Sunday, June 28, 2015

Summer School: 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' (1991)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

For a long time, Terminator 2: Judgment Day was my favorite movie of all time. I've probably seen it more times than any other movie (because I rarely watch movies more than once), and while I worry that a lot of my childhood favorites wouldn't hold up if I watched them again today, T2 absolutely holds up. It's still one of my favorite movies of all time, and it's also one of the best sci-fi movies ever made, one of the best action movies ever made and a landmark in special-effects development that still looks remarkably impressive. Say what you will about James Cameron's spotty track record since (I loved True Lies, but that's one that I haven't watched since I was a teenager), but T2 is a huge success on almost every level.

It expertly builds on the groundwork laid by the first movie, even if Cameron didn't necessarily plan on making a sequel. The way that the story of Skynet, Judgment Day, John Connor and the rest of the mythology expands in this movie is remarkably fluid, with each development following from the basic structure of the first movie. Although the twist was ruined by the movie's pre-release marketing, there's still a measure of suspense in seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger show up again as the Terminator, the terrifying killing machine of the first movie, only to switch sides and start protecting John and Sarah Connor. Schwarzenegger has much more dialogue in this movie than he did in the first one, and he manages to infuse the Terminator's development, via friendship with John, with real emotion.

Of course Schwarzenegger's performance is nothing compared to Linda Hamilton's turn as Sarah Connor, which Cameron rightly argued should have garnered an Oscar nomination. The most obvious change is the way that Hamilton bulked up, but she changes everything about the way Sarah moves, speaks and acts, all in line with the trauma she endured in the first movie and the time she's spent since then on the run and later imprisoned. The look on Sarah's face when she sees the Terminator rounding the corner at the mental institution, right behind her son, is just an amazing piece of acting, perfectly encapsulating so much about Sarah in a single moment. Some people criticize Sarah's narration as cheesy, but to me it's a haunting and melancholy insight into the character's mix of maternal love, resigned bitterness and paradoxical optimism for the future.

Then there's Edward Furlong, who's obviously the movie's weakest link as John. While Schwarzenegger and Hamilton really rise to the challenge of expanding on their characters, Furlong mostly just whines petulantly, although much of that is true to the character. This is a kid whose entire life has been spent preparing for a massive tragedy he doesn't understand or even believe in, who has been deprived of the fun and freedom of childhood. So it makes sense that he's a little pissy. His transformation over the course of the movie is not entirely convincing, and even after everything he goes through it's a little tough to imagine him as the inspiring leader of the future (really, Sarah seems like a much better candidate). But overall Furlong fits with the story, and everyone around him is so good that it's easy to forgive his flaws. Robert Patrick has the least showy lead part as the cold, implacable T-1000, but he makes the character a genuinely unsettling villain, and in a different way than Schwarzenegger's Terminator was in the first movie.

The movie ends on an evocative note of optimism mixed with an undercurrent of dread, much better than the more definitive happy ending that Cameron had planned (although at least that might have made it more difficult to produce more sequels). I like certain aspects of the next movie, but as far as I'm concerned, it would have been better if the Terminator series had just ended here.

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