Forget about “The Godfather, Part II”, “Aliens” and “The Empire Strikes back”… in my very humble opinion, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” is the best movie sequel ever. More than that, it ranks as #04 on my list of the best movies of all time. Don’t get me wrong, I also really love the first one, which arguably was grittier and bleaker; the sequel definitely is more polished, and doesn’t quite carry the same indie/B-movie punch. Is also was definitely more revolutionary, and arguably moved at a more breathless pace. Other than that, though, “Terminator 2” trumps its predecessor in every way.
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There’s a lot of turmoil right now about the latest trailers already giving away one of the biggest twists of “Terminator: Genisys”. As someone who likes to see movies as unprepared as possible, that really bugged me too. However, one might say that it has tradition in this franchise, since while James Cameron does his best to hide the fact that this time, Arnold is the good guy (just an example: He doesn’t show us the arrival of the T-1000, since the fact that he probably didn’t shiver like Kyle did might have tipped us off to his true identity. Also, we don’t see him shapeshifting before his first encounter with the T-800), the trailers unfortunately already gave it away. It’s a testament to how good the movie is that it’s none for the worse for it (a feat that I don’t expect “Genisys” to repeat); and, of course, it’s not quite as bad, since it’s not all the movie has going for it, and also, that revelation already comes around 20 minutes into the movie. Still, I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to be caught totally unaware by that twist. Nevertheless, the first confrontation definitely is one of the highlights of the movie, followed by an incredibly chase scene through the canals. I also have to mention the beginning of the movie, with Sarah Connor’s voice over, and our only glimpse of the Future War this time. It’s a stunning sequence, much more spectacular than in the first one, but still feeling equally gritty and grim. Also, the Terminator-torso is a thing of stunning beauty. Plus, flourishes like the Terminator stepping on a human skull are what make this movie so special for me – and show James Cameron’s incredible talent as a filmmaker.
It’s something that can be seen through the entire movie, and while I don’t want to bore you with an analysis that’s too in-depth, let me give you one example: Sarah Connor’s attack on Miles Dyson. There would have been a lot of chances to fuck it up, but on each and every turn, Cameron makes the right decision. He actually has Sarah pull the trigger, her intended victim only saved by pure chance. She then enters the building, still very much determined to kill him, but ultimately, with his son and his wife lying next to him and begging her to stop, she’s unable to go through with it. Another, lesser, director would have had John and the Terminator arrive two minutes earlier, finding Sarah with the gun pointed at Miles, and trying to talk her out of it. The fact that she actually decides to lower the gun for herself, and then crawls to the wall and starts to cry, is what makes this scene for me – and also what makes it stand out from the zillion similar scenes in a zillion other movies. While we’re at it: The direction that Sarah takes in this movie is one of its biggest strengths. She is about to become exactly what she fears, and what she fled from in the first movie: A seemingly unstoppable and remorseless killing machine. A Terminator. That she ultimately chooses not to go though with it packs an incredible important anti-war and anti-violence message that is especially noteworthy for a movie that relies so heavily on action.
Said action, by the way, is nothing short of stunning, and shot absolutely flawless. There are many impressive action sequences and incredible stunts, and it all still looks remarkable even today. It’s spectacular, and exciting, and thrilling – and, whaddayaknow, it manages to do so without cutting the action to pieces or zooming in with the camera so far that you can’t make out what’s happening any more. I really wish some modern filmmakers would take note, since in my mind, action doesn’t get much better than this. The effects were absolutely revolutionary too, and still hold up incredibly well. No matter if it’s the make-up on Arnold’s increasingly worn-out T-800, the practical effects, or the CGI of the T-1000, it’s astonishing how well it all looks, especially compared to some cheap CGI-effects today. Why could they do it almost 25 years ago, but more often than not fail to achieve a similar quality today? It’s baffling. The soundtrack is great, too. While I already loved Brad Fiedel’s score for the first one, it definitely was rather erratic. Here, while very much staying true to his origins and offering some rousing music for the action scenes, he overall offers a more symphonic and calmer soundscape – thus perfectly capturing the quieter and more thoughtful tone of the movie. The acting is stellar, too. In my opinion, Linda Hamilton would have deserved an Oscar for her performance here, and Edward Furlong is also quite good. Robert Patrick isn’t quite as iconic as Schwarzenegger as the big, main villain (then again, who is?), but he still captures the robotic nature of the T-1000 perfectly, without simply copying what Arnold did on the first one.
