The 90s was an interesting decade both fascinated and fearful of rapidly advancing technological change. It was the perfect setting to bring back the Terminator franchise, which metaphorically addressed the rise of the machines in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). T2 was the highest grossing film of the year and up to that date, the most expensive film ever made. Merchandise from the film was highly collectible (I collected the movie trading cards) and the Terminator Halloween costume was a hit (yes, I bought that, too).
Terminator Carla with her preferred weapon of choice (and the most advanced water gun of its era, the Super Soaker 1000, available via the Sharper Image catalogue).
This epic sci-fi action film opens with a shot of Los Angeles in 2029, an apocalyptic wasteland. Sarah Connor, one of the film’s protagonists, narrates, explaining the unimaginable loss of billions of lives, a result of a nuclear haulocaust created by machines, targeting humanity for domination. Skynet, the company that controls the machines, sent back two Terminators through time – the first to eliminate Sarah (in the original 80s film) and a second to kill her young son, John, the future face of the resistance. Because time travel isn’t complicated enough, the adult version of John Connor sends a Terminator back in time to protect him as a child. “The question is, which one would get to him first.”
And so begins the best action film of the 1990s, and arguably, the best sequel ever.
Enter Arnold Schwarzenneger as John’s protector, i.e. the “good” Terminator, who raids a biker bar, demanding new clothing, gun, shades, and yes, even a man’s wheels. Schwarzenneger was a massive star in the 90s, the biggest box office draw in the world. And with good reason. It’s frightening how good Arnold is in this film. He was born to play the Terminator. His most iconic lines in the film, “I’ll be back” and “Hasta la vista, baby” were mainstays of the era. He was relatively inescapable in the 90s, and no other action star came close to his unique brand. Other iconic films of the decade featuring this action phenom included Total Recall, True Lies, Batman & Robin, and the random comedy, Kindergarten Cop.
We soon meet the film’s villain, the T1000, a mimetic polyalloy (liquid metal!) who had the distinct advantage of being an upgraded Terminator model, able to morph into other objects and humans. This distinctive quality made optimal use of the latest morphing film technology, also seen in face swaps and panther morphs in Michael Jackson’s Black or White music video and to canvas dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Nowhere is the technology more impressively used than here, making the T1000 a formidable and terrifying opponent. I still recall how awestruck audiences were by the special effects in this film, which were unrivaled.
Terminator 2 is more than just a neat mashup of CGI; the storyline is fascinating. Overall, the film is well acted, oddly touching, and deeper than it needed to be.
The film introduces us to John Connor, played by young Edward Furlong in his first role, an actor who instantly found himself splashed across teenybop magazines as a 90s heartthrob.
Upon first glance, it’s hard to believe this squeaky brat will one day be the hope for humanity’s future and survival. John is a rebellious adolescent who wears a camouflage jacket and a Public Enemy t-shirt and romps around town on his dirtbike, hacking ATMs, and defying his foster parents. (His mother, Sarah, is presently locked up in a mental institution where she is considered paranoid and delusional, spending her days preparing for Judgement Day and warning of Terminators, while John’s father is understandably absent as he is a soldier from the future).
The T1000 relentlessly attempts to locate John and seeks to acquire his target at the mall, until his plans are thwarted in an epic showdown with Arnold’s Terminator. Oblivious John witnesses the spectacle and instantly realizes that his mother, who he always assumed was insane, was telling him the truth. Still skeptical, John questions the Terminator and discovers that his future self programmed it to protect him and therefore, it must obey his commands. He orders it not to kill anyone, and to help him break Sarah out of the mental facility, a priority target for the T1000.
The bond between John and the Terminator is a curious one. I imagine most kids might want to borrow a Terminator if they could, to help them confront that schoolyard bully or keep them safe. The Terminator ultimately fills a void in John’s life, and becomes a surrogate father of sorts to this unruly boy. This is one of the surprisingly deep and unexpectedly sentimental undertones you simply wouldn’t expect from a machine. Ultimately, T2 is a film about loyalty. The Terminator’s loyalty to John, John’s loyalty to Sarah, their loyalty to the fate of humanity.
One badass mother.
Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton) is one of cinema’s greatest heroines. Hamilton’s chiseled physicality was a game changer; she gave biceps a whole new definition, and articles began sprouting up in women’s magazines about how to have arms just like hers. Suddenly, being a woman also meant that you could be muscular, and a trend was born. It was refreshing to see a new portrayal of what a mother could be.
A mother and a warrior at heart, Sarah is aware that John is unsafe and is determined to escape and come to his aid, especially upon receiving news that a Terminator has returned. All hell breaks loose at the facility, and John and the Terminator are able to temporarily fight off the T1000 and escape with Sarah in tow. Sarah learns the location of Miles Dyson, the man spearheading the team at Cyberdyne that will unknowingly doom the planet, and sets out to eliminate him, to prevent the future war. “No fate but what we make.”
Miles Dyson and his inspiration.
Terminator 2 was a revolutionary film in many ways. Even the portrayal of Miles Dyson gives cinema a new possibility for black actors, so frequently found in stereotypical and unflattering roles. Dyson is a pioneering scientist with a loving family who has found success in the computer sector, unaware that his innovations will cause untold harm and suffering. His assasination attempt is thwarted by John and the Terminator, who intervene to find a solution to this problem that won’t involve the taking of an innocent life. (In a chilling scene, the Terminator slices through his arm to reveal a metal endoskeleton, another brilliant example of the film’s exemplary special effects.) The revelation convinces Dyson that his intruder’s doomsday predictions are true, and he leads them to his laboratory to destroy his research so that it cannot be replicated. The plan is easier said than done, and the team must battle countless officers and S.W.A.T teams assembled to take them out. As the Terminator promised John, he does not kill any one, and must go against his very programmed nature to harm his targets effectively enough that they can’t pursue but will survive, making the film violent yet with a very minimal body count, rare for an action film. Noble Dyson remains loyal to his word and overall, breaks the mold, allowing for greater visibility and expanding definitions for black males in the SciFi genre and cinema.
The special effects in this film, from computer generation to makeup, are incredibly cool and for the era, are second to none. This film would not have been possible in the 1980s, the technology simply didn’t exist yet. Everything from a T1000 morphing out of a checkerboard floor or nitrogen puddles to Sarah’s apocalyptic visions are impeccably realized. This movie delivers edge-of-your-seat adrenaline, pangs of sentimentality, and is the very definition of Hollywood blockbuster. The soundtrack is metallic, too, and this film has a grungy dark feel that fits right into the time period.
For a movie about machines, this film is a surprisingly human story. And for a film about the apocalypse, it’s certainly hopeful. James Cameron delivered a masterpiece with this film.
I honestly love everything about this movie. I enjoyed the film’s expanding definitions for minorities and women, the film’s themes of good vs evil, devotion and loyalty, and the human heart at the epicenter of this increasingly technology-driven world. This movie stands the test of time, and remains relevant – on occasion, a meme will surface warning of Skynet coming online, in an age of drones and cyber-intelligence warfare.
“We’re not going to make it. Humans, I mean,” young John surmises. The Terminator responds “No, it’s in your nature to destroy yourselves.” But if fate is indeed what we make of it, this film teaches us that it is possible to change course. If the Terminator can learn to understand human values and decency, perhaps there is hope for us all.
Someone hand me the Kleenex.
Note: The Terminator franchise now includes several more films and a TV series. None has ever rivaled the wonder that is T2.
5 Terminator Shades