Movie Review: Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Length: 137 minutes
Release Date: July 3, 1991
Directed by: James Cameron
Stars: 4 out of 5
"Terminator 2: Judgment Day" poses certain questions to the audience. What is the nature of reality? Is there such a thing as destiny? Is the future set and immutable, or can it be changed by an act of the will? If the future can be changed, can the past also? These are deep questions that aren't typically addressed by big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. Which makes it all the more surprising to see these issues handled with such sensitivity and sophistication by "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," a film which begins with a naked Arnold Schwarzenegger picking fights in a biker bar.
The year is 1994, and a cybernetic killing machine known as the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent back in time to defend the life of little John Connor (Edward Furlong), who is destined to lead the human resistance in the coming war against Skynet's machine army. Meanwhile another, more advanced terminator, known as the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), has been dispatched to kill John. With John's mother, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the Terminator manages to defeat the T-1000 at a climactic fight at one of the Los Angeles area's many steel mills. The film ends with the destruction of the Terminator and Sarah's narrative meditation on the nature of destiny.
There's no question that this film is the premiere example of the modern summer blockbuster. The film is driven by escalating scenes of violence and mayhem throughout its 137 minute runtime. Motorcycles zip through dry canals, huge trucks vault overpasses, police helicopters are broken into mid-flight, and the laws of physics relax until everything in the world is one spark away from erupting in a massive ball of flames. These effects are lovingly rendered down to the tiniest detail in what was not only the state of the art CGI at the time but with a smooth realism that would be considered impressive even today. Very few action movies are really able to deliver edge-of-the-seat sequences and amazing technical effects like this.
For all the trouble sequels have to face in doing justice to the original and living up to the fans' expectations, they do have certain advantages. One of these is the relative lack of pressure for character development. Even if further exposition is felt to be necessary it's usually possible in a sequel to simply chase some already well-established characters up the proverbial tree and throw some rocks at them all through the second act. "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" manages to resist this temptation and finds a way to take our old cast in entirely new directions. The Terminator has switched from menace to protector, while perfectly normal Sarah has been committed to a mental hospital, where she has apparently taken lessons in Judo, and even the alpha-male John Connor, mythic savior of humanity in the first film, is shown as a whiny little kid who's only just beginning to grow into the man humanity will need.
The actors turn in tremendous performances throughout the movie. Linda Hamilton was in hard training and restricted to a no-fat diet for several months for this film and reportedly lost twelve pounds during the shoot. It pays off in her depiction of a tough-as-nails mother of the future Sarah. Robert Patrick deserves special recognition for the icy menace he manages to convey every time his character calmly terminates another victim. His role as a silent murder machine is completely sold from the first scene.
No movie is entirely script and cast. For every film, there are subtle influences at work setting the mood and establishing the pace. Factors such as lighting, soundtrack, and set design are the work of scores of hands and sometimes do more to make a movie than the stars who get to be on the posters. "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" was blessed with Adam Greenberg as its Director of Photography. His Oscar-nominated cinematography work on this film defies the usual palette of orange exterior/green interior, which has become the curse of modern science fiction movies, and moves to a more naturalistic yellow-blue theme. This choice in colors worked out well with the fledgling technology of Dennis Muren's Oscar-winning visual effects.
So what does it all mean? Sarah Connor's unfortunate narration aside, what does the film say to the questions it tries to raise? Is humanity's destiny set, or do people have free will and the ability to grow beyond mere programming the way the Terminator did in the end? "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" never actually gets to the point of answering these questions. It seems a cunning decision by the filmmakers to avoid giving actual answers they might believe in and thus potentially alienating a fraction of their audience, but on repeat viewings, the open ending of the highway passing in the night tosses the questions back at the viewers. One of the nice things about this movie is that for every deep, meaningful question about man's relationship to the cosmos, there's going to be at least one scene of a futuristic cyber-hitman ramping a Harley over an exploding truck-something for everyone, in other words.