Late to the Party – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

I could have and should have seen this movie when it came out In theatres. Back then I would often spend my allowance at the movies but at one point I interrupted that habit because I was saving up my money to purchase the video game Space Quest 3 being a huge fan of the first two entries in the series. That’s why when my local one screen theatre ran the movie, I deliberately chose to stay home. Initially, this didn’t seem like that big a sacrifice since I had never even seen the first Terminator movie and no attachment to the franchise. But then I had to hear about how awesome this movie was from all my friends and then it got worse. The film became a cultural phenomenon with massive crossover appeal beyond genre fans. It was the highest grossest film of the year and the buzz seemed to go on forever. I have no idea what other films I sat out during the period where I was saving my money. I only remember that Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  

And here’s the irony… by the time I had enough money to buy Space Quest 3, I didn’t even bother because at some point, I had heard that the game was dead easy and short (replayability was a huge factor back then when you were deciding to flat out purchase a game). I didn’t make an alternative purchase either. I just decided to start spending my money again like nothing ever happened and I started going to movies again. It just so happened that I missed out on what felt like the biggest pop culture phenomenon of the year. When I finally got around to playing Space Quest 3, my misgivings about the game were vindicated. It was entertaining enough but slight and devoid of the kind of challenges that would have prolonged the gameplay (again, this kind of thing was really important to video game consumers like me at the time). Weirdly though, I never get around to watching Terminator 2: Judgement Day well not until now that is.

A few years ago, I finally got around to watching the first movie in the series which I found quite good. It’s a well-crafted, taut sci-fi thriller that uses Arnold Schwarzenegger very well. I don’t care much for the big reveal at the end. As narrative devices go, that kind of time travel causality annoys me , but that’s a personal hang up and it doesn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the first film.

All right with that lengthy preamble out of the way, let’s get into it. The first great highlight of the film is the Arnold introduction. Now I don’t know much about the music they play in redneck biker bars but even I can recognize Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. and enjoy the hell out of a piece of action-comedy comic set to it. There’s some great levity in this scene such as the Terminator’s nonsensical decision to steal the sunglasses that will complete his look.

Guitars, cadillacs, nudity, bikers, etc.

Moving along, the first meeting between John Connor and The Terminator is effective enough but I was even more impressed with the scene of the phone call between the two Terminators. Watching T-1000 effortlessly impale a guy while perfectly impersonating John’s foster mother establishes that this action sequel hasn’t lost the horror elements of the first film and giving us the audio of the kill before revealing the gore is an inspired stylistic flourish.

Brought to you by AT&T: Reach Out and Touch Someone!

The next big set piece in the film is Sarah Connor’s escape. Now the film has already cut to Sarah a few times at this point and tension has been building as we empathize with her feeling of being trapped and powerless. But it’s not enough to merely have Sarah escape because the Terminators converge on the asylum at the same moment and have their second in person confrontation. It’s at this point, while watching the Terminator melt through a caged door and pry open elevator shafts with his metal hands that I started to really appreciate the decision to have the villain in this film be a new model of Terminator. I’d always assumed that the only reason this film introduced a new Terminator model was because Arnold was too big to play a villain at this point in his career and they simply had to cast a different actor in the villain role while keeping the face of the franchise around in a heroic. While I’m sure that those kinds of commercial consideration went into the conception of the film, what I didn’t really consider until my viewing, is that the T-1000 model allows the film to really up the ante in the villain department. In the first film, Arnold seemed virtually unstoppable but by making the new Terminator a shapeshifter, he now seems downright invulnerable and even though you have no doubt our heroes will win in the end, you start to wonder how the hell they will do it.

Yeah this is going to hurt like the Dickens in the morning but doesn’t it look cool right now?

After this set piece, we get a lot of ‘boy and his Terminator’ bonding scenes. We also get the return of Sarah’s voiceover from the first film waxing poetic about the pair’s paternal followed by an extended nightmare sequence. These two elements establish Sarah’s motivating to leave John behind. She knows he’ll be safe without her, and she wants to change the future by eliminating one of Skynet’s creator. What follows is an unsettling home invasion where our hero stops (just) short of killing a man in front of his wife and son. This is a pretty bold creative choice that I definitely did not see coming. On a practical level, this grizzly scene segues to the introduction of a third act MacGuffin. Our heroes need to destroy a CPU and remaining arm from the O.G. Terminator because those devices directly lead to the development of Skynet. This is consistent with the franchise’s internal logic. If a time travelling Kyle Reese could set in motion future events by travelling to the past and impregnating Sarah Connor in the first film than the time travelling Terminator could also influence future events by leaving behind a CPU that leads to the creation of Skynet. The film’s stakes have now shifted. Our heroes aren’t just fighting to save future hero John Connor. They are trying to create a future where his heroism won’t be needed. At this point, I’m starting to get curious about how this film will end. Will the future be fixed or will we get a more ambiguous ending?

(prolongued set piece follows)

I really hate the whole villain appears to be dead but isn’t trope, doubly so when they already did it in the first film.

(prolongued set piece prolongs)

Whoah… T-1000’s appearance just as he’s about to fall in the molten steel looks straight out of John Carpenter’s The Thing.

(and we’re done)

Yeah this is a good movie with a pretty terrific ending. Driving a liquid nitrogen truck into a steel factory is a hell of a contrivance but having established what T-1000 can do, there’s no simple way to convincingly incapacitate him and that contrivance is preferable to suddenly making the hero more powerful when it’s convenient to the plot which is how many other films solve their third acts.

Between this and Aliens, Cameron has a real flair for sequels that retain the key elements from their predecessor while also feeling like they up the ante and broadening the tonal palette. The script is quite strong. Everything feels like a natural outgrowth of the time travel rules as presented in the first film and the big emotional self-sacrifice scene at the end of the film feels earned. They leave it open as to whether our heroes successfully changed the future, but it would make sense that they did. There are no obvious dangling threads for subsequent sequels to latch onto and I certainly felt like this film gave me closure and have no interest in exploring further instalments.

Did I like this film as much as an adult as I would have back then? Maybe, maybe not. The morphing of the T-1000 would certainly have looked more impressive in 1991 than it does now but it still looks decent if unevenly convincing. I probably would have enjoyed the action set pieces in general a lot more back then and I would not have been bothered by the long stretches where a dull blue colour dominates the cinematography. I definitely would have been a big fan of Johh’s Public Enemy shirt. I probalby would not have felt the length of the movie as much back then but there’s also a non-negligible chance that the home invasion scene would have disturbed me enough to take me right out of the movie and make me dislike it overall. In any case, there’s not much point in speculating about the road not taken. Watching this in 2022, I had a very good time so it’s much better late than never.