16 December 2009

JAMES CAMERON: TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991)

The third sequel directed by James Cameron - but only the first sequel to a film he'd overseen originally - Terminator 2: Judgment Day holds a very special place in my heart; like a great many American males of my age, this was the first R-rated movie I ever saw, or at least the first that I ever saw in the full and certain knowledge that it was R-rated, and that it was some kind of coming-of-age event to sit down and see it for the first time. I mention this not because I think that the anecdote is interesting in and of itself - of course it isn't, some two-thirds of the people I know born between 1981 and 1983 seem to have had the same experience - but because it means that my feelings towards T2 (aye, T2, that's what they called it, back in the massive marketing campaign in the summer of '91 that led to the film reigning for quite a few years as the highest-grossing R-rated film in the the world) are all mixed up, like. I love it; but I know that it isn't remotely as close to perfect as the first Terminator, nor Aliens. Yet I love it nonetheless, and as I have learned more and more about how movies are put together and ought to be judged, I have grown to love it for those reasons as well.

First things first: a sequel to The Terminator was an idea that really had no business being put together, but I suppose that after The Abyss proved that the wonderboy Cameron had a weakness after all, he was encouraged to return to his greatest triumph to try again to make something big and spectacular, pushing the envelope of what could be achieved with contemporary filmmaking techniques and giving the audience a rip-roaring good time in the process, rather than the somewhat too-slow and pseudo-cerebral fantasy that ended up just not quite working perfectly in his last movie. But the director remained as he would always remain a bit over-concerned with things other than just providing a lot of explosions and fancy-ass toys; if he was going to put together a second Terminator, it had to tell a good story that built off of the original in an intelligent and likely way, paying tribute to the first film without copying it. It is perhaps the most incredible of T2's many achievements that it actually manages to hit all of those notes; in all the annals of blockbuster sequeldom, rare indeed is the sequel whose plot is as careful and deliberate as that of Terminator 2.

It is eleven years after the events of The Terminator, in the unfathomably distant future of 1995. Here we find that Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, returning) has been locked in an asylum, due to her crazy ramblings about killer cyborgs and a nuclear war in the late 1990s; she has thus been separated from her son John (Edward Furlong), though not until after he picked up quite a few ideas and survivalist tricks from the nutty old lady.

In her monologue that opens the film, Sarah mentions a teeny bit of retconning to the situation in the first movie: it seems that Skynet, the evil sentient computer of the future apparently sent a second Terminator robot into the past to kill John, the future savior of humanity (and this is where I will admit that in both films, the fact that the kid's name is John Connor has always irritated me a bit), and once again, the human resistance has sent their own soldier to save him; though how exactly this works given that Kyle Reese mentioned in the first movie that the time machine was destroyed is not, to my recollection, quite explained.

So, we get to see those two time-travelers pretty much right away: the first is a familiar naked hulk with an Austrian accent; the Terminator is back, once again in the imposing form of Arnold Schwarzenegger. His opposite number is a reedy little naked guy once again, played by Robert Patrick; that this guy is not quite as on the level as Reese was is demonstrated by his willingness to apparently murder a cop to steal his clothing, while the Terminator merely threatens a biker into stripping.

Oh, why be coy? As much as it disappoints me that I'll never be able to see the first Terminator without knowing that Reese is the good guy and the Terminator is the villain, it is even worse that, thanks to the omnipresent marketing machine which ultimately gave up the secret, nobody ever got to see T2 without knowing that in this one, Schwarzenegger's Terminator, the T-800, is the hero, and Patrick, the T-1000 is the true villain. Once again, ubiquitous foreknowledge works to the film's detriment, for the opening act is enough of a corker as it is; it would be pretty damned spectacular if we had absolutely no idea what was going on, and assumed that Patrick, was stalking John to save him from Schwarzenegger, only to have what would theoretically have been one hell of a wow moment when the T-800 steps in front of a bullet, saving John's life, and blasts a zinc-colored hole in the T-1000. Alack, to never know that experience.

