The T-800 comes of age as James Cameron flips the script with an action sequel for the ages
The hardest movie to make is a sequel. First of all, if a sequel has been put into production it’s because its predecessor struck a note with the theatre-going public, and this is typically an indication that the movie was good, perhaps even great. A sequel also brings with it a lot of expectation, and due to the modern marketing machine and the prerequisite franchise that studios crave, many of us have grown increasingly sceptical as to what those sequels have in store. In recent times, this has become even more apparent thanks to the modern studio’s obsession with franchise reboots, a cynical exercise whose main goal is to slash marketing expenses based on our existing love for those movies, but numbered sequels go all the way back to the early 1970s, and by the late-1980s audiences had already grown tired of half-assed productions sold off the back of superior instalments.
In 1984, James Cameron’s The Terminator introduced us to arguably the greatest and most influential sci-fi character of the decade. So popular was the filmmaker’s low-budget revelation that it spawned a whole host of inferior knock-offs that ranged from mind-numbingly average to charmingly absurd, but one thing was clear: such a movie could never be replicated. Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 Series T-800 Terminator was an indestructible monster with an unwavering objective to kill, a wonder of robotics design that awed audiences as much as the man mountain who portrayed its superficial form. 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, while maintaining those winning elements that endeared us to the original, and in those terms there are few better than Terminator 2: Judgement Day. I’m not referring to the 1993 Special Edition with an additional 17 minutes that featured a returning Michael Biehn, which for me tarnishes arguably the film’s greatest strength: it’s breakneck pacing. I instead mean the balls to the wall theatrical cut, a wonder of action movie filmmaking that broke all kinds of box office records, becoming the most expensive movie of 1991 ($102,000,000) and raking in more than five times that amount worldwide. Terminator 2 wasn’t just a movie, it was a cultural happening and a movie that kicked off the commercial peak of one of cinema’s most recognisable stars.
Such expectation brings a lot of pressure. You only have to look at 1995‘s Waterworld to see how ugly things can turn on an unprecedented budget — especially when you’re dealing with a numbered sequel. In this situation, 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 the studios, whose prioritising of money over material probably had 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 original T-800 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.
John Connor : Are you ever afraid?
The Terminator : No.
John Connor : Not even of dying?
The Terminator : No.
John Connor : You don’t feel any emotion about it one way or another?
The Terminator : No. I have to stay functional until my mission is complete. Then it doesn’t matter.
John Connor : Yeah. I have to stay functional too. I’m “too important”.
Inevitably, Arnie did return to the role, but thanks to a deft slight of hand from Cameron his character evolved in a way that nobody had expected. The original machine, sent back in time to kill the unborn leader of the resistance and destroy humanity, was very much in the popular stalk and slash mode, a colossal monster who put the majority of horror villains to shame, but with Terminator 2 all that would change. Though 1991’s Arnie was noticeably slimmer, he was still a fearsome sight. He wasn’t quite the swelled behemoth who had left such an indelible mark on ’80s Los Angeles, but that would have been counterproductive, especially considering the relatively slight frame of his new nemesis. The idea here was to bring a level of humanity to the reprogrammed T-800, an inkling of fallibility, the kind that the original T-800 possessed very little of.
The character’s iconic reintroduction sets the tone beautifully. When the T-800 strolls into a biker bar in his birthday suit we still presume he is the same coldblooded killer from the first movie; and technically he is, it’s just that his directive has changed, and when he coldly demands the gang leader’s clothes, boots and motorcycle, the odds are quickly stacked against him. Here, Cameron uses audience expectation to put us firmly on the side of a character who we presume is the villain. As insiders who know what the other characters don’t, and we gain great satisfaction from knowing that this otherwise impermeable rabble are messing with the wrong dude. But everything about this character suddenly screams antihero. In the first movie, the T-800 terminates everyone who stands in the way of his objective, but when the bar owner aims a shotgun at the machine as he attempts to leave on a customer’s bike and has the weapon snatched away from him, we fear this is the end for him. Instead, Arnie reaches for the man’s sunglasses and makes an abrupt departure. Bad to the bone indeed!
Arnie had married JFK relative Maria Shiver in 1986. A staunch right-winger dubbed ‘Conan the Republican’, by the early-90s the actor had begun choosing less violent roles as he looked to integrate 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; an irresistible force sent to protect humanity rather than destroy it. The movie still follows the same stalk-and-slash formula, but the script is flipped thanks to an ingenious role reversal. First and foremost, Arnie’s newest incarnation is that of 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. Connor is just the precocious rapscallion to loosen his protector’s unyielding pragmatism, a fact beautifully punctuated by the boy’s attempts at helping the machine fit in and discover his human side.
Arnie had grown so much as an actor in the seven years since the original movie, and there are so many wonderful moments shared by the T-800’s second incarnation and the youngster he is sent to protect, both humorous and touching. John may have war in his blood, a fact cutely highlighted by his choice of arcade games (he is seen playing Asteroids and After Burner at the galleria), but he is still a kid, and he immediately reacts like one after an incredible high-speed chase involving himself, the relentless T-1000 and Arnie’s gun flipping warrior (how cool was that reload action as a kid?). John quickly realises that in the T-800 he has the kind of protector who will do anything he says, who makes him feel invincible for the first time in his life, and he immediately sets his new dog on a pair of muscled douchebags who almost become yesterday’s news. Lesson learned.
