The Test of Time: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.



Pound for pound, reel to reel, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY is arguably the best action film ever made. Of course, to call it just an action film would be an insultingly reductive canard, as we know the film is also a touching tale of humanism, a cautionary tale of nuclear war, as well as prescient treatise on the inherent dangers of cybernetics. To wit, it’s a rare breed of sequel that, by unanimous accounts, actually surpasses its 1984 predecessor. Many reasons for this, not least of which was James Cameron’s wise infusion of humor, something the original was gravely lacking. With a steep budget hike of fifteen-fold ($6.4 million to $102 million), T-2 was designed from the get-go to be a bigger, bolder, sprawling A-list production of borderline B-movie material. The transcendent result speaks for itself.

T2: JUDGMENT DAY has become an undeniable classic no matter which way you slice it, so much so that the film received a 3D conversion for its 25th anniversary last year, and wouldn’t you know it, returns to the big-screen yet again beginning this Friday. Seems a perfect opportunity for us to revisit the flick and assess whether or not it still towers as sturdily as ever. Or if perhaps it’s starting to show its age. Then again, the power cell of a TERMINATOR is programmed to last 120 years, right? Well then, the Test of Time should be no match for T-2: JUDGMENT DAY!

THE STORY: In 1997, a nuclear holocaust eradicated three billion humans. Robots now rule the Earth. In 2029, Skynet, the centralized computer system that controls the cyborgs, sends the T-1000 - the newest Terminator model - back in time to hunt a young John Connor, the leader of the human resistance movement. Also sent back in time is the T-800 terminator that once hunted John’s mother Sarah. Together, John and the T-800 must rescue Sarah from a mental hospital and destroy all the nascent robot technology that will lead to the cyborg army of the future. All this must be done without being destroyed by the T-1000, a relentless, mercurially liquid-metallic shape-shifting android. If successful in the past, John, Sarah and the T-800 will prevent the nuclear holocaust of the future.

WHAT HOLDS-UP: Since 99% or more of T-2 hasn’t shown a lick of wear and tear, it’s a bit difficult to call out exactly what makes the movie such a timeless classic. That said, we’ll try to pinpoint a few facets that instantly leapt out at me when reviewing the flick earlier this week. They all sort of work in conjunction with one another, but to me it’s all about the fearsome foe, the deft blend of CG and practical VFX, the undying action and concomitant set-pieces, and the humorous/humanistic father-son dynamic between John and the Terminator. These four facets are what, foundationally, have kept the flick immovably propped upright on the Hall of Fame podium of sci-fi-action!

The fearsome foe. Straight up, the T-1000 is one of the best movie villains of all time. Conceived by Cameron as a more physically mercurial foe to Arnie’s more rigid cyborg, the T-1000 is a paragon of relentless terror. It’s mimetic ability to shape-shift and throw its vocal tone in order to assume any identity, to turn any part of its body into a sharp metal object for lethal impalement, to walk through prison bars, to damn near outrun a speeding vehicle for long periods without exhausting…all this while scarily stoic and emotionlessly stone-faced…is really one hell of a coup by Cameron, FX master Stan Winston and the crew at ILM. Of course, none of it would work as well without the perfect casting of Robert Patrick, who looks like the perfect all-American, clean-cut boy in blue. Apparently, Cameron wanted Billy Idol for the role at first, be he declined due to a motorcycle injury. He then reached out to Patrick after seeing him in DIE HARD 2.

As for the perfect balance of practical and computer generated FX, remember, T2 bagged 4 Oscars for technical achievement, including Best Makeup and Best Special FX. Rightly so. Cameron is on record as saying only 42 CGI shots were used in the film, but they were used judiciously. The idea to have the T-1000 made of liquid-metal, forgoing blood and gore in favor of a metallic blossom-wound that closes back up on in itself as a measure of self-healing is nothing short of brilliant. But even wiser is the intent to, in order to keep the overall action believable, meld the CG shots of the T-1000 with spectacular, large scale practical action FX. Think of that legendary chase scene in the L.A. waterways, as the T-1000 burns hot on the trail of John Conner’s dirt-bike, both of whom stalked by Arnie on his revved up Harley. The pacing, editing, smooth steadicam work and explosive denouement of the sequence still packs the wallop it did back in ’91.

