Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2: Judgment Day ★★★★★

It took the better part of a decade and a lengthy legal battle for Carolco Pictures over rights, but Terminator 2: Judgment Day was as inevitable as SkyNet and the war against the machines. James Cameron built the first Terminator movie as, to a degree, a told story but one with plenty of open-ended trap doors built in, with an expansive mythos he could mine to continue the epic tale of Sarah Connor protecting her child, the saviour of mankind, from deadly machines of a dark, terrifying future. Cameron here makes a sequel that both feels a different entity while retaining the pulpy action theatrics of the original. T2 is a textbook example of how to do a blockbuster sequel properly: bigger, deeper, cleverer, more exciting, just a larger canvas on which to paint a picture that while full of bombast & theatrics, also feels dark, brooding and introspective, exploring the psychology of a twisted family unit facing the twin elements of destiny and fate.

Family has always been the beating heart of the Terminator franchise, and it's never more apparent than in Judgment Day. The relationship between Edward Furlong's precocious teen John Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator sent back by his future self, re-programmed, to protect him, turns out to be a surrogate father-son dynamic tinged with pathos and an unexpected, quite brilliant river of humour the original was unable to mine. In retrospect, Cameron's original is a far darker, far more nihilistic & desperate picture in its outlook than T2; here, certainly by switching Schwarzenegger into the hero role, his prevailing message is one of hope, hope that there is 'no fate but that we make ourselves', a mantra Sarah lives by in her role as the mother in the family equation. Linda Hamilton grows into the evolved Sarah role here perfectly - this is not the terrified survivor of the original ordeal, but a woman consumed by the burden of terrible knowledge, consumed by grief at the man she lost so suddenly, consumed by the primal matriarchal fear she will lose her son & ultimately mankind will perish. Cameron encapsulates these waking terrors in Sarah's apocalyptic dreams, and one sequence in particular is made of visceral, haunting nightmarish stuff; it's possibly the most terrifying moment Cameron has ever committed to celluloid. Hamilton conveys the gamut of emotion within Sarah beautifully, playing well against Furlong to create a believable parent-child relationship you care for.

This being our first depiction of John Connor, it's a masterstroke that Cameron plays him as a child off the rails, because how else would a ten year old who grew up being told he was the saviour of mankind react? Furlong grows into a role that begins narrowly irritating & soon blossoms into convincingly strong for his age, not to mention endearing - especially in his delightful interplay with the Terminator, where Furlong brings out the best of Arnie's comedic talents. It's a testament to Schwarzenegger's performance & Cameron's direction that they make the Terminator charming in a Pinocchio kind of sense without him ever losing a sense of power or menace, or indeed underwriting the fear of the Terminator as a character itself. You can tick off the iconic lines & scenes here that truly made Arnie a superstar--my favourite perhaps being menacingly taking the shades to the tune of 'Bad to the Bone'. Cameron is able through him to explore the central theme of whether a machine can truly understand the meaning of humanity, a believable process through the Terminator's characterisation here & his relationship with John that gives the piece greater depth, speaking beyond the pulp theatrics of the original. It does at times slow T2 down, but for a purpose - Cameron's film is longer simply because he's careful to add the emotion, the resonance, the humour and indeed layering in the wonderfully realised ideas of paradox & predestination inherent in the story; you realise more than ever in T2 that the chicken really did come before the egg, that the future we made was because of the future that will always exist. Cameron ends the film with a hopeful refrain but there's a sense he, and maybe Sarah, know full well Judgment Day is and always will be inevitable. The journey here is about what we learn from it, as human beings, with the deeply emotional final sacrifice proof that man & machine aren't ultimately as different as they appear.

To say that Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a better film than the original is unfair, simply because James Cameron crafted them to be two different entities as part of a greater whole. Where the first was a breakneck thriller, the second is an action epic exploring thematically deeper regions, and as a result Cameron delivers a longer, richer experience. T2 also taps his growing penchant for pushing the technical capabilities of film, exemplified through Robert Patrick's terrifying, shapeshifting T-1000 that even today, though the beginning of technology now enormously more advanced, remains impressive. T2 will doubtless always be the cinematic franchise at its peak, simply because it blends everything so well - Cameron directs with verve, intensity & emotion; his cast balance drama, comedy & feeling perfectly; the script avoids cheese or schmaltz to touch on deeper themes & be remarkably human & the narrative expands the story logically and satisfyingly outwards. Ultimately it's one of those movies everyone remembers, most people can quote or reference, and will forever exist as proof that bigger can mean better & deeper. No question, James Cameron's finest work after Aliens.

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