Next to Linda Hamilton, however, Arnold Schwarzenegger once again is the MVP of this movie. He was in his prime when he shot “T2”, and his performance benefits from the fact that he’s allowed to let a little loose and have some fun with the role this time. Which brings us to the next aspect: As much as I love the dark and somber tone of the first one, but this time, we also get a little humor to lighten up the mood from time to time. I especially love the scene in the biker bar, or rather right after, where he first grabs the shotgun, then the sunglasses, and suddenly, “Bad to the Bone” starts to play. However, there are many more gags to be found throughout, which all hit home with me. Nevertheless, “T2” is far from being a comedy. On the contrary, one of the things that are so great about the movie is how it balances so many different ideas, elements, and tones. Yes, it might be funnier than the first one, but that never ever detracts from the tension that it reaches during its action scenes. Plus, those moments are in stark contrast to what for me is one of the most brutal, horrifying and nightmarish scenes in movie history: The depiction of the atomic explosion in Los Angeles. It’s a scene that, after I saw the movie for the first time (where they might have cut out some of the more brutal parts, but, inexplicably, not this), gave me nightmares. The explosion, how everyone (at a children’s playground, for fuck’s sake!) starts to burn and turns into ash, how Sarah grips the fence, her flesh slowly burning off until only her skeleton remains, until finally it too dissolves… Holy shit. I get the creeps just thinking about it.
Despite this harrowing scene, however, “T2” ultimately is a movie about hope. It teaches us that our future is in our own hands – “No fate but what we make” – and also, that it’s something that’s very much worth fighting for. This is what “T2” ultimately sets apart from the first one for me. Despite all the tension and the spectacle, it also has some incredibly depth, substance, and especially heart. Like John Connor, we come to like this killing machine that during the course of the movie, gets more and more human – until it arguably reaches sentience, and is able to defy John’s command in order to achieve a greater goal. The relentless killing machine, the Terminator, gives his life in order to save humanity. It’s an incredibly moving scene that gets me every time – and which leads us to the perfect ending not just for the movie, but also the entire franchise (if only). Where “The Terminator” ended on an ominous note about the “coming storm”, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” ends on a more hopeful note, with one of the best ending monologues in the history of cinema, which always gives me goosebumps.
As for the question “Theatrical version or Director’s Cut” – I usually opt for the latter. Don’t get me wrong, the theatrical version is equally great. And there are a couple of scenes in the DC that arguably aren’t necessary. For example, I think that it actually works better when we meet Miles Dyson and his family for the first time when Sarah Connor approaches his house to kill him. Nevertheless, overall, the Director’s Cut feels more rounded and complete. It also features a couple of scenes that I always miss whenever I decide to watch the theatrical version after all, like Kyle’s visit, the damage the T-1000 shows near the end, and most notably the scene where they take out the chip of the T-800 to make it possible for him to process new inputs. That one’s especially important, not just because it’s an incredibly well done sequence, but also since it’s the first time that we get a glimpse of John Connor, the future leader of the resistance. Plus there are a couple of nice moments that reinforce the growing friendship between John and the T-800, which give the ending even more gravitas.
“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” is an absolute masterpiece. It’s the best action movie ever made, the best sequel ever made, and the best movie by James Cameron (so far); and with an impressive track record like his, that really is saying something. It’s a movie full of dread and despair, that nevertheless ends on an irresistible flicker of hope. Stunningly acted, produced, written and shot, it perfectly embodies what movies – at their best – are capable of: To entertain the shit out of us, but at the same time also to make us think, and to affect us emotionally. What more can you ask for?
“The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”