Same goes for the gnarly helicopter chase scene in the end, which was achieved after only three takes (Cameron filmed it himself, as the other operators deemed the stunt too dangerous). The T-1000 not only sprouts four arms – two to steer, two to attack – the scene again perfectly marries the real action with the artificial action in a way that transcends both. Hell, the steel mill FX in the climax of the film were deemed so believable at the time that actual workers from closed down plant actually thought it reopened for good.

And it’s not just the FX themselves, but the environs they’re set in. The mall scene, where Arnie pumps a 10-guage from a box of roses and trades slow-mo gunfire with the T-1000 for the first time in the hallway…at a time in the story when we’re not sure who is good, who is bad, who is trustworthy, etc…it’s an indelible sequence. So too is the Pescadero State Hospital scene (shout out to Pescadero, California yo!) and the brutal hand to hand combat Sarah incurs on those guards. The Cyberdine Labs sequence, the aforementioned steel mill, these are fully lived-in settings that make the FX work – both real and artificial – feel authentic throughout.

Last but not least, it really is the father-son dynamic of John and the Terminator that, in the end, lend the audience a cathartic pathos and sympathetic release. One of the unspoken achievements of Jim Cameron in T2 was to make the title character, a cyborg murderer from the first film, a loveable character in the sequel. One of the reasons for this is the directive by Conner himself that the Terminator cannot shoot to kill. He can only shoot to maim or wound. This, despite Schwarzenegger lobbying against it, goes a long way in keeping the character likeable as a protective father-figure rather than a cold-blooded killing machine, a la the first film.

Moreover, the injection of humor into the character bolsters the likeability factor. While more fleshed out in the 2009 Sky Net Edition, when 20 extra minutes were added to the film, it starts from the beginning. By cuing up Bad to the Bone when Arnie waylays the biker bar to start the film, Cameron is allowing us to have fun and not take the flick as seriously as the first film did. Then, by having John try to teach the Terminator colloquial slang, his awkward inability to do so makes us laugh. One of the funniest and most charming parts of the flick is when the Terminator tries to crack a smile, painfully so. All of these little moments bank a certain amount of sympathy, the totality of which sort of takes by surprise when the hulking machine knowingly sacrifices itself in the molten steel.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: No bullshit, very little about T-2 has degraded since 1991. We can talk about the decision of Cameron to inject 20 odd minutes of deleted footage back into a re-released cut of the film, as he did with the 1993 version, the 2009 version, etc. We could cite how the middle section of the film, when the crew ammos up in Mexico, definitely slows the momentum a bit. We’d just be picking knits though. Honestly, when watching the film just the other day, one thing that did irk me a bit was the obvious stunt doubles seen in a number of long-shots. Most of them occur during the motorcycle chases and crashes, look closely, there’s no way Schwarzenegger is doing his own stunt work. Again, this is such a minor gripe it’s hardly worth mentioning. So too are some of the VFX of the T-1000. While most still hold up brilliantly, a few sequences do show their date a bit. The shot where the T-1000 slides through prison bars, for example, looks a bit rudimentary by today’s standards. Still, these are tertiary complaints at best.

THE VERDICT: You already know. T-2 is one of the best sci-fi action movies of all time, and hasn’t lost much of its impact over the last 25 years. It not only won 4 Oscars, it was the highest grossing film of 1991. It was also the highest grossing R-rated action film of all time until THE MATRIX RELOADED in 2003. The one thing that cannot be quantified though is how invaluably entertaining the movie remains to be. From start to finish, the movie features first-rate contributions from all involved. There’s no wonder James Cameron declared himself king of the world jus six short years later!



Extra Tidbit: Will you be checking out T2 3D in theaters this weekend?
Source: AITH



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