Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Director Report Card: James Cameron (1991)

5. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

In the years since “The Terminator,” James Cameron would establish himself as the most popular and prominent science-fiction director since Steven Spielberg. Arnold Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, had become the biggest movie star in the world. Both the star and the director wanted to make a sequel to their seminal film for some time but the rights were held up by legal reasons. Following the mediocre box office of ‘The Abyss,” a sequel to an established hit was exactly what Cameron needed. When “Terminator 2” was made, it’s budget quickly ballooned to 94 million dollars, making it one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time. Arnold alone would receive 15 million dollars, along with a private jet. The sky-rocketing budget ended up being worth it. “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” would become the highest grossing film of 1991 and perhaps the most iconic action film of the decade.

It’s been seven years since the events of “The Terminator.” Judgement Day, the day Skynet becomes self-aware and launches the world’s nuclear missiles, is still imminent. Sarah Connor now resides in a mental institution, haunted by nightmares of the impending apocalypse. Her son, John, is now seven years old, residing with a foster family he doesn’t care for. In their years together, Sarah told John of his destiny as mankind’s savior, training him for war. Mother and son are reunited when, once again, two mysterious figures are sent back in time. This time, both are Terminators. The protector is the same model as the 1984 original, reprogrammed to protect. The other is an assassin with terrifying new abilities.

“Terminator 2” was Cameron’s third sequel and the first to one of his own movies. With “Aliens,” he essentially followed the same story outline as the film he was sequelizing while changing the surrounding events, even switching the movie into an entirely different genre. “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” does something similar. The story has a more-or-less identical structure to the first. A robot assassin is sent back in time to kill someone, as is a bodyguard for the intended target. Both movies begins with a peak into the future. Both movies end in an industrial factory of some sort. The biggest difference between the two films reflects the public’s opinion at the time. After seeing him play the hero all throughout the eighties, who knows if the public would even accept Arnold Schwarzenegger as a villain at this point? Thus, Arnold’s Terminator has been reprogrammed to be a hero, with Robert Patrick’s more human seeming T-1000 becoming the bad guy. The movie attempts to mask this change of alliance. Arnold is introduced in much the same way, generating in an empty parking lot. He pursues John Connor and swings a shotgun around. Meanwhile, Patrick’s Terminator assumes the identity of a cop, appearing to be a natural protector. The movie reveals the characters’ true soon enough but it’s a deliberate choice. The movie trailers, by the way, spoiled the surprise.

The first “Terminator” used its time travel plot line mostly as an excuse to set up a taunt genre picture. “Judgement Day” communicates more deeply with the idea. The time travel device is still underdeveloped and the sequel makes no attempt to clarify these logic holes. Instead, the movie discusses the idea of fate. Throughout the film, Sarah repeats a minor line Reese told her in the first movie: There’s no fate but what we make. This seems at odds with what happens throughout most of the film. The Terminator’s continued pursuit of the Connors guarantees that Skynet comes to power, that Judgement Day and the war between humanity and the machines comes to pass. The entire film hinges on whether or not these fates can be avoided, if the future can be changed. These are questions everyone has grappled with. “Terminator 2” mostly uses these ideas for a feel-good story, ultimately showing that man is the master of his own fate

For Schwarzenegger fans, “Terminator 2” provided the Austrian superstar a chance to reprises his most iconic role. Since the original film, Arnold has made a career playing heroes, albeit ones with exceptionally high body counts. He had even begun to play with his tough guy images, starring in comedies like “Twins” or “Kindergarten Cop,” released the year prior. Naturally, his Terminator has softened as well. The T-800 is a good guy this time. He doesn’t kill people and spends the whole movie paling around with a kid. Most pressingly, he even starts to show a sense of humor. The android’s emotionless state and blank expression make him the perfect comedic straight man. His one attempt to smile produces a big laugh. Arnold’s performance continues to grow. He remains an unblinking machine, moving with a determined, robotic motion. His emerging humanity provides richer characterization and some of Arnold’s deepest acting.

