Terminator 2: Judgment Day ★★★★

Terminator 2: Judgement Day is a bigger film in every possible way compared to Cameron’s lean and mean original. It is ambitious, elaborately staged, obscenely expensive and a little bit flabby. It has a different, lighter energy to the relentless classic that preceded it as it expands on the universe and becomes a benchmark for practically every action blockbuster that followed in its monumental wake.

It is a sequel that has been reprogrammed, losing its meanness for spectacle and occasional comedy as Cameron plays with a whole new set of tools at his disposal. As a devoted fan of the lean lo-fi charms of The Terminator it is hard not to be slightly disappointed by this semi family friendly direction, but whatever commercial compromises were made in order to sell the film to the largest market possible, Cameron has still crafted one of the most thrilling action films of the period whilst continuing to push the technical possibilities of the medium.

The film follows the broad plot strokes of the first film as the growing Connor family flee from an unstoppable robot from the future. This time around the machine is meaner and even more unstoppable whilst Arnie switches sides with mixed results. The narrative twist, turning villain into hero, is dramatically interesting but also seems rather cynical to capitalise on Arnold’s ever-expanding star power. The film plays with the idea of a machine as a human but unfortunately it is only ever expressed for comic purposes or during scenes of schmaltzy sentimentality.

The film’s opening and closing stretches are phenomenal, delivering inventive action, stunning special effects and a propulsive energy that is impossible to resist. The sequences, whilst on a grander scale, still capture the same sense of relentless danger as the original movie. The change in antagonist to the indestructible T-1000 is also welcome with the villain not only being an unstoppable force but calculated and cunning too. Robert Patrick might not be as physically intimidating as the Austrian Oak but he proves just as menacing. However, the real reason he has become such an iconic character is the work done by the special effects artists as they bring to life this ever shifting killing machine.

Unfortunately, what stops Judgement Day from reaching the heights of the original is its indulgent pacing, something that has affected nearly all of Cameron’s later films. Whilst the film’s bookends are taut and thrilling the middle section frequently stalls the momentum. As the film shifts from a breathless chase story to a road movie the pace drops and interest is lost slightly. Whilst Cameron explores the unusual makeshift family the desert diversion and buildup to the Skynet showdown would have benefitted immensely from a little fat trimming. This is particularly true of the Director’s Cut which really adds little of value to the story.

It is not that these sections are bad - for example, the way Sarah becomes more machine-like than the Terminator as she conditions herself for the upcoming apocalypse is quite interesting - but without the present threat of the T-1000 it is never quite as compelling or perilous as it could be. It is during this middle section where most of the character development occurs but it is not always handled successfully. Part of the problem is having a child as a key character in an action film. Edward Furlong’s John Connor might be resourceful but he is also whiny and something of an irritation.

Given the film’s age and pioneering technical achievements it is surprising that the goofy humour dates it far more than the occasional lapse in the quality of the special effects. Whilst the cheesy one-liners and ‘90s slang are sadly showing their age the special effects, particularly that of the liquid metal T-1000, remain striking and convincing. A big part of this success is due to the way the visual effects are used to help deliver a series of ‘holy shit’ moments from the T-1000’s head being split in two to its premature demise in liquid nitrogen.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day is still a thrilling and inventive action film that has aged remarkably well in the twenty odd years since its release. Whilst I may favour the original it does not change the fact that this bigger, bolder and slightly saggy followup is still one of the definitive action films of the decade. Now if only the last two films could be terminated from history…

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