminator was for naught? The events of T2 were ultimately pointless? I refuse. It’s the retroactive destruction of those key Sarah and John story arcs, and for what? A piece of shit money-spinner like Dark Fate. The story is over; the tale has been told. There’s nothing else to it. It’s zero integrity on the part of the rights-holders—a shameless desire to make a few bucks, and Cameron’s involvement in the marketing and advertising of these bastard children is reprehensible. Let’s face it, we can no longer believe a single word that falls from his mouth. I have zero interest in the Terminator franchise *bleugh* beyond Judgment Day. I’ve seen them all, but they’re one watch wonders; they’re Kingdom of the Crystal Skull levels of I don’t care. To me, they simply should not, and therefore do not exist. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was his last crusade (clue’s in the title, people), Judgment Day is the final Terminator film, and to me, forever will be.

“The future is not set. There is no fate, but what we make for ourselves.”

John Connor, Terminator 2: Judgment Day

The Jim Commandments

Judgment Day is a box-ticking bonanza in terms of “The Jim Commandments”—a (lightly plagiarised, but fairly definitive) method of checklisting the key rules of superlative sequels.

  • Should feel familiar, yet original
  • Identify what worked, and build on it
  • Up the stakes
  • Play to and with audience expectations
  • Give the audience something new—”If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the enemy of sequels
  • Continue the story; don’t just repeat the original in a new location, e.g. Speed 2: Cruise Control
  • Provide a satisfying twist on the original premise, e.g. good Arnold in T2
  • Skew the same character/s and premise into a new design principle/genre, e.g. Cameron turning Alien‘s suspenseful art-horror into a sci-fi action combat film with Aliens
  • Retain a logical, believable continuation of the characters’ stories—resist falling into the trap of increasingly preposterous leaps in logic to keep them in the same far-fetched situation as previously explored, e.g. Jaws: The Revenge
  • Ask a question the audience didn’t think to ask, but now must know the answer to
  • Deepen our understanding of, and evolve the lead character by thrusting them into new challenges, and presenting new obstacles to overcome—characters from the original should grow, develop, and show change
  • Through line protagonist returns with the same desire but a different need—a reason to survive beyond survival itself, e.g. Sarah Connor protecting John/Ripley protecting Newt—a selfless, maternal duty becomes paramount
  • Add new, memorable characters, e.g. Connery in Last Crusade, or a superior villain, e.g. Ledger in Dark Knight—intensify the antagonist
  • Should also function as a stand alone film—self-contained, coherent in isolation, and so strong, that you could skip the first film entirely
  • More, more, more—a more relentless rapid pace; more elaborate, give audience more of what worked the first time around, but bigger—darker, funnier, more complex, a deeper emotional focus

T2 is to The Terminator what Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II is to 1981’s The Evil Dead—a bigger, brasher redo. It’s effective because it articulates everything the original did, but more definitively. Whether it’s Sarah and Kyle ducking and weaving through the factory’s hydraulic presses and moving machines in the original, mirrored entirely in the climactic steel mill of T2, or the nighttime highway truck pursuit in each film—be it a truck driver or a gardening van fella who witnesses Arnie’s metallic visage—I suppose we can add him to the list of future 4chan “conspiracy nuts” who saw a cyborg that evening, along with all those Cyberdyne first responder cops the T-800 kneecapped, who would surely all have Infowars-esque YouTube channels by now. 1984’s The Terminator is more of a bleak, hopeless, sci-fi horror (or “tech-noir” as Jim coined it), and the follow-up is predominantly a sci-fi actioner, albeit with its own nightmarish flair. It’s revealing that I never hesitated to watch the second film as a kid, but the original made me pause for thought. The Terminator scared me to a degree where I would actively think, “I’ll watch The Terminator and frighten myself.” I’d take in T2 with my parents and younger sister around, but not the first film. Perhaps it was the intense, gorier aspects—the eye removal, Linda Hamilton’s slo-mo cupped boobs, and the Slider Walkman sex.

Countless critics chimed in on Terminator 2’s fatality-averting gunfire, with Arnold ditching prior bloodthirsty excess—against his own wishes, if Cameron’s T2 audio commentary recollections are to be believed. Schwarzenegger was initially hesitant about the castrating lack of on screen murderous acts on the part of his star-making Terminator character, and the script-flip substituting his killer robot for a protective goodie. Was it all a hangover from John McTiernan’s late ’80s Predator and Die Hard mentality, where shooting at nothing was the latest insurgent intellectual trend—a smart subversion of the ludicrous body counts and irresponsible, throwaway cartoon violence of Commando, Rambo III and the like? In Terminator 2, Jim and Arnold even let “Old Painless” (the preposterously powerful minigun from Predator) out of the bag for more rip-roaring carnage. Are they all reading from the same hymn sheet? This would strike me as peculiar, as Cameron was responsible, along with Stallone, for scripting Rambo: First Blood Part II. Sly’s bullet festival excess would also provoke Kubrick into producing his anti-war answer to screen depictions of combat, Full Metal Jacket.