In “Aliens,” Cameron transformed an already strong female heroine into a full blown action star. Sarah Connor was already tough. She transformed into a dependable final girl, faced down a Termiantor Endoskeleton and survived. Sarah’s transformation between movies is even more drastic then Ripley’s transformation from pilot to xenomorph smasher. Sarah Connor is introduced via her toned, bulging biceps. She whacks security guards with batons, leaps across tables, and tosses grown men around. All of this is before she even gets out of prison. Linda Hamilton’s performs her as a character torn apart by her paranoia and fear. Sarah has become a bad ass, wielding rifles and shotguns. The transformation cost her humanity. Yet the movie frequently lets us beneath Sarah’s tough exterior. The script and Hamilton’s electrifying performance makes it clear that the character’s extreme actions are a result of very human feelings.

A big difference between 1984 Sarah and 1991 Sarah is that she’s now a parent. Parenthood is a reoccurring theme throughout “Terminator 2.” John doesn’t think much of his foster parents, ordinary folks bordering on white trash. After growing up among Mexican weapon smugglers, how could an ordinary life appeal to him? Yet he dismisses his birth mother as a psycho, at least at first. When they’re reunited, the relationship between the two remains contentious. As Sarah dryly notes, John finds a father figure in the Terminator, the machine filling some sort of void in the boys life. I surprise to read that Cameron wasn’t a parent yet when he made “Terminator 2.” The themes of a parent’s responsibility towards their children and the effects of an upbringing on a child float all around the movie’s edge.

Despite Schwarzenegger’s android and Hamilton’s Connor receiving top billing, young John Connor is, in many ways, the story’s protagonist. John is played by Edward Furlong, an inexperienced actor with no previous screen credits, plucked fresh from auditions. Furlong has the scratchy, puberty-stricken voice of a young teenager. The character is meant to be seven years old but the audience doesn’t buy it. Furlong is introduced riding on a mini-bike, blaring Guns n’ Roses, and stealing money from ATMs. That skill improbably comes in handy later. Furlong, meanwhile, teaches the emotionless killing machine what might have been cool slang in 1991. Furlong’s performance is mostly peppy emotions and petty teenage annoyance. The script has enough nuances to prevent him from being annoying. But just barely and Furlong doesn’t help any.

Which brings us to another issue with “T2.” Is the movie too sappy? The original “Terminator” was a hard sci-fi/action film with heavy elements of horror. It was bloody, violent, intense, and downbeat. The sequel features less violence and intensity and a more upbeat tone. Despite maintaining the R-rating, sometimes the sequel feels almost kid-friendly. Long portions of the film are devoted to Furlong and Arnold bonding, creating a “Boy and His Terminator” story. Arnold doesn’t kill anybody, at John’s request. One scene has him hopping up-and-down on one leg because the boy says so. Most cringe-worthy is the subplot concerning the robot’s reaction to emotion. He’s baffled by John’s tears early on. Later, he asks him why humans cry. The film concludes with him understanding emotional pain. Sorry guys, I just don’t know if this belongs in a “Terminator” movie. Some times the movie feels like the kid’s show version of itself, overly sentimental and overstated.

Luckily, the movie still has a bad ass villain. Before the T-1000, Robert Patrick was a work-a-day tough guy actor. His most notable previous credits was as the star in hyper-violent, low-budget action flicks. Patrick is no less of a killing machine here. Amazingly, he proves more intimidating then Arnold was in the first movie. His face is always straight ahead. The character speaks softly, masking his malevolent intentions. An often parodied aspect of the new Terminator is his tendency to pursue targets on foot. He runs after vehicles, keeping pace with them, arms swaying back and forth militaristically. Patrick is also more sadistic then Arnold, seemingly enjoying causing his victims pain and outsmarting people. He’s a frightening threat fully made of intimidation.

