Retro Review: Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for a good Schwarzenegger film. I’ve seen the gamut of his notable works, from the barely-able-to-speak-English Conan the Barbarian, to three-tittied-woman vehicle Total Recall, to his oft overlooked, underappreciated comedy career: Kindergarten Cop, Junior, and Twins (the latter two also starring my favorite, Danny Devito). That being said, I’m one of the very few people who had never seen Terminator 2. Hell, I’ve never even seen Terminator, let alone its better received sequel, and my shame has gone on too long! So when Hulu began streaming the cyborg thriller, you bet your last strudel that I hopped on that movie as soon as I could and boy oh boy, let me tell you, that movie was the definition of action packed! Two hours and thirteen minutes of shooting, explosions, car chases, and one-liners! Whole warehouse blew up! A cyborg was stabbing people! A Guns and Roses soundtrack! It was by far one of the most fun and kind of ridiculous movies I’ve seen in a long time and, if you haven’t checked it out, you definitely should.

Though I hadn’t seen the first Terminator, I was assured that the only thing necessary to understand the sequel is that there is a woman named Sarah Connor who was locked up in a mental institution for killing a time-travelling cyborg who was going to kill her son John to prevent a human resistance movement sometime in the future. That son has now grown up to be Eddie Furlong and the movie opens up to him living with a foster family and being a motorcycling, badass pre-teen. Unbeknownst to him, he’s still a target for the cyborgs who, instead of re-sending the same Terminator model (the T-800) as before, has now sent the new and improved T-1000 to hunt him down. A second cyborg, Schwarzenegger playing a standard T-800, is also sent back but this time, to protect John and Sarah from getting their faces blasted off. Cue a couple hours of blowing shit up until (spoiler alert) he succeeds in killing the T-1000.

Critics have been hailing this as one of the best action films on the market since its release in 1991, and it’s easy to see why. There’s never really a point where the movie slows down, and even when it does, it’s still tense with anticipated action, and tough-as-nails characters ready to fight. When the action does come, it’s done on an immense scale, which is expected of James Cameron, who had directed Aliens and went on to do Titanic and Avatar. We frequently see characters going full speed down highways and empty water tunnels or blasting through an entire warehouse just to kill the T-1000. The movie allows Schwarzenegger to flex his action muscles by smartly choosing to play a character known for its size and efficiency. I mean, he’s not exactly Van Damme-ing around the set, but he plays to his strengths as a big man.

Another great thing about the movie, which is a common association with Cameron films, is his choice for a female lead in Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. While it’s not as uncommon now to have a woman in a central role in a high-budget action movie, it’s thanks to film makers like Cameron that beat that path for modern films. Perhaps it helps that Schwarzenegger was there to help balance out the gender aspect (and also the no-bra/t-shirt combo), but Cameron took a chance knowing that it could isolate some of his audience and he rolled with it anyway. That’s pretty damn cool. It also should be noted that the Sarah Connor character is treated realistically; she’s deeply flawed as well as being a bad-ass, kind of like a modern day Punisher. Cameron recognized the emotional toll that having to protect a child from getting killed by cyborgs would have on a person, another move that helped set the mood for the movie. The script treats her like a person and allowed her to feel the full gamut of a desperate and trapped parent. She does what any parent would in her situation and does her best for John, even if it means having him taken from her. It’s that kind of attention to detail that helped move the movie along when things weren’t getting set on fire.

Technically, there are a lot of notable achievements that are still pretty impressive today, despite the movie having come out before grunge killed hair metal. T2 broke new ground for CGI: it was the first movie to use natural human motion for a CGI character (essentially, motion capture), and the first to use a partial CGI main character in the T-1000’s liquid-alloy mode. Even now, it’s still pretty good and easily blends into the movie without breaking immersion. For a new technology, the actors manage to interact with the effects really well, and I like that when it could the movie chose to go the practical effects route, rather than doing everything CGI. That being said, I do wish I’d got to see this movie in its heyday, or at least before overuse of CGI was the norm in action movies, so that my mind could’ve been blown away like the original audiences was.

All in all, I really enjoyed this movie. It makes the most of the technological possibilities that were available at the time, and helped set the tone for the modern action film. It has a strong lead, a fun story, and just the right amount of humor to help ground the work. Sure, T2 is a little cheesy now looking back on it, but it’s one of the movies where, at the time, there was nothing like it. It did what The Matrix did for sci-fi or Texas Chainsaw Massacre did for horror: it changed the game, and it only seems cheesy because of the tropes it itself created (also known as the Seinfeld is Unfunny trope). Still, as a first time watch, it’s awesome! It’s a great starter movie for those just getting into action or sci-fi or for those who simply want a no-frills movie with a great nostalgia perk. Plus, shit gets blown up! How do you not want to watch that?

If you haven’t seen it yet, there are plenty of ways to check it out, the easiest being on Hulu. Otherwise, I’m sure you can get a basic DVD on the cheap somewhere or simply borrow the Blu-Ray from your movie-obsessed friend. You know they got a copy. Either way, definitely watch or re-watch it, you won’t regret it. Hasta La Vista, BABY!