John Connor: Jesus! You were gonna kill that guy!
T-800: Of course. I’m a Terminator.
Still, there are some objectives that John is intent on fulfilling, and his loyal protector has no choice but to acquiesce. The T-800 isn’t the only character from Terminator 2 who is unrecognisable from the first movie. By this point, Sarah Connor has also been reprogrammed thanks to the kind of life-changing events that have seen her son taken away from her. 1991’s Sarah Connor is the complete antithesis of the wholly unprepared youngster who woke up in 1985 to realise that the future of mankind was utterly dependent on her actions. And she’s been around since then. She’s opened eyes, trained with warriors, and the powers that be consider her a huge threat to society, an irony that burns deep inside of her. Sarah is also as smart as a whip, able to curb her rage when necessary but a seething maelstrom whenever something stands in her way. When she receives news of the original T-800’s return following a a beautifully orchestrated showdown at the galleria, she realises John is in trouble, and when the machine shows up to seemingly foil her escape, 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.
Much like Ripley in Cameron’s Aliens, the original movie’s Mary Magdeline has grown even stronger in our absence, though she has done so from behind bars, her torrid tales of nuclear holocaust confining her to the loony bin for much of her young adulthood. When we first meet Sarah, she is gawked at like a circus freak by visiting pencil pushers and marvelled at by Earl Boen’s wonderfully supercilious Dr. Silberman, a bureaucratic cog who on some level seems to need Sarah like The Joker needs Batman. Our first glimpse at his most cherished patient reveals an astonishing physical transformation. Sarah is no longer a bottom-rung citizen sleepwalking through life. She’s a hyper-trained rake of muscle and sinew, fetishized the way her unlikely ally has been countless times in the past. In her quest to save the human race, all notions of humanity seem to have vanished, a fact punctuated in a scene in which Sarah deviates from the plan, attempting to assassinate the inventor of a revolutionary microprocessor that will ultimately result in the destruction of mankind, and in doing so puts his entire family in jeopardy. But there is also the issue of a much more immediate threat, and what a threat!
It was through the addition of a rival terminator that Cameron was able to freshen the formula without truly deviating from it — something later sequels would do to their detriment. The manhunt concept was key to the success of the original movie, and casting Robert Patrick as the shape-shifting assassin sent 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. While 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.
Sarah Connor : [voiceover] Watching John with the machine, it was suddenly so clear. The terminator would never stop. It would never leave him. It would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die, to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice.
The monster Patrick, Cameron and the SFX team were able to come up with is simply terrifying. As a kid, Arnie was my go-to star, an invincible mass of muscle who had disposed of the likes of John McTiernan’s fearsome Predator, yet I feared for him like never before when pitted against the T-1000, an irrepressible scourge who emerges from the blazing wreckage time and time again. For me, there is an element of John Carpenter’s The Thing here. Not only is Patrick’s T-1000 able to assimilate different forms, when heavily wounded it resembles the kind of distinctly inhuman, abstract variations Rob Bottin’s outpost parasite assumes. There is something so creepy and inorganic about the liquid metal scene too. When a frozen and shattered T-1000 begins to reform, it’s like a cellular disease that won’t die, that just keeps evolving, growing deadlier and more persistent.
Patrick’s coldblooded performance is key to establishing our empathy for a machine who once struck fear in our hearts. The T-800’s 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 and endearing. The movie’s greatest charm lies in the evolving relationship of 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 who 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, 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 thanks to a life with uncaring foster parents and a necessity to fend for himself, but his precociousness must be curbed, his priorities reprogrammed, and in his mechanical counterpart he discovers an entity 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. As well as everything else he seems to have acquired a sense of human spirit.
John Connor : Can you learn stuff you haven’t been programmed with so you could be… you know, more human? And not such a dork all the time?
The Terminator : My CPU is a neural-net processor; a learning computer. But Skynet presets the switch to read-only when we’re sent out alone.
Sarah Connor : Doesn’t want you doing too much thinking, huh?
Such elements allow the movie a great balance. The original instalment was an intensely bleak affair, a remorseless sci-fi horror with a deep sense of nihilism. Similarly, T2 is a movie about nuclear annihilation, one 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 once again utters the immortal line ‘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: Judgement Day was a huge leap forward in terms of computer generated imagery, utilising multiple morphing effects and simulating what at the time were breathtakingly authentic movements for a major CG character. Patrick’s liquid metal T-1000 was the first computer graphic-generated character to attain such a billing, the result of not only the film’s unprecedented budget but the way in which it was utilised. So breathtaking were the movie’s digital advancements that it would have been easy for Cameron to get lost in such fancies, but the action and story are never jeopardised. Such visual flourishes were merely the icing on the commercial cake.
Special effects have come a long way since the early 90s, and some of those featured in a movie that is more than three decades old can be found in any bargain-basement effort made in the 21st century. 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.