Also contributing to the villain’s intimidation factor is its main defining gimmick. The T-1000 is made of liquid metal, able to shifts its form to look like any person or stretching its arms into simple stabbing or stretching tools. The concept was conceived for the original “Terminator” but scrapped because it wasn’t possible for the effects of the day. The CGI used to create the character was cutting-edge in 1991, blowing people’s minds and winning the movie several special effects Oscars. It’s primitive today. The movie smartly implements practical effects as well, when holes are blasted in his body or he’s blown in two. Story wise, it’s a brilliant decision. Being malleable makes the Terminator even more unstoppable. He assumes other identities. One clever moment has him disguising himself as the floor. He squeezes through bars, pries open doors, and stabs through heads. Even if the CGI is obviously primitive today, the liquid metal Terminator is still a brilliant creation.

The sequel is less viscerally violent then the original. However, the action is much, much bigger. The very first action scene is lower key. The two Terminators meet in a hallway, John in the middle. The T-1000 is blown backwards by shotgun blasts, silver holes in his chest. This leads into the first enormous action sequence in the movie. John, riding on a mini-bike, is pursued through the L.A. canals by the Terminator in a Mac truck, Arnold riding ahead on a motorcycle, twirling a shotgun around on his hand. The sequence is hugely exciting and beautifully executed. Sarah Connor’s escape from the mental institution is also well done, with Linda Hamilton slamming faces and tossing bodies to the ground.

Maybe the superior “Aliens” director’s cut spoiled us. James Cameron’s auteur license was secured. Which meant extended director’s cut of all of his movies from now. Thus “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” is available in both 137 minute versions and 154 minute versions. A scene present in both cuts, though slightly longer in the extended cut, details Sarah deciding to murder Miles Dyson, the Cyberdine scientist who creates Skynet. These scenes take the focus away from the main story. The T-1000 disappears for a long stretch of the story. Sarah straddles the slippery slope of morality as she threatens to take an innocent life. Joe Morton’s performance is fine. But the character serves a function that easily could have been covered in a less distracting way. The pacing is killed in the middle of the movie, needlessly complicating the simplicity of the story.

Before too much longer, “Judgement Day” remembers that it’s an action movie. The assault on Cyberdine features some pretty massive explosions. The heroes flee the police, reluctant to shoot at them. Arnold marches down and gets to business. He blitz an entire fleet of police car with a mini-gun, decimating the cops without killing anyone. Soon afterwards, he knocks a few offending officers back with some gas pallets, another memorable moment. The T-1000’s dramatic re-entrance into the film is signaled when he leaps onto a helicopter, oozes through the glass, and takes after the heroes. A fantastic chase sequence follows, with the helicopter crashing into a truck, the vehicle flipping through the air, and an eight-wheeler crashing into a building.

The factory-set last act is when “Terminator 2” really comes together. The location is dramatically lit. As in “Aliens,” Cameron’s coloration changes from a cool blue to a burning red, displaying the growing severity of the situation. The heat effects the T-1000, his hands and feet melting to the floor, a nice foreshadowing of his final fate. We get the brawl we’ve been waiting for, the Terminator-on-Terminator action, when the two beat the shit out of each. Both are tossed into walls. Arnold’s has his arm cleaved off in some gears. The T-1000 assumes Sarah’s room, another moment the film’s been building up too. Once the enemy is spectacularly vanished, the film attempts to wrap up its emotional threads. As silly as it is, Arnold being lowered into the steel is the closest the film comes to genuine pathos. “Terminator 2” doesn’t waste any time after that. A brief scene, of high-lights on a dark road, takes us to the final credits. It’s good and it works.

Over the years, “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” has earned a reputation as a superior sequel. The movie is certainly more ambitious then the original. However, by expanding the scope and the story, it looses the gritty intimacy of the original. The film is arguably too long. The pacing drags at times, compared to the original’s on-going chase scene. John Connor is a whiny character I’m largely ambivalent to. Yet “T2” also creates some impressive, amazing action stunts. The effects still hold up. The cast of characters is still effective, especially Patrick and Hamilton. The movie is a massive crowd-pleaser and I can’t argue with that too much. [Grade: B+]

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