But I am really just sort of nitpicking for the sake of it: no matter how many times one sees T2, it never stops working, even if it stops being a surprise. As he did in the first Terminator film, Cameron starts off running and barely ever lets off for more than a scene or two. Of course, in the case of the first film, I noted that he never lets off at all, and here we start to drift into the very awkward and unenjoyable part of the review, where I have to break down and confess: T2 has problems. They are not crippling problems. They are not even terribly severe problems, for the most part. But it's just not as good a film as The Terminator, despite soundly surpassing it in a few areas.

The first of these problems I've indicated: the film lacks its predecessors unholy urgency, stopping every now and then for a nice long draught of exposition - of which there is considerably more than there was in the first movie, largely because Cameron and his co-writer, William Wisher, take great pains to show us all the little ways in which this film doesn't violate the integrity of the first movie whatsoever. In the original film, all the exposition was dumped in two scenes which were woven into the plot so effectively that you hardly notice that the action stops for upwards of five minutes; here, in a film that already runs nearly a half-hour longer than the first, there are quite a few noticeably saggy moments.

Those moments which are not forced do to storytelling concerns are largely due to character moments; and this is where I find T2 really starts to show its seams, particularly in the 16-minute-longer special edition cut prepared for home video (and still not marked a "Director's Cut"), bringing us up to a full 45 minutes longer than The Terminator. The greatest single flaw with T2 is a simple thing to identify: John Connor, and Edward Furlong's godawful performance as same. And in one of the few outright mistakes of his whole career, Cameron decided that this character was just absolutely the swellest thing he had in is movie, or something: because we get a whole lot of scenes between John and the T-800 that don't really advance the plot at all, instead preferring to develop character, particularly the notion that poor, fatherless John (whose daddy died the same day that the boy was conceived, lest we forget) has latched onto the re-programmed Terminator - re-programmed by John in the future, no less - as a surrogate father figure (there are even more of these moments in the extended cut).

That's not an inherently terrible idea, but it needs a much more sympathetic character than this film's John Connor to make it work. I am not exaggerating when I say that there isn't a single moment of the film when I ever particularly care for him, and at least one point ("Did you call moi a dipshit?") when I wish I could transform my own arm into a steel blade and drive it into the television, killing him myself. Your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary. But to my tastes, young John is the first genuinely bad character in any James Cameron film, and that man's career is not exactly checked with ensembles full of dynamic figures.

Fortunately, he makes up for arguably the worst character in his canon with arguably his best character: Sarah Connor 2.0, the apotheosis of Cameron's great female protagonists whose bad-assery is a manifestation of their motherly instincts. Actually, he only has three such characters, and two of them are both Sarah Connor; but her treatment in this film is wildly different than it is in the first, and all to the benefit of the sequel. Her soft, early-20s features have been replaced by wiry muscle; she is transformed herself into something as driven as either Terminator. In what I can only praise as the very best kind of bravery, neither Cameron nor Hamilton demand that we like Sarah Connor; nor do we really understand her (despite another ill-advised extended edition scene, featuring a cameo from Michael Biehn as Reese in Sarah's dreams). She is the most terrifying figure in the movie, frankly, and the core of the movie's propulsive forward action. Sure, the two actual killer robots might be the prime movers, but Sarah is the film's nervous, apocalyptic energy; Hamilton plays the role to utter perfection, and Cameron and cinematographer Adam Greenberg privilege the character by using her as the anchor for most of the shots she appears in: no matter who else is onscreen, or what they're doing, our eye always settles on Sarah Connor.

Looking back over what I've written, I'm frankly shocked at how much it seems that I can't get into the movie: far from it. Growing up, this was to me the defining American action movie, and I haven't quite shaken that even as, now that I'm an adult, I can quickly recognise The Terminator or Die Hard, just to name two, as absolutely superior. Still, I'm a sucker: for the almost-endless moving, moving, moving, the size and scale of the explosions and setpieces, for the outstanding visual effects that required the small ILM computer imagery department to quadruple its staff just to make the movie, and for the countless little grace notes that prove James Cameron's real and genuine passion for the movies he makes - the short moment where the T-1000 melts through the bars in the asylum, only to find that the gun its holding is stuck, that is my very favorite little detail in any of Cameron's movies.