Brad Fiedel’s score does a ton of heavy lifting in terms of the emotional resonance. The hyper-futuristic clanking, and violent, barbed militaristic marching of “Tanker Chase” alone may be suspenseful enough to induce night sweats. Equally robotically rattlesome, percussive, and shimmeringly intense—the pulsing drone; that hum, the rhythmic handgun fire, metallic shrieks of knives and stabbing weapons scattered throughout, all underline the menace. Even when off screen, the liquid metal T-1000 is forever present in the music and sound design—always lurking, mirroring the antagonist’s relentless pursuit of John. Coupled with perhaps the best movie sound mix I’ve ever heard, the images, sound design, and score, are forever interlocked and inseparable in a way that only the magic of cinema can accomplish.

It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves.”

The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day

T2’s almost seamless, 2023-topping integration of digital effects is a masterclass—alongside other CG-pioneering pictures of the era, such as Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park, still staggeringly stand up today. Sadly, contempt for the audience seems to have replaced Industrial Light & Magic’s humble desire to convince us, and most importantly, themselves, that digital could cut the mustard, and transport viewers into the story as effectively as stop-motion, animatronics, miniatures, and prosthetic makeup previously had. Concern over whether digital could replace practical has now vanished altogether—to an unhealthy degree, and contemporary audiences are being cheated with subpar scraps from the computer graphics artist’s table as the industry norm.

Here, Jim gives himself license to be badass—with the T-800—a cyborg cloaked in flesh, peeling away on the Harley-Davidson Fat Boy, with George Thorogood & The Destroyers’ “Bad to the Bone” cranked all the way up to eleven, on an L.A. highway at night. That is cinema. It’s the gold standard—the action movie by which all others are measured—and unfortunately for them all, it’s yet to be equaled. It’s cinema perfection—total escapist action with a propulsive, infinitely rewatchable, terrifying and entertaining story.

The only action adventure film in danger of topping T2, in terms of daisy-chained, breathless set pieces, is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Each of these two films boast three, extended stunt sequences in a row that are all absolute knockouts. In Raiders it’s the Well of Souls sequence, with Indy and Marian smashing the massive column through the stone wall to escape the darkening, serpent-filled tomb. Then Indy fistfights the hefty Nazi mechanic, followed directly by the whole plane explosion stunt. Before we can relax, he’s on horseback in pursuit of the ark, which evolves into the iconic truck chase, and it’s all underscored evocatively with John Williams’ classic cues.

In Judgment Day, it’s the Cyberdyne escape—a worthy minigun show unto itself, followed by the police truck vs. helicopter highway chase, and it’s all practical. These sequences aren’t about morphing CGI—they’re really wrecking helicopters; they’re really flipping a truck with 1,000 squibs detonating in its roof. Even as a boy, I understood this stacking of set pieces was something special because not only was it thrill after thrill after thrill, the hits felt real, the bullets were ricocheting violently with genuine danger and visual consequence. It was Die Hard levels of aerial chopper photography, but dare I say, piloted even better. Where could Cameron go from there? Where could he possibly take us next? Into the molten lead foundry, which miraculously, despite its contrivances and convenience in terms of the melty antagonist, doesn’t feel tagged on, or underwhelming, after the non-stop action preceding it. It’s character-based, and instead, goes under the death-defying stunts to resolve the story with performance, emotion and heart.

Bold statement time. Judgment Day’s three, core action sequences have never been equaled—and they’re back-to-back, with no let up; no time to take a breath, just balls to the wall, practical action. Yes, True Lies arguably goes bigger, and yes, the vehicular choreography of the bridge sequence is visually impressive and practically achieved, but it can never get near T2—not even close. Perhaps it’s superior to Raiders, perhaps not. Whichever film we side with, an argument can certainly be made for T2 being the pinnacle, as it’s aged so gracefully, and bafflingly still looks like it was made yesterday. It’s a miracle of sci-fi action filmmaking—all filmmaking, really. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t adore it. This is the ideal tone—nailed absolutely perfectly, with an ending so beautifully pitched, and adeptly handled—heartfelt and moving without straying into Cameron’s latter career saccharine melodrama. Humanity, story, and old-fashioned actors just acting; doing their thing, will outweigh business-minded, surface action, and forced franchise filmmaking every time, and Cameron knows it—or at least he did.

“Hasta la vista, baby.”

The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Arnold Schwarzenegger Bingo

PS I’m always looking for an excuse to wheel out the ol’ Schwarzenegger bingo board, so have fun drinkin’ along, or if you’re a health nut, just do some stomach crunches or sit-ups or something every time an Arnie trope box is ticked. A bingo Trope-Tote™ dedicated entirely to “The Austrian Oak,” “The Running Man,” “Conan the Governor,” “The Governator,” “Schwarzy,” “Arnie” himself – Mr Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger is available to purchase from our sustainable brand buddies at Teemill.

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