James Cameron flips the script with a sequel that surprised us all
The hardest movie to make is a sequel.
First of all, if a sequel has been put into production it is because it’s predecessor struck a note with the theatre-going public, and this is typically an indication that the movie was good, perhaps even great.
In 1984, James Cameron’s The Terminator gave us perhaps the greatest sci-fi character of the decade. Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 Series T-800 Terminator was an indestructible monster with an unwavering objective to kill. The T-800 could not be bargained with, could not be reasoned with, and it was this absence of empathy which made the character more terrifying than any organic killer, however bloodthirsty or deranged their disposition.
They say the key to a good sequel is that it brings something fresh to the fold, and in those terms there are none better than Terminator 2: Judgement Day. It is easy to simply go through the motions and produce a needless retread when so much money is at stake, and because the original has already guaranteed butts in seats, an adequate job is enough to please producers, whose prioritising of money over material probably has them pushing for much of the same. The difficulty here was that Arnie was perfect for the role that would transform him into a mainstream icon, making a rehash almost inevitable. His suitably wooden demeanour portrayed the character with such natural detachment that you simply couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. Put succinctly, Arnie was the Terminator. Without him there was no movie.
Inevitably, Arnie did return to the titular role, but thanks to a deft slight of hand from director Cameron his character evolved in a way that had never been seen before. Arnie was still a fearsome sight, identical to the machine who had left such an indelible mark on ’80s Los Angeles, massacring an entire police department before succumbing to an increasingly resourceful heroine in prime target Sarah Connor. Much like Ripley in Cameron’s Aliens, the original movie’s Mary Magdeline has grown even stronger in our absence, although she has done so from behind bars, her torrid tales of nuclear holocaust confining her to the loony bin. When the T-800 shows up to seemingly foil her escape attempt, Connor collapses in terror. But there is something that she doesn’t know yet, and we the audience can’t wait to tell her what that something is.
Sarah Connor: On August 29th, 1997, it’s gonna feel pretty fucking real to you too. Anybody not wearing 2 million sunblock is gonna have a real bad day. Get it?
Arnie had married JFK relative Maria Shiver in 1986. A staunch right-winger dubbed ‘Conan the Republican’, by the early ’90’s the actor had begun choosing less violent roles as he integrated himself into political circles in a venture that would one day see him Govern the State of California. In Terminator 2, Arnie’s T-800 is a very different entity. First and foremost he is a surrogate father for the young John Connor, a juvenile delinquent who views his mother as a whack job until the subject of her so-called delusions shows up in time to save him from the cybernetic model that will one day make his counterpart obsolete.
It is through the addition of a rival terminator that Cameron was able to freshen the formula without truly deviating for it. The manhunt concept was key to the success of the original movie, and casting Robert Patrick as the shape-shifting assassin set back in time to eliminate a teenage John is the director’s second stroke of genius. The T-1000 is a prototype model made from mimetic polyalloy, a ‘nanomorph’ who is able to visually mimic the molecular structure of any living being, as well as transforming its body into lethal, non-complex weapons. Whereas the T-800 is able to register pain and can deteriorate if subjected to enough firepower, his advanced opponent is nigh-on indestructible, his wounds closing immediately and causing no lasting harm. The fact that Patrick has a much smaller frame than his adversary makes him even more unsettling, and this time the odds are stacked against the reprogrammed T-800 and the would-be-family he has been sent to protect.
Key to the movie’s success is our empathy with the machine who once struck fear in our hearts. His future obsolescence makes him a somewhat tragic figure, and the fact that he has been reconfigured to learn from his human counterparts makes him all the more fragile. Perhaps the movie’s greatest charm lies in the relationship between the T-800 and a young John Connor. In the end, it is through the machine that a future John had sent back in time that he learns how to become the leader that future generations love and respect. Similarly, it is through the child that the T-800 is able to learn what it is to be human, to understand right from wrong in an environment of ceaseless and necessary violence. The machine has the moral compass of a giant infant when he first arrives. Like the previous model, he has an objective to complete, and the most pragmatic way of doing so is to kill anyone that gets in his way. But through John he is able to learn restraint, to recognise the difference between right and wrong and understand why it is that people cry. Without this element the movie would be nothing more than two machines knocking the shit out of each other. There would be no empathy, no sense of allegiance, no heart.
Those human traits come naturally to John, but stability is something that must be provided, and his arrives in the most unlikely form. Sporting a Public Enemy t-shirt and zipping from crime to crime on his dirt bike, John already possesses the kind of warrior instincts and resourcefulness that are vital to any leader, but his precociousness must be curbed, his priorities reprogrammed, and in his mechanical counterpart he finds something that only sees the big picture, that cannot have its attention diverted for any reason, right or wrong. Judgement Day’s T-800 is kind of like that old cowboy finding just enough mettle for one final showdown, and in the end it is his newfound respect for human life that allows him the strength to complete his task. He’s a machine, sure, but after his system fails he conjures the strength for one last battle, and you sense that this is more than just a programmed objective at work.
John Connor: Jesus! You were gonna kill that guy!
T-800: Of course. I’m a Terminator.
Such elements allow the movie a great balance. The original instalment was an intensely bleak affair, a remorseless vehicle with a synthetic soundtrack of robotic nihilism. Similarly, T2 is a movie about nuclear annihilation, where cities burn and bones crumble as horrific premonitions leave our hardened heroine dripping with hateful vengeance. But there is a tenderness to the story of a boy learning how to become a man, and a wicked irony about having an emotionally barren Terminator as his guide. Some of their exchanges are priceless, and Arnie manages a performance of surprising depth as the pseudo-teacher who learns as much about the past as he can offer about the future. When he utters the immortal phrase ‘I’ll be back,’ echoing the words of his brutal predecessor, the T-800 model comes full circle. Against all odds, it has won its audience over.
Terminator 2 is a timeless movie. When it was released back in 1991 it was the most expensive blockbuster to date, with the kind of breathtaking stunts and high-tech digital effects that smashed the box office and left even the most ardent action movie cynic awestruck. But special effects have come a long way since then, and some of those featured in a movie that is more than three decades old can be found in any bargain-basement effort.
In 1996, the original Independence Day boasted the kind of special effects that had action movie junkies flocking to cinemas in their droves, but with a modern-day viewing you quickly realise how hackneyed and throwaway that movie is stripped of its visual embellishments. Contrarily, we can now appreciate T2 as a film that is so much more than the sum of its parts. The pacing of the original theatrical release is impeccable, and the action sequences have lost none of their lore. More than that, Terminator 2 gives us characters that we care about, who achieve catharsis in a human world hellbent on self-destruction, and a machine who learns to understand our mistakes in order to prevent them.