Why It Works: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.


"Three billion human lives ended on August 29th, 1997. The survivors of the nuclear fire called the war Judgment Day." Just in time for the twentieth anniversary of Skynet becoming self-aware, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY is getting a 4K 3D theatrical re-release next weekend, because James Cameron. T2 is often heralded as one of the greatest and best looking action movies of all time, but impressive action alone does not a great movie make (although f*ck if MAD MAX: FURY ROAD didn't come close). Thanks to a combination of worldbuilding, character development, a primal narrative, and yes, some kick-ass action sequences, TERMINATOR 2 remains over a quarter century later a hallmark of modern filmmaking. Here's why it works:


When we first meet John Connor, he's just a bratty kid who hangs out with Budnick from Salute Your Shorts. We quickly learn that his behavior is largely due to his upbringing and estrangement from his mother, whom he believes to be insane. When a terminator shows up to kill John, however, not only are we worried for the life of a child, but we gain a great deal of sympathy for the character as he realizes everything his mother believes is actually true. Meanwhile, Sarah Connor is locked away in an asylum, regularly abused by the guards, wants desperately to see her son, and if that's not enough, is haunted by the knowledge that billions of people will die in a few years if she doesn't do anything about it. Both John and Sarah are far from traditional "good guy" protagonists, but in a violent world where they're the only ones trying to save humanity, we don't exactly need them to be saints.

"Good morning, Dr. Silberman. How's the knee?"

Moving onto our favorite tin men, we have two terminators who- while they lack emotion and any real sense of self- come across as very different characters. The T-800, reprogrammed to protect John Connor, develops a kind of relationship with John and an understanding of the human spirit. While it's (thankfully) never indicated that the T-800 is developing genuine emotions, the fact that he (or it, if you like) learns what makes his allies tick and alters his behavior to suit their needs is enough to make him a sympathetic character in our eyes. The T-1000, on the other hand, is simply a ruthless killing machine, technically superior to the T-800. He has no moral code and will never doubt his actions or his mission, which may not make him a traditionally "interesting" character but certainly makes him an excellent foe for our heroes. As a side note, all of this relates to T2 as a standalone film; for viewers with a recent viewing of THE TERMINATOR under their belt, Sarah's transformation from damsel-in-distress waitress to ultimate badass soldier and the T-800's unexpected turn as a good guy both provide a significant added bonus to two already fascinating characters.

Robert Patrick is just a creepy looking dude.

Finally, later in the film, we have one of the most important characters in the TERMINATOR mythos in Miles Dyson. Miles and his family come across as easily the most pure, kind, and compassionate characters in TERMINATOR 2- and yet Miles' research will go on to make him responsible for the end of the world. All in all, T2 provides us with much more complicated characters than the average action film, be it the innocent Miles accidentally bringing about the apocalypse, our heroine Sarah's attempt to kill Miles in order to save humanity, or something as simple as the terrifying T-1000 being depicted as a cop while the lovable T-800 rides around in bad boy biker gear.

Joe Morton gives a heartbreakingly emotional performance in almost every scene he's in.


Stopping the end of the world is all well and good, but audiences also need an immediate, observable urgency to stay engaged. Our most immediate source of tension is the very tangible threat of the T-1000's mission to kill John Connor and anyone standing in his way. This provides a looming sense of danger over the entire film, and the face-off between terminators early on promises plenty of thrilling action to look forward to. Next up is the overarching theme of family and relationships in T2. Starting with John's burgeoning relationship with the T-800, we move on to an eventual reunion between mother and son, Sarah's fear, mistrust, and eventual acceptance of the T-800, meeting the Dyson family, and finally the sacrifice of both Miles and the T-800 in the interest of the greater good. The introduction of Miles' family late into the story gives us a new emotional thread to follow now that tensions between Sarah, John, and the T-800 have settled. You know that bored feeling you get about 30-40 minutes before the end of most films? That's because the emotional threads have mostly been tied up but there's still a lot of plot maintenance to get through before the finale. In a nutshell, movies need more Miles Dyson.

