by Selina Lee Featured Film Kicking the Canon

Terminator 2: Judgment Day | James Cameron

November 20, 2019

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is an early entry in what’s now a sprawling, multimedia franchise that includes TV, video games, and graphic novels. But James Cameron’s film feels as bracing and exhilarating today as it did upon its release almost thirty years ago. The film opens with glimpses of Los Angeles, overpopulated and banal, before cutting to the war against machines, where the once-familiar landscape is now paved with human skulls. Cameron, never known to do anything half-heartedly, balances requisite exposition and character-building with a series of intensely loud and bombastic action set pieces — the first being a broad-daylight chase through abandoned flood channels — that grow steadily grander in scale, eventually incorporating helicopters, gatling guns, and, finally, molten metal and liquid nitrogen. Cameron’s commitment to larger-than-life action – this was the most expensive movie ever made at the time of production – makes his cheesier choices, like introing a leather-clad Arnold Schwarzenneger with “Bad to the Bone,” not only forgivable, but downright endearing.

These bonds are so affecting in part because their formation serves as a stark contrast to the film’s portrayal of conventional authority figures.

The Terminator first appears nude and chiseled like a greek statue — and then quickly adapts, donning the clothes and accessories associated with outlaw biker culture. A more advanced adversary, the T-1000, arrives and integrates in roughly the same fashion, immediately co-opting the stolen uniform of an unlucky police officer and manipulating the trust of the society around him. While the Terminator is willing to learn from its human counterparts, which makes for some effective comedy, the T-1000, played with unnerving efficacy by Robert Patrick, makes no pretenses about its single-minded mission. Instead, it carves a path of deadpan destruction predicated on the simplicity of morphing metal limbs and an imperviousness to bullets. Amidst all of this, Cameron, not content with explosive chase scenes, also orchestrates one of the most white-knuckle escapes in modern cinema. After establishing Sarah Connor’s (Linda Hamilton) own penchant for manipulation, we see her parlaying years of prison pull-ups into a desperate bid for freedom. At the same time, both Terminators, plus John Connor (Edward Furlong), descend onto the locked-down hospital. It’s the first time that Sara sees the T-1000, exercising all its terrifying possibility, and through her, we watch the history of things to come unfold in real time. As Sara, John, and the Terminator come together to form the apocalypse’s most unlikely nuclear family, they swap slang and moral imperatives (“You just can’t go around killing people!”), leading up to the Terminator’s final, inevitable sacrifice — which in turn feels genuinely poignant, even tragic. These bonds are so affecting in part because their formation serves as a stark contrast to the film’s portrayal of conventional authority figures. Cops, doctors, and scientists are invariably villains in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, while those on the outskirts of society – foster kids, survivalists, guerrillas – are the ones who prove principled and capable. Of course, it’s a cliche, but proves startlingly successful in charging Cameron’s mega-mainstream studio smash with an underlying current of desperate self-determination and anarchic bravado.  John’s Public Enemy t-shirt couldn’t be more appropriate.

Ingenious sound design and an array of special effects (credit Gary Rydstrom and Stan Winston, respectively) imbue the T-1000 with features that recall organic matter, albeit entirely metallic – the opposite of the antiquated Terminator’s composition, which was conceived to feature living tissue binding its form. The T-1000’s shapeshifting technology and self-healing properties form an impenetrable shell that’s all the more ominous for being so sinuously rendered: bullet holes resemble mushroom spores and slender, mantis-like spikes appear in place of arms. At the moment that the T-1000 finally “dies,” defeated by molten steel, it briefly takes the form of every person that it’s mimicked, a gesture that implies a sense of memory that’s applicable to both computer programming and, uncannily, human neurology. Similarly, the treatment of Sara’s H-bomb fallout fantasy in this film is considered one of the most realistic depictions of nuclear war to ever be presented a fictional film. As radiation ripples across and through civilization, it’s easy enough to draw parallels to the waves of iterative A.I. that alter our experience of the world with each passing year, or the computational advancements codified as Moore’s Law. If we take Sara’s words to heart, humanity is fated to extinction – but at the same time,  her dogged insistence on our capacity to learn and do better, on humankind’s judgment and wisdom when it matters most, suggests we just may still have a chance.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.