Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2: Judgment Day ★★★★½

Before I launch into this review, I just want to assure everyone that I do, in fact, love this movie. I will eventually nitpick a few things about it, but don't get mad. It's one of the best summer blockbusters ever, a full-throttle blast of action and spectacle with still-astounding visual effects, imaginative action sequences and even a nice bit of depth. (When I discuss depth in movies like this, it's a totally different conversation than when I discuss depth in something like "Persona". We all understand this, right?)

But I don't think I ever realized how much better "The Terminator" is than its sequel. I mean, I love both movies and they're both different things. "The Terminator" is closer in tone and execution to a horror film. It's an essential, stripped down bit of genre perfection soaked in apocalyptic dread and thrumming with intensity and nearly unbearable suspense at times. "Terminator 2" is an action movie, and a great one. The action sequences are incredible. My favorite is probably still the chase through the aquaducts, with the motorcycle being chased by a semi. For all of the amazing visual effects in the film, one of the most amazing shots in the movie is seeing that actual semi truck crash from the overpass down into the aquaduct and sustain actual damage and then continue chasing John Connor. The part where the T-1000 chases them in a helicopter is pretty awesome too and, again, impressive because we're actually seeing a chopper go under an overpass and pursue an armored car. Cameron is a great filmmaker for perfectly utilizing cutting edge visual effects, but he knows when there is simply no substitute for practical effects too, and that is one of his greatest strengths.

Cameron also makes this sequel feel like more of an epic, which I like. The first one is a no-prisoners jolt of terror and excitement, but this one slows everything down a bit more and expands upon it (much like Brad Fiedel takes his original themes from the first film and expands and improves upon them, making the score a beautiful and iconic one). It allows the story to breathe and flourish in a wonderful fashion. It gives the characters a bit more room to grow as well. I love the relationship that grows between John Connor and the cyborg sent to protect him. It's funny and tender and allows Cameron to explore morality in a thoroughly unique way. It's like "Iron Giant", except that "Terminator 2" did it first and, arguably, better. Edward Furlong isn't the greatest child actor I've ever seen, but he's convincing. He feels like a real kid, kind of a whiner, kind of a smart ass, kind of a PAIN in the ass. He acts tough but it doesn't take much to expose his vulnerability. He's a lot better than I recalled, actually.

But Linda Hamilton is the heart and soul of the film. Sarah Connor has become an unhinged prophet of the coming apocalypse between the first film and this one. She's barely the same character, but that feels realistic. One couldn't help but be changed by being pursued by a murderous cyborg from the future, and she has done everything in her power to fulfill her responsibility to the human race and raise a savior and warrior. And that has entailed becoming a fierce warrior herself. She's one of the most badass female characters I've ever seen, actually, so much so that I honestly think she might even surpass Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. Both women are fierce survivors who have been permanently altered by a traumatic experience, but Ripley still has more humanity to her. Sarah Connor has closed off her emotions to better battle emotionless adversaries. She has essentially turned herself into a robot in order to destroy robots, and that is a fascinating character arc. The moment where all of that comes crashing down and her emotions finally get the better of her is probably the most powerful scenes of the entire film. It is a raw and emotionally bracing moment, a truly haunting one.

"Terminator 2" is full of haunting and iconic imagery. Virtually every scene has an image that has become a big part of pop culture, so much so that it's kind of difficult to just enjoy them as part of the film itself. I think I knew a lot of these visual moments before the movie even came out thanks to the film's inescapable marketing juggernaut. The "Hasta La Vista, Baby" moment was ruined for me long before I ever sat down to watch it. But that doesn't rob these moments of their power. The nuclear armageddon sequence is truly chilling, for instance. I'm not surprised to have read that experts have said this is the most accurate depiction of a nuclear attack ever used in a fictional film. It feels accurate, it still shakes me to my core every time I see it, even though I've seen it dozens of times. The liquid metal effects still resonate as well. They're still cool, even though they've been ripped off, parodied, and copied countless times since. Seeing him rise from the floor, after becoming the floor, or walk through those flames like a man-shaped ball of solder, or that awesome little moment where he absorbs a piece of himself that has been blown off, it's all really cool and incredibly neat. It's nice to see a big blockbuster effects extravaganza that is this richly imagined and meticulously detailed (there's a moment where the T-1000 has grown a third arm so that he can pilot a helicopter while reloading a machine gun that's all the cooler because Cameron doesn't even dwell on it, it's there if you notice it or even if you don't, that's so friggin' cool!). The effects don't just hold up, they still IMPRESS!

Unfortunately, "Terminator 2" isn't quite perfect. I miss the apocalyptic dread of the first film. This one has moments of it (that nuclear Armageddon dream sequence, most especially) but it doesn't have the sustained intensity of the original film. Also, turning the T-101 from an assassin to a protector is a great touch and, hey, I love Arnold so it's nice to see him play a good guy variation on the role. He's very funny in his deadpan reactions to things (him picking that toddler up by the back of his overalls is one of the funniest images I've seen) but I feel like the movie goes a bit too far to include the one-liners and standard Arnold beats that had become his trademark by this time (and which he lampoons, marvelously, in "Last Action Hero"). Arnold is still great here, he's almost always great, but it's kind of jarring to see him turned into more of a punchline here. It's fun, to be sure, but it just feels like too much at times.

Speaking of too much, I like that "T2" feels like an epic, but it kind of feels overlong and a tad bloated at times. Cameron capitalized on his success and used his clout to make the movies he wanted to make and make them as long as he wanted, but such freedom is a double-edged sword. James Cameron is a phenomenally talented dude, but he's one of those guys who needs an editor. I felt the movie's length at several points, which I wouldn't have if the pacing had been as insanely tight as it was in the first film. And, honestly, it is a little awkward to see a movie that insists on the dangers of technology while using the most advanced technology available, one that speaks about humanity's impulses to destroy each other and laments the fact that we have forgotten the value of human life but still makes room for tons of shootouts and carnage. I'm not going to say that the film feels hypocritical, but it does come close sometimes.

But enough bitching: "Terminator 2" is still a totally exciting thrill ride that's a hell of a lot of fun. It has emotional and thematic depth, takes the time to get under the skins of its characters (even the non-human ones), has astounding special effects, brilliant bursts of imagination and terrific performances (I haven't even mentioned Joe Morton, who is one of my favorite things about this movie). It just isn't quite as good as the original "Terminator".

It is, however, a LOT more fun. I'm just not sure anymore that FUN is an improvement over the dark majesty of "Terminator". In fact, I'm almost positive that it isn't.

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