There aren’t many directors that can live up to their original hit films. Steve Spielberg is strong, but not outside of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” it’s not great. “The Dark Knight” outshines the rest of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. Sam Raimi made some solid “Evil Dead” and “Spider-Man” films. Yet James Cameron is king of the (sequel) world. Just look at “Aliens” and “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.” Other than “The Godfather Part II” there’s no discussion to be had. With our review of ACCA 1991, we looked back at “T2” and while Cameron has become a bit of a joke over his decade-long obsession with “Avatar,” it’s clear he should remain in the conversation with Spielberg for the greatest blockbuster director ever.
“Terminator 2” picks up a decade after the original film. John Connors (Edward Furlong) alive but living with foster parents and committing crimes. Connors has become a delinquent ever since his mother Sarah Connors (Linda Hamilton) was taken into a mental institution. She’s believed to be crazy for her knowledge of a “Terminator” as well as her relationship with Kyle Reese. John is destined to grow up and lead humanity against Skynet, an artificial intelligence that gains sentience and attempts to destroy mankind. To kill John Connors, and make sure that Skynet never has to worry about his leadership, they send a T-1000 (Robert Patrick) to the past. Luckily, the resistance sends their own T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the same model that tormented Sarah in the first film. The result is literally a battle across time for the future of humanity.
One of the amazing things that Cameron does for the audience is consistently providing spectacle to the audience. The Mall scene is an excellent scene that subverts audience expectations. Given the setup of the first film, Patrick would seem like the hero, and Schwarzenegger should be the villain again. However, when it’s revealed that Patrick is a T-1000 that can regrow its liquid limbs and Arnold one our protagonists this time, the audience is instantly thrown off.
The Mall shootout between Terminators instantly leads into a 5-minute motorcycle chase that is among the best scenes in action film history. While John tries to race through the sewers and service roads, Patrick chases him with a semi. Arnold follows close behind and races to save John will the flick of a wrist reloads his shotgun. The scene mixes brilliant POV shots from John, seemingly handheld shots in the sewers, and over the shoulder shots from Arnold to increase the grandiose nature of the scene. The scene is a showcase for the editing team of Conrad Buff, Mark Goldblatt, and Richard A. Harris. Equally impressive in this scene and many others, is Adam Greenberg’s cinematography.
The performances help elevates the film from being your run of the mill action flick. This begins with Schwarzenegger, who easily delivers the best performance of his career. The choice to mix in deadpan humor through Furlong turns out to be one of the best things about the film today. While the Terminator’s singular mission is to protect John, Schwarzenegger’s comedic timing is part of what makes the film so rewatchable. He’s a matter of fact when he needs to be, and brilliantly charismatic when the film requires it. The chemistry between Furlong, who can be more than a little frustrating at times, and Schwarzenegger provides a heart to the movie that makes the closing of the film so powerful.
The other great performance here is Linda Hamilton, who is even more badass then you remember. Perhaps the best moment in the film is Hamilton at her absolute weakest. She beats and clubs her way through the asylum, determined to escape and save John. Until she sees Schwarzenegger. In an instant, she melts, turning from the perfect killing machine herself, into a PTSD and emotionally horrified victim in seconds. Her terror is palpable, etched into every feature of her face. As the film progresses, Hamilton takes the Ripley mold of a hero and infuses an emotional vulnerability beneath her exterior. It’s an iconic performance that is both textured and raw.
Even 27 years later, the visual effects in this film hold up wonderfully. Some of the CGI has dated a little, but Cameron’s instance on using practical effects as well has paid huge dividends. Whether Sarah Connor is pulling back the Terminator’s scalp, or the T-1000 is split in two and chasing our heroes, the practical effects are outstanding. This is large part due to Stan Winston’s involvement in crafting makeup effects that looked real, puppetry, and massive prosthetics. Winston was a master at crafting these effects. “T2’s” use of makeup and practical effects are some of the best the field has ever seen.
Finally, it would be impossible to talk about this movie without the incredible use of sound. Both of the teams shared Gary Rydstrom, one of the iconic masters of Sound Design and mixing. Rydstrom got double nominated this year in both Sound Categories for his work in “T2” and “Backdraft.” He won both Oscars in a walk by creating some of the craziest noises ever put on film. The sound design is spectacular, and the mix brings in the heart-pounding score from Brad Fiedel’s at exactly the right moments. The sound work here is unequaled and remains some of the best auditory work ever made in cinema.
All in all, “Terminator 2” is an absolute juggernaut. It is a below-the-line behemoth, which is why Spielberg took most of the crew to make “Jurassic Park.” Cameron’s vision makes the engine go and shows why he is one of the best blockbuster directors ever. While he may not be as prevalent today as he once was, Cameron’s vision for spectacle remains unquestioned. The real surprise from Cameron is how he gets such wonderful and iconic performances in these action films. It’s astonishing that a popcorn driven film can contain some of the most brilliant performances of the genre. “Terminator 2” is special years later, and remains one of the classics of its era.