This was the last of the director's great movies (and isn't it weird that his three best films all have tough women in the lead roles?), but you wouldn't know it from most of the evidence onscreen: Cameron's superb ability to frame action setpieces remained at this point the best in Hollywood, and when it is at its finest - the two big semi-truck scenes, the Cyberdyne break-in, the T-1000's death scene - it is then that T2 reveals itself as a kind of visual poem of action and destruction. Damn that John Connor! and damn the director's increasing sentimentality that would prove an even bigger problem in his later movies, that T2 should be unjustly crippled from being as great as it might be.

14 comments:

Oliver said...

How is it that no one ever mentions Robert Patrick's performance?

And I reviewed this a few days ago, and thank you for singling out Linda Hamilton and pointing out what a chest-fuckingly brilliant performance it is.

Aye-K said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your review. Edward annoys the shit outta me, and I think he always did- even when I was just a kid.

PS Rotten Tomatoes recently did a 'Best Films of J.C' feature and for T1 they quote your review. Congrats on that!

Tim said...

Oliver: in my case, I had a few lines about Robert Patrick that just absolutely did not fit into the flow of the review whatsoever. Into the scrap heap.

My memory of Nathaniel Rogers's review over the summer is that he has some very nice things to say about Patrick's performance.

Aye-K: well, thanks for letting me know about the RT thing! That is super cool.

javi75 said...

I always had three problems with this movie and it seems we agree pretty much on it: the attempts at comic relief are awful, the John Connor character is an unbearable brat that makes me root for the T-1000, and the sentimental scenes, well, they're sentimental, and they feel akward and out of place in a story like this.

Quadzilla99 said...

Furlong was great in this. I'm not sure what kind of boring kid character you were looking for but he was one of the movie's strengths. Teenagers and preteens are rebellious, I'm not sure what you were looking for tbh. Anyways, he won a Saturn award for his performance and his scenes with the T-1000 were rightly selected by Roger Ebert as some of the film's best moments.

RickR said...

As great as T2 is, it suffers from a couple of structural issues that really bother me, and in my opinion anyway, keep it from being the unabashed classic that the first film is.
The first concerns John, and what keeps him from having a fully developed character arc. It's important to remember that Schwarzenegger would only do the film on the caveat that he be a "good" Terminator. So far, so good. I think Cameron and Wisher did a good job with flipping audience expectations for the 2 Terminators on their head.
But Cameron seemingly forgot that, even though Schwarzenegger's name would be first on the marquee, the ultimate hero of the story he was telling is John.
But in Act 3 in the steel mill, John is kept in the background as Sarah and the T-800 play a game of "keep-away" with the T-1000. John is reduced to being a macguffin in his own story. (An unfortunate choice that would plague the non-Cameron sequels as well)
I so longed for the moment where Sarah and the T-800 were incapacitated, and just for moment at least, the John Connor of the future makes his first appearance. A moment that would show John gaining the upper hand using human ingenuity rather than brute force, and we get a momentary flash of how humanity would ultimately win the war against these fearsome machines.
Frustratingly, this moment was set up early in the film when John and his friend break into the ATM machine, but the payoff never comes. ARNOLD remains the sole hero of the story, and John's transformation from bratty delinquent to great leader is pushed off to some future point. That, IMO, is what's really wrong with John in particular, and the movie in general.
This brings up a side issue about the movie's theme- it boils down to "machine vs. machine", which is far less involving than the originals "man vs. machine" theme.

The other structural oddity is the nuclear holocaust nightmare that splits the movie in two. For the first half of the movie, the goal of the characters is "get away from bad terminator", and in the second, it's "keep the future from coming to pass". The characters flip from passive to active at the midpoint. Maybe not bad, but odd, and worth noting.

Tim said...

Rick- those are some phenomenal points that I'd never really thought about. Thanks for some great new insight on a movie I thought I knew backwards and forwards. Welcome to the blog!

Ajay said...

Tim - I can't believe I'm making this kind of post as my first input into your Blog but having just seen T2 and going through this topic, I just can't let this pass. Let me, however, start by saying I'm an avid reader of you blog and that I have yet to find someone that influences my perception about movies as you do.