"The future's not set. There's no fate but what we make for ourselves."

Finally, hanging over everything is the world of the TERMINATOR franchise. Rather than shoving in some massive T1 recap and exposition scene at the top of the movie, we are slowly fed details about the events of the first film, the events since, and glimpses of the world to come if our heroes are unsuccessful in their mission. THE TERMINATOR gave us a fairly detailed world to begin with, but TERMINATOR 2 expands upon that mythology, filling in details from the first film while also raising new questions and generally painting a rich tapestry of a future we never quite get to see (at least until those other TERMINATOR movies went into James Cameron's house and knocked a bunch of shit over).


TERMINATOR 2 hits us with some big action early on, so expectations are high for an impressive finale- and boy do Cameron and his team deliver. The crew's attempt to destroy Cyberdyne is interrupted by the arrival of the police and the T-1000, causing the T-800 to fend off the troops while obeying John's "no killing" rule. Once Cyberdyne is destroyed (along with Miles, sadly), the T-1000 pursues the trio in a helicopter, hops over to a tanker, gets frozen in liquid nitrogen, and is finally blown to bits by the T-800. Oh, wait. Thanks to the wonders of liquid metal, the T-1000 quickly pulls himself together and proceeds to beat the shit out of the T-800, torture Sarah, and pursue John through a steel mill. With a little teamwork and a triumphant return online from the T-800, the T-1000 is finally sent into a pool of molten lava, never to return again.

What better weapon to scare the pants off the cops without actually killing anyone?

Again, action is only part of the equation here, though, and so the emotional thread of the film continues through to the last frame. The destruction of Cyberdyne is only made certain with Miles' noble sacrifice, the successful termination of the T-1000 ensures the survival of our heroes, the only way to completely eliminate the possibility of Judgment Day is to destroy the T-800, resulting in a tearful farewell, and a final voiceover from Sarah promises a brighter future for John and herself and expresses a genuine hope for humanity.


Thanks to the comic boom and massive improvements in CGI, we live in a time where it seems like half the action movies out there feature characters throwing trains at each other or punching each other into space. While TERMINATOR 2 marked a milestone in the world of visual effects, most of the action lives in the visceral world of practical effects. CG effects are limited to the T-1000's liquid metal exoskeleton, which doesn't have to look entirely "real," as we're being shown something we've never seen before. As with THE TERMINATOR, the industrial nature of T2 also goes a long way to cementing the sci-fi film in reality, from the blue-collar aesthetic to chase scenes featuring motorcycles and large vehicles to a finale in a steel mill to more fire and metal than you can shake a Gibson Flying V at.

Still cool.

In addition to being heralded as an exemplary action film, TERMINATOR 2 is also still thought of as one of the best sequels of all time. Along with other films in that category- THE GODFATHER: PART II, THE DARK KNIGHT, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and Cameron's own ALIENS- TERMINATOR 2 finds a story still yearning to be told (rather than just doing it again but we're in Texas this time!) and expands on the universe and scope of the film while still staying true to the source mythology. As for the filmmaking itself, James Cameron's direction and his script with William Wisher Jr. are at once larger than life, down to earth, concise, and a hell of a lot of fun. Linda Hamilton's unbridled performance plays no small part in making her one of the best action heroines of all time, with Arnold Schwarzenegger giving a charming performance for how devoid of emotion he needs to be, Robert Patrick chilling us to the bone with his unwavering terminator, Edward Furlong delivering an emotional debut (while also being a totally rad 90's kid), and Joe Morton stealing our hearts with limited screentime (along with a brief but effective Michael Biehn cameo depending on which cut you prefer). I could talk about TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY until the world ends, but in the meantime, hasta la vista, I'll be back, and a big thumbs up to you all.

Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!

If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at [email protected].

Source: JoBlo.com



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