Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

James Cameron | 2hr 17min

Few filmmakers can lay claim to making a movie sequel that matches its revered predecessor in pure cinematic audacity, and fewer have succeeded in doing so twice. If Terminator was James Cameron’s breakthrough and Aliens solidified him as a magnificent director of franchises, then Terminator 2: Judgment Day follows through on the promises of both, and this alone puts him in rarefied air. Those moments where the film slows down to pensively consider one character’s internal thoughts in voiceover are some of the weakest given the lack of setup or follow-through, but their mere existence also points to where Cameron’s strengths truly lie. It is in the spectacle of his action set pieces, dynamic camerawork, and his narrative’s creative basis in deep-rooted archetypes that Terminator 2 reveals itself as a raw cinematic experience, concerned less with musings over what it means to be human as it is with the immediate, visceral impact of such questions.

It is eleven years after the events of the first film that Cameron picks his narrative back up, bringing us in with a ten-year-old John Connor living under foster parents. Once again, Skynet has sent back a Terminator to kill the future leader of the human resistance, and a protector has also been sent to save him. The setup of these figures calls directly back to the first film – both the T-800 we recognise as Arnold Schwarzenegger and another smaller man manifest around the same time, and immediately go about tracking down their target.

Bringing back this justly iconic image from the first film, though under a new context – this is the Terminator’s birth into a new, more human life, crouched naked in a fetal position.

Where the T-800 invades a bikie club and steals an outfit of black leather and sunglasses, Cameron gives the other man the identity and appearance of a police officer, immediately setting up a conflict in archetypes. Almost everything about these characters is mirrored, from the T-800’s use of intimidation and blunt force to the more manipulative, covert strategies of Robert Patrick’s time traveller, whose use of facial expressions and vocal inflections to manipulate strangers displays a cold comprehension of humanity that Schwarzenegger deliberately rejects in his masterfully stoic performance.

The T-1000 employs an entirely different set of skills to the T-800, shape-shifting and creeping through environments in an under-handed, deceitful manner. As brutal as Schwarzenegger may be in this, he is the more honest, up-front Terminator between the two.

This is a film so soaked into pop culture that it is hard to separate the twist from our foreknowledge of it, and yet even then it remains an astounding subversion of Cameron’s established archetypes. All at once, the man dressed as an authority figure is revealed to be a more advanced Terminator, a T-1000, and the ruthless hunter who we have already seen kill multiple people is now our hero. Even in Cameron’s character design of the T-800 as a robotic endoskeleton concealed beneath human skin, he is tied to a vulnerable humanity that the shapeshifting, metallic T-1000 can only ever imitate, remaining as deceptively flexible in its tactics as it is in its physical appearance. Meanwhile, the T-800 is bound by its word, serving the young John Connor like a loyal, unwavering servant, and through this tight bond he slowly grasps notions of sensitivity and casual slang until he himself begins to exhibit both in the film’s magnificently rewarding final act.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best performance put to film, transcending his work in the original with a more complex and engaging character arc of an android discovering its humanity.

And then there is Sarah Connor, who has been arrested and sentenced to a mental hospital following the events of the first film which have left her with severe PTSD and, from the perspective of her doctors, wild delusions. There is a dramatic shift in Linda Hamilton’s performance between both films, turning Sarah into a hardened prisoner resolved to escape and save the world from the impending apocalypse known as Judgement Day. Beyond the T-800 and T-1000, Cameron’s archetypes begin to seep into her characterisation as well, as she too becomes a Terminator of sorts in her dogged pursuit of the man prophesied to invent Skynet’s world-ending technology, losing a bit of her own humanity along the way. Just as we will later see sensitivity become the saving grace for Schwarzenegger’s T-800, so too is Sarah pulled back from the edge by her own innate compassion, similarly building her character over the dangerously thin line that separates machines and men.

It is worth noting the innovative power of Cameron’s visual effects in Terminator 2 to construct these characters and much of their world, and yet this alone isn’t integral to his artistic success. He is a skilled crafter of action set pieces and images that reach deep and draw out instinctive responses from his audience, not so much developing a consistent stylistic device like Michael Mann does with his neo-noir lighting or George Miller with his rapid editing, but rather playing to whatever suits each individual moment. As the Terminators individually search for John in the local shopping centre, Cameron’s editing and camerawork skilfully move between both characters in a suspenseful balance, emphasising their hulking presences in weighty low angles. And then, at the moment of their confrontation, every movement lands with extra weight in Cameron’s absorbing slow-motion photography, bringing the opposing archetypes together in their first major stand-off.

Cameron is constantly creative with his camera angles – the Terminator may not have been as iconic a character as it is without the air of reverence and fear that surrounds him in the filmmaking.

From here, each subsequent struggle takes a step up from the last, until Cameron bombastically crashes a truck of liquid nitrogen through the gates of a steel mill at the film’s climax. He fills the air with a warm, orange glow emitted from the heat of the fiery sparks and molten metal, and in vibrantly clashing this against the blue vapor of the spilt liquid nitrogen, the lighting takes on the humanistic duality of both Terminators. On top of this, its colours also call back directly to those fiery flash-forwards of Judgement Day, within which Cameron crafts some truly devastating imagery of an obliterated playground, its darkness lit only by a few spring horses left burning by the nuclear wipe-out. With such a holistic approach to both visual storytelling and stylistic filmmaking, Cameron effectively crafts a blockbuster for an era, using his thrilling narrative urgency to arrive at surprisingly sentimental considerations of our own humanity.

Cameron’s set pieces are unforgettable, here in Terminator 2 being lit beautifully with high-contrast colours and violent fires.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day is currently available to stream on Binge and Foxtel Now, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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