WFTB Score: 17/20
The plot: Having failed to kill his mother Sarah before he was born, Skynet send an advanced T-1000 robot back in time to kill their future nemesis John Connor when he is only ten years old. With Sarah incarcerated for presumed mental illness, it’s lucky that future John has also sent a protector – albeit an unlikely one.
Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has a hell of a story to scare her son John (Edward Furlong) with. Once upon a time, a soldier named Kyle came back from 2029 to save her life from a deadly cyborg known as a Terminator. Together, they terminated the Terminator; and even though Kyle didn’t make it, he toughened her up for the nuclear war to come, destined to be started in the near future by a Cyberdyne Systems automated defence programme called Skynet becoming self-aware and rising up against its human masters. Naturally, the story sounds nutty, and so does Sarah: she’s locked up in a high-security facility for trying to destroy Cyberdyne, while rebellious, floppy-haired John busies himself by ignoring his foster parents and scamming cash with his technological know-how, rather than practicing his leadership skills. However, history is about to repeat itself: a prototype T-1000 Terminator (Robert Patrick), made of polymorphic liquid metal, appears from 2029 with the sole intent of killing John before he can begin to threaten Skynet; shortly after, a reprogrammed T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) tries to get to John first to protect his future master. An epic struggle ensues to keep John alive and liberate Sarah, though the moment she’s free she sets out to kill Cyberdyne’s enthusiastic scientist Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), a man with access to some familiar futuristic material.
If I may employ a film-as-food analogy, if The Terminator is a well-cooked burger made from prime Angus beef, Terminator 2 is the same burger topped with cheese and a dollop of sweet, even saccharine, sauce. The point of this comparison is that taste can change over time; and whereas I once thought the bigger, bolder sequel was a marked improvement over the dark, moody and comparatively low-tech original, now I’m not so sure. The Arnie-as-protector plot certainly compromises the tech noir atmosphere of The Terminator, and it’s a little disheartening to see the scary cyborg being ordered about by a mouthy, with-it kid. Ed Furlong is quite annoying, partially on his own account, but mostly because of the indignities he heaps on the T-101: teaching him slang, making him stand on one leg, or – stupidest of all – insisting that he doesn’t kill anyone. Aah. This is a killing machine, you idiot, not a Furby!
Even if you’re fine with young John, the story isn’t beyond criticism. The T-1000 goes missing for an awfully long time in the middle, the film diverted by the Dyson plotline, whilst the Special Edition adds almost nothing but time, featuring Michael Biehn (complete with 80s hair) for no good reason and generally dragging the pace down with unnecessary exposition and other redundancy. Dyson loves his family, you say? Never! And if you like the new stuff, you can still haul the movie over the coals for using the previous Terminator’s CPU and arm as not only plot devices, but plot devices which may not make sense. Skynet only exists because men from a time before it existed used the future technology to engineer its existence? And if the machines are all destroyed in the 90s, there’s no Skynet, no war, no Kyle, no John, and…oh no, I’ve gone cross-eyed.
It’s all hooey, in the long run, but the simple fact is that T2 is often breathtakingly brilliant hooey. While the story is sometimes an uneasy mix of schmaltz, sci-fi and crunching violence, once the action scenes kick into gear everything else becomes little more than window dressing. The massive showdown in the Cyberdyne Building is the stand-out set-piece, but there are genuinely amazing stunts throughout: various lorry crashes, the incredible helicopter work, the incredibly realistic impacts of terminators thudding into, and occasionally through, brick walls.
It’s not just about smashing things up, either. Sarah’s dream – a nuclear holocaust enveloping a children’s playground – is as technically impressive as it is emotionally disturbing, whilst the ending – spoilers – is such a gripping combination of tension, cruel, palpable violence and all manner of effects that even things that should be totally unforgivable, like Arnie’s ‘I need a vacation’ ad lib, become part of the movie’s genius. Yes, the ’I have to go away’/‘Don’t go [Daddy!]’ exchanges are ridiculous, but the sudden realisation that the 101 model will have to sacrifice himself to finish the job is always quite jarring. As in The Terminator, Schwarzenegger’s emotionlessness is perfect for the role, whilst Robert Patrick also does a good line in cool menace. Furlong is merely tolerable, but Linda Hamilton is quite superb as the survivalist Sarah Connor: hard, muscular, subjugating her emotions to fight the war yet still human enough to pull back from the brink of madness.
Then there are the special effects, which – like sound, colour, 3D and so on, have to be appreciated in their historical context. To boil it down to basics, there were ordinary films, then there was T2, and nothing quite as revolutionary happened (even allowing for Jurassic Park) until The Matrix. Even now, many expensive films are churned out with effects that aren’t nearly as well integrated with ‘real’ action. They can’t possibly be as ‘wow’ now as they were in the early nineties (when I rented the film from Blockbusters and watched it three days in a row), but the computer-generated images (plus other non-computer effects) surrounding the shape-shifting T-1000 remain fluid, believable and not remotely gimmicky.
If you’re hungry for a chase movie with moody sci-fi ambience and nothing on the side, The Terminator may satisfy your needs; however, if you want to gorge yourself on a big, bloated cheeseburger of a blockbuster, it has to be Terminator 2: Judgment Day. If it offers further proof that the director is totally without subtlety, so what? It’s got helicopters crashing into trucks, Arnie wielding a Gatling gun, liquid robots – that’s LIQUID ROBOTS, folks! No, Cameron has his flaws, but he is very much king of this particular world.