Tuesday 16 June 2009

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Tuesday 16 June 2009
Liquid metal.

By the time the eagerly-awaited Terminator sequel was released, little-known James Cameron had become one of Hollywood's biggest directors and Arnold Schwarzenegger one of its most bankable action stars. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (hereafter T2) works as both a sequel and a remake of the original, as it essentially tells the same story but with enough twists to keep things fresh.

While The Terminator was a fairly simplistic story with a knotty premise, T2 wisely expands on the mythology's core ideas and is altogether a more complex machine. In early-'90s L.A, another nude Terminator (Schwarzenegger) arrives through a "time bubble", stealing leathers and a road hog from a local biker bar, programmed to locate the adolescent John Connor (Edward Furlong) -- now a delinquent his foster parents are struggling to cope with, following the incarceration of his mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) in a mental institute for raving about machines taking over the world. She really should have kept quiet about that...

The key twist to T2 is that "The Terminator" now takes the hero role, having been reprogrammed by the future resistance to protect their teenage leader against another Skynet threat. The antagonist is now the lithe T-1000 (Robert Patrick), who arrives inside another time bubble and quickly assumes the trusted, authoritative identity of a cop. As its name signifies, this cyborg is a more advanced model consisting of "liquid metal" that allows it to change shape and form blades from its forearms. With a malleable form and perfect infiltration skills, it's once again difficult to see how our heroes can possibly defeat this cunning adversary.

Cameron and William Wisher's script broadly tells the same story as before, with twists like Sarah having transformed herself into her late-lover's Reese's image (a female warrior protecting actual flesh-and-blood) -- this time with the help of the first movie's villain. The human/machine team-up allows for a level of physical action denied by the unfair humans vs. machine tussles of the original. Here, the weighty T-800 faces off against its nimble superior in a series of excellent set pieces (a truck/bike chase, the asylum escape, the Cyberdyne attack, a helicopter/van chase, and a climax inside a steel mill), but even the tiny moments have punch; like when the T-800 first confronts the T-1000 and the two 'bots appear evenly matched when trying to pull a rifle free of the other's grip.

T2 also mines satisfaction from the T-800 becoming something of a surrogate daddy to rebellious John -- charming and taming the brat with his comedy Frankenstein act, later reprogrammed to understand why humans cry. Needless to say, it's entertaining to see the hulking T-800 as an emotionally-stunted "dad", in an echo of Shane.

A subplot originally intended for the first movie also gets to be utilized, as Sarah decides to prevent the apocryphal "Judgment Day" (the moment Skynet gains sentience and nukes mankind) by assassinating the inventor of the Terminators, Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), whose company are backwards-engineering a surviving forearm and microprocessor from the cyborg Sarah crushed years ago...

And boy, those special-effects. A quantum leap for the effects biz, Cameron took the CGI "morphing" technique ILM pioneered for their memorable "alien tentacle" in 1989's The Abyss, and used it to craft one of cinema's greatest villains. Nearly 20 years later, there are moments when the gooey T-1000 looks a little stilted (that sequence where it walks unharmed from the fiery wreckage of a crashed truck, say), but otherwise it's barely dated. A lot of that is because there was a mix of physical make-up to confuse your bullshit detector, and because Robert Patrick's hundred-yard stares and prowling gait was always the T-1000's biggest sell. Truly remarkable early digital work that's stood the test of time.

As a sequel-cum-remake, T2 is certainly one of the finest committed to celluloid. It may lack the gritty realism and waking nightmare vibe of The Terminator, but you don't feel shortchanged with a bigger, faster, crowd-pleasing blockbuster that expands the story in several new directions. This was the apex of Schwarzenegger's career before things began to slide after True Lies in '94, Linda Hamilton (the future ex-Mrs. Cameron) became an icon of female empowerment, Robert Patrick was an overnight sensation as a baddie aped by a generation of kids, and Cameron silenced his critics that were swarming after the failure of The Abyss by delivering an intelligent, effective, exciting action spectacle every bit as efficient and smooth as its liquid boogieman...

directed by: James Cameron written by: James Cameron & William Wisher Jr. starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator), Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor), Edward Furlong (John Connor), Robert Patrick (The T-1000), Earl Boen (Dr. Silberman), Joe Morton (Dr. Miles Bennett Dyson), S. Epatha Merkerson (Tarissa Dyson), Enrique Salceda (Castulo Guerra), Danny Cooksey (Tim) & Janette Goldstein (Janelle Voight) / Carolco Pictures/Lightstorm Entertainment/Tri-Star Pictures / 137 mins. / $102 million (budget)