The Best Movies Ever – Terminator 2: Judgment Day


Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up 

With this entry, we may be inching away from “great but sometimes forgotten” and into “cultural touchstone” territory. We may even be flirting with “universal acclaim”. The only thing that makes Terminator 2 an acceptable entry on Best Movies Ever is that it’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie. Putting those three words together is enough to make most critics turn up their noses, the way a foodie might react to a recommended dish at Olive Garden. But let’s face it – we all love Terminator 2.

Let’s talk about the notable film sequels throughout history. The earliest successful one I can think of is Bride of Frankenstein. Of course, there’s Godfather 2. Back to the Future Part 2. The Empire Strikes Back. Aliens. Then you’ve got your more recent comic book sequels that successfully upped the ante – Spider-Man 2, X-Men 2, The Dark Knight (note how there are no Part Threes on this list). There are a few more I could name but in the back of everyone’s mind, you’d be thinking “and… and… and…”, because no discussion about great movie sequels is over without bringing up Terminator 2. It’s seminal.

The first Terminator film, in 1984, was kind of a grimy sci-fi horror movie. Most of the scenes took place at night on the neon- and steam-drenched streets of downtown LA amidst a backdrop of industrialism and pollution. James Cameron called it “tech-noir”. It really played on the tension of being relentlessly pursued by an unstoppable killer – this one literally incapable of remorse. The then-unknown Schwarzenegger’s massive size and unfamiliar foreign-ness adding nicely to the sense of impending danger.

When it came to the somewhat tardy sequel, James Cameron managed to improve on just about every single aspect of the first movie, while simultaneously broadening its appeal without sacrificing quality.

Of course, you have to talk about the visual effects. This was made during the early infancy of CGI, and Cameron used what he learned on The Abyss to conceive a character that could only exist on film with the aid of that particular advancement. The technology wasn’t close to being advanced enough to create a convincing living creature (some argue it still isn’t), but it was certainly adept at making simple fluid effects – hence the liquid metal T-1000. I still remember seeing commercials for this movie on TV, and being so confused by the T-1000, because I could not figure out how it was created. I’d never seen CGI before.

But brand-new, ridiculously advanced visual effects only get you so far (ahem, Avatar). For Terminator 2 to improve on the first film and carve out its place in film history, the script needed to open up the world of the Terminator in a big way. The villain, while not scarier in an elemental sense (the hulking, emotionless, bleeding Schwarzenegger Terminator from the first movie gave me nightmares), certainly seemed even more unstoppable. You could literally blow it into little bits and it would show no signs of damage moments later. And that’s not even taking into account that it could be mimicking someone you know.

Things that were only mentioned or glimpsed in the first Terminator were expanded upon. We get to meet the true target, John Connor, and see how this bratty little Southern California pre-teen could become the savior of the human race. The brief glimpses of the post-judgment day future (and of the event itself via dream sequences) are large scale, intense, and believable. And most importantly, the philosophical implications of not only time travel, and the conceit of being capable of altering future history, but of the value of human life are explored in depth between the numerous chases, shootouts, and brawls. Is there such a thing as destiny? With knowledge of the future, can present action really improve reality? Is murdering one innocent man in cold blood to potentially prevent mass genocide justifiable? All these questions are respecfully addressed (then retconned into meaninglessness by the offensive Terminator 3).

Then we have the characters that populate this expanded world. The titular Terminator goes from villain to hero – an obligatory but effective twist – and earns the right to become an actual character instead of a high-tech slasher villain. As alluded in my opening quote, he (or it) becomes John Connor’s only father figure, despite not being capable of emotion or relationships of any kind. Through John’s comic-relief lessons on “acting human”, we get to see the character of the Terminator grow much as a human character would.


The other revelation is Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. If it’s been some time for you, go watch the first half of Terminator 1, then watch her character’s introduction in Terminator 2. She goes from typical airy 1980’s California valley girl to reluctant hero in the first film, but by the start of the second, becomes a full-on, tough as nails warrior, like Ellen Ripley in Alien but more dramatic. And the best part is her transformation makes total sense. One day she’s living her anonymous SoCal life and fretting about boyfriend troubles, and the next she’s saddled with the responsibility of saving the human race from extinction while being pursued by an unstoppable future murder machine. Living through that experience, and knowing exactly what the future holds and what the stakes are would either take a person apart, or make them into a soldier. Luckily we got the soldier.

All this is anchored by Edward Furlong as young John Connor – a first role that may have been a little too perfect for the actor, as he seemed to have lost his way in a whirlwind of substance abuse and faded into semi-obscurity after this and a pretty solid turn in American History X. But he’s pitch-perfect as John Connor here; it’s a portrayal that will forever define the character and makes other actors who took on the role seem wrong. Nick Stahl in Terminator 3 seemed like way too much of a softie to be the adult version of this snotty rebel, and Christian Bale in Salvation was just way too serious. At one point in that film he plays a Guns N Roses song on a boombox as a callback to Terminator 2, and you suddenly realize, this is a guy who never listened to GnR. He was probably more of a Smiths fan. Furlong’s John Connor has the perfect rough-edged, intense, rebellious persona that makes his future evolution into “resistance leader” seem credible.

With all those pieces in place, all that was left for James Cameron to do was execute one of the most thrilling action movies of all time. Mission accomplished, I’d say. We all remember the iconic scenes: Bad to the Bone, the canal chase, the asylum escape, the Cyberdyne Systems battle, and the final confrontation at the steel mill. Not a single note was sour.

That future Terminator movies failed to inherit the legacy of Terminator 2 should be no surprise, given that the ending put a perfect bow on the story, and should have precluded the possibility of sequels entirely. But greed is the force that powers Hollywood, and they could not let the Terminator lower himself into the steel with dignity.

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