The Reason ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ Still Holds Up 26 Years Later
Terminator 2: Judgment Day returns to theaters this weekend. The supposed selling point is the chance to see James Cameron’s action classic in 3D. In practice, the stereoscopic effects are very subtle — so subtle, in fact, that at a certain point during last week’s press screening, I started wondering why a particular scene looked a little dark, only to realize it was because I was wearing 3D glasses. There was so little dimensional play in the film that I forgot that I was watching a 3D movie at all.
Still, even if T2 3D will do nothing to erase the memory of the original T2 3-D, it also gives moviegoers a rare and welcome opportunity: To see this 26-year-old film on the big screen. The 3D may not be impactful, but the movie, newly restored in 4K, looks amazing. When Terminator 2 reopens in theaters this Friday, it will immediately be the best big movie playing in multiplexes around the country.
Seeing it alongside modern fare really puts into relief just how lacking so many 2010s tentpoles are and why. Though T2 was an influential film, it contains something most contemporary blockbusters lack: An almost mechanical precision about story, character, and visuals, along with incredible attention to structural detail.
Too many blockbusters these days feel like they were jury-rigged at a script level to accommodate action set-pieces that were conceived even before writing began. Others contain plot holes large enough to send a beefy Austrian back in time through them. Often, characters come a distant second to spectacle (or third, to Easter eggs and fan service). Important motivations and backstory get discarded on the cutting-room floor to keep the runtime down and ensure the maximum number of screenings (and box office dollars) each day. The end result is less of a movie than a mass-produced film-like product, one that’s easily digestible for a massive international audience.
Watching Terminator 2 reminds you of the power of large-scale filmmaking when in the hands of an artist of James Cameron’s caliber. The story proceeds logically and inevitably. The subtext, about the nature of humanity and the morality of killing — particularly killing someone before they have committed a crime — is dark, serious, and morally ambiguous. The characters’ decisions make sense. Every choice, right down to the use of certain colors, is deliberate and ingenious.
Look, for example, at how Cameron uses the color purple to establish the danger that a couple of inanimate objects pose to the future. The film’s very first scene is a brutal battle between man and machine in the nightmarish year of 2029. The world of the Judgment Day War is cold, bleak, and dark, and mostly illuminated by the terminators’ laser guns, which emit a distinctive lavender light.
Then the film jumps back to the year 1995. That shade of purple is never seen again — except in one specific location: The vault at Cyberdyne Systems that houses the chip and arm of the original T-800 from the first Terminator film. Cyberdyne’s offices, like most of T2’s 1995, is lit in cool blue tones. But not the two chambers that hold the Terminator’s remains. They glow that exact same tone of future-laser-gun purple.
It’s as if these two items are emanating some kind of unholy energy that brings Skynet’s dark future into existence. The visual connection between the two purples draws a direct line between these Terminator artifacts and the Judgment Day War, making it clear to the viewer without any additional dialogue just how crucial these mechanical MacGuffins are to altering the timeline.
That’s the Cameron touch. And that same formal rigor is present in the action scenes. In most shoot-’em-ups, little to no attention is paid to the number of bullets fired, and the characters reload only when it is narratively convenient. Occasionally, that’s a deliberate stylistic choice; more commonly, it’s because the filmmakers assume the audience doesn’t care and isn’t paying attention.
Not Terminator 2 or Cameron. Notice that when young John Connor (Edward Furlong) and the heroic T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) break into the mental hospital holding John’s mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton), the Terminator takes ammunition off of the gate’s security guard. Cameron inserts a long close-up of the two clips Schwarzenegger pulls from the guard’s belt.
Want to take a guess how many times the Connors reload their pistol during the chase out of the hospital? Watch for yourself:
John even makes a point of saying “Last one!” when he hands Sarah the second clip.
Cameron is similarly precise setting up and then paying off the destruction of Robert Patrick’s T-1000. Shortly before T2’s climax, Schwarzenegger’s Terminator acquires a grenade launcher. He uses it throughout the assault on Cyberdyne and in the final highway chase with the T-1000. He’s down to his final grenade when the T-1000 smashes into the heroes’ pickup in a semi; the last grenade goes flying into the truck’s bed. Again, Cameron uses repeated close-ups to let you know exactly where that all-important ammo is:
From there, the final scene of the movie is almost as much about that last grenade and the grenade launcher as it is about the survival of Sarah and John Connor. After the T-800 “Hasta la vista, baby”s the T-1000 into temporary oblivion, he loads the grenade launcher...
...then it gets knocked out of his hand during his big fight with the T-1000...
...then he’s reaching out for it when the T-1000 disables his power system...
...then he finally uses it to blow the T-1000 into the vat of molten steel that finally destroys it.
You can follow that weapon every single beat of that final fight. Each flows from one to the next. A few moments later, the T-800 sacrifices himself for the good of humanity by lowering himself into the same vat of molten steel. His final farewell to the Connors is a triumphant thumbs up.
Even this gesture is set up earlier in the film. In the sequence where Sarah, John, and the Terminator hide out from the T-1000 in Mexico, Sarah muses in voiceover about how the Terminator is, ironically, the perfect father figure for young John. While Hamilton’s voice plays on the soundtrack, Cameron’s camera focuses on John and the T-800 in the background. At first, John is teaching the Terminator to play slaps, but then, just before the scene ends, we see this:
Because Sarah is giving a very important voiceover while this is going on, it can be easy to miss. There’s no dialogue about the thumbs up or what it means. But for attentive viewers, it’s there. It has to be. How else would an emotionless robot know how and why to give a thumbs up? Either Skynet had detailed files on Siskel & Ebert, or that last goodbye needed onscreen motivation.
In the documentary featurette “No Fate But What We Make: Terminator 2 and the Rise of Digital Effects,” James Cameron talks about how the computer effects that brought the liquid metal T-1000 to life were so new and experimental, not to mention time consuming, that the plates for the shots featuring the digital character had to be filmed weeks or months before the rest of the scenes around them. That required Cameron and his team to plan out every single second of T-1000 liquid-metal shenanigans.
The forethought was logistically necessary — and creatively fortuitous. It forced Cameron’s crew to be as meticulous in their construction as a sentient computer designing a time-traveling kill bot. Computer effects have become so good in the intervening 26 years that they can fix almost any sin a filmmaker might commit. CGI can change anything from the color of the sky to the direction an actor is looking in a scene (or even remove an actor from a scene entirely). There’s almost nothing that can’t be “fixed in post.”
That was a luxury that Cameron didn’t have, and so Terminator 2 is a movie with almost no cheats, gaps, or lingering questions (except maybe how come John Connor looks about 14 when he’s supposed to be 10 or 11). Everything works and everything is obviously thought through, from the emotional awakening of the Terminator to the hardening of Sarah Connor (her quest to kill Cyberdyne’s chief engineer before he can create Skynet mirrors Skynet’s quest to kill John Connor before he can create the human resistance). Terminator 2 shows what happens when a director doesn’t take computer effects — or anything else — for granted.