Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Sarah Connor is right. Men like Dyson built weapons of mass destruction without any consideration for the horrors they were unleashing on the world. Or perhaps they knew. Oppenheimer had the audacity to act remorseful, but there's no way they could have worked on such power and not had some idea. You can romanticize them as "just scientists" or "just doing their jobs", but they had a choice. Even the Operation Paperclip worms had a choice, though they were clearly morally bankrupt even before the American Empire got a hold of them. Dyson is a stand-in for the Oppenheimers and Von Brauns, the Feynmans and Parsons. That they cast a black man in the role says something about the filmmakers, certainly, but it doesn't change the role he plays.

"How could we have known?" he has the nerve to ask, working for a defense contractor.

The future-history portrayed here has interesting parallels to current military technology, most notably the unmanned stealth bombers. Drone warfare still has a human guide to it, as far as I know, but that doesn't make it less evil, less horrifying, less potentially apocalyptic. It's worse, in some ways. We have figured out these days that A.I. is programmed with the biases of the programmers, and the drones have the training and conditioning of the U.S. military's most dehumanized soldiers behind them. Armageddon is in the hands of the most ruthless, greedy, cruel, evil people in the world--not the soldiers, their masters.

These are the folks who want war with China and Russia. They don't care about the lives lost. For every billion who die, they'll make a trillion or more. No matter what you think about China and Russia (and you're probably wrong if you get your info from bourgeois news), you have to know war with either or both would be bad for us all. Fight it with every fiber of your being.

So this film has an unexpected realism to it. He knows who the enemy is: the capitalist state. It doesn't identify them as such, and the filmmakers likely don't know up from down. But the narrative unveils the truth: the enemies are the cops, the cruel orderlies who lick defenseless women's faces. They are the killing machines, even the ones programmed to protect us. They are programmed with our biases. They contain our destruction within them.

As a kid, this film was one of the few to leave a mark on me. Recurrent nightmares and paranoia about nuclear destruction followed me through my tween years because of Sarah Connor's own nightmare. The sequence remains terrifying. It's the abrupt light, the burning bodies, the statues of ash being dissolved by the shockwave, and Sarah's skeleton desperately clinging to the fence. These images are etched more clearly in my mind than any birthday or summer vacation. I can remember the paranoia I felt every time I heard a plane overhead.

It's weird what affects you as a kid.

But that's not why I put it on tonight. I put it on tonight in search of something familiar. Something where the "good" guys win and the protagonist is a butch warrior-woman. Something with action. And it delivers; Sarah Connor has her moments, not least of which is the damage she does to that aforementioned orderly. But the best action sequences are, of course, for the Terminators.

I love how early on, the T-1000's role is that of a slasher villain. Around halfway through, they sideline him for the raid on Cyberdyne, which gives us the invincible "hero" of the T-101 taking on the minions of the capitalist state. The shock, fear, and confusion of the pigs as he ignores bullets, tear gas, and impact brings a certain satisfaction to someone whose friends and comrades have been shot, tear gassed, and beaten by the pigs for the "crime" of marching against racist police terror. The filmmakers have fun playing with the invincible killing machines, defying physics and reason in favor of violence, stunts, and explosions. Because the premise asks us initially to accept time-traveling cyborgs, the warping of reality with the action sequences only heightens the atmosphere of the film rather than breaking the suspension of disbelief. They push that to its limits.

I can still remember the curiosity and bemusement I felt when John throws that remnant of the T-1000 off the back of the car, and it oozes back into the robot's boot. I always wondered what would have happened if they had kept it. Or the slow build of the mercury-like liquid in the heat of the foundry. Or the way its head looks like tin foil after being blown apart by a shotgun at close range. Or the T-101's fist through its liquid metal head. These images stand out because they take the premise and play with it visually rather than just relying on exposition to convey the monster's power.

Or the way the milk drips off the blade as his arm-spike rests through John's foster father's mouth. It's the fine details that make it grotesque.

I can see now why people didn't like Edward Furlong's performance, but I was enough of a dork as a kid to think he was cool. I am not ashamed to admit that, mostly because all of my shame is accounted for. There's just no room for anything else. He's a snotty little kid with bad lines that are trying too hard to be some kind of cool or something. It doesn't detract from the film for me, because I can remember how my tween self responded. He's out-classed by Hamilton and Schwarzenegger, but that was inevitable. He's also out-classed by Robert Patrick, who should go down as one of the best slasher villains out there.

So, yeah, I watched this for the action. But not brainless action. It's so much more satisfying seeing the thought and craft put into these sequences. It's not just stunts, though the stunts are pretty awesome. (They kick things off with a T-101 jumping a motorcycle into an empty canal and racing a mack truck.) It's also the choreography of the gun fights. It's not John Woo, but there's still a lot of... precision in how the T-101 takes out hordes of pigs, how he uses gun after gun against his quicksilver enemy, and how Sarah Connor matches him if not in accuracy then certainly in ferocity (far exceeding him, really) and cunning. Even the corny action one-liners are used sparingly and with the purpose of characterization sometimes.

Maybe the reason I don't really care for most time travel films is because this set the standard for me. A simple loop, nothing convoluted, nothing unnecessary, nothing too heavy on the nonsense. Just "we went back to change what happens." Why complicate it?

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