RickR - For starters, you talked about young JC being a MacGuffin in his own story which is something I really disagree simply because T1 and T2 are not his stories but rather the stories of how the actions of everyone else (mostly his mother) influence and shape him to become his future self. If he was now what he is tomorrow, he wouldn't need to send help from the future (valuable soldiers and friends whom he knew would have to sacrifice themselves).

Now, future JC appearing in the final second to save the day, that would be a plot device. A deus ex machina capable of giving Cameron such strong headaches he wouldn't be able to sleep for days, trying to come up with a way to even barely frame it within the plot, let alone covering all the gaps it leaves behind: (1) How did Future John know the exact second that they would need help? (2) How would he save them? (3) If he had the means to save them, why did he let them go through so much trouble in the first place? (4) And the cherry on top of the cake, how would he return to the future where he is humanity's only hope?

As for your second point, it would be kinda silly if they didn't get active. It's time-travel 101. If one has knowledge about the future, he should change the present to his benefit (or he shouldn't do anything at all because of the butterfly effect, but we're getting off topic here). And it's the apocalypse we're talking about. Future JC made sure the T-800 had very specific details about the rise of the machines which is why it is fairly logic to assume he wanted Sarah, Young John and the T-800 to prevent it from happening. Had he kept the movie in the first arc and T2 would be a carbon copy of T1.

Brian said...

Sarah Connor, showing no human emotion, ready to murder Miles, for something he will do in the future... And then slowly realizing that she herself has become a fucking Terminator... The greatest scene of Cameron's amazing career.

Garren1013 said...

Ajay, Rick did not mean that he literally wanted future John Connor to show up, he merely said he wanted to see the Young John Connor have to fight off the T1000 in a scene by himself. He wanted to see a spark of the man he would become in the future. He didn't want to see a deus ex machina time travel plot, just a simple young JC vs. the T1000 scene. (And yes, I realize this is years after you posted this, but I just saw this.)

Glen Keller said...

Just discovered this blog - love it, thanks. Wanted to share that I was 17 when I watched this in the cinema back in 92 (in the UK). The Terminator was already my favourite film, so I made a point of literally covering up my eyes and ears through every trailer or clip, so I actually did watch it with the reveal in tact, and it was great (I think, it was 21 years ago, and I've seen it prob 20 times since!)

I still agree that The Terminator is the better film, but I think this is the best sequel ever made. One thing you didn't really discuss much in either review is how just how good the concept is- the increasing relience on technology at what ultimate price. Since 1984, a lot of automation has occurred, dependency on systems that are only being created now. To what extent wold someone knowing the future go crazy trying to destroy what everyone else regards as progress. That side alone sets these two films in a different league for me than other solid action films like Die Hard that have the adrenaline, but only operate on one level.

Personally my favourite line is 'I travelled across time for you Sarah' from 1. That says so much about the complex story, Kyle not realising that the guy he is looking up to is his son, and not realising that the only real woman (from before the war) he has ever seen is the photo of Sarah, who was thinking about him while it was taken- would create a love that would ultimately save humanity.

From T2, I think the transformation of Sarah is amazing- to think of that shows such thought and risk went into the story expansion.

Even with typicall reviews of these being great action films, personally, I still think that's only part of the picture, and both are largely underrated and are much deeper films, that also happen to be great action films too.

wow- I've written almost as much as you, sorry!

McAlister Grant said...

I actually just showed T1 and T2 to my girlfriend, who had somehow managed to avoid *any* spoilers about either movie. So she actually got to watch the opening of T2, completely under the impression that Robert Patrick was the protector and Arnold Schwarzenegger was the assassin. After the reveal, she paused the movie and said "HOlD THE FUCK UP".

It was pretty great. I think the movie does a pretty good job of misdirection up until that point. My only real gripe was the use of "Bad to the Bone", which I think, a bad musical cue regardless, but which feels especially out of place if we're supposed to buy into the T-800 as the villain. The bit where Robert Patrick kills the cop and steals his clothes actually reads fairly ambiguous (maybe he just knocked him out?) if you think he's the good guy.

Tim said...

That's fantastic. I have no idea where your girlfriend has been living, but I'm glad to know that somebody has gotten to have that experience at least once.

DELINQ said...

That's cool, McAlister! I always imagined that would be the reaction, just never met anyone who didn't identify Arnold as the good guy, having seen the movie or not.