The five reasons why ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ will never be surpassed — Ultimate Movie Year

Edward Furlong (left) and Arnold Schwarzenegger fight to protect the future in 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (Tri-Star Pictures/MovieStillsDB.com)

Good news everybody: ‘T2’ still fucking rips

“Terminator 2: Judgment Day”
Released July 3, 1991
Directed by James Cameron
Where to Watch

When “The Terminator” was released in 1984, the science fiction movie grossed $38.8 million domestically in theaters. By the time its sequel debuted seven years later, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” made almost that much money in its just first weekend. It would go on to gross $520.9 million worldwide, making it the top moneymaker of 1991.

It’s a testament to how the original movie became such a cult favorite on television and video that there was ample demand for a sequel, but also how clutch the key players were in delivering the goods (and more) when expectations were sky-high. It’s a feat that no other movies in the franchise have come close to replicating. Few movies since had this kind of seismic impact, period. Here are the reasons why.

5. “T2” flipped the premise and raised the stakes.

“The Terminator” featured Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800, a nearly indestructible and relentless cyborg from the future sent back in time to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who is destined to become the mother of the future leader of the human resistance. In “T2,” Sarah has borne that leader — John Connor (Edward Furlong), then a young boy — who becomes the target of assassination from the future. Another T-800 is sent back in time, but the twist is that this cyborg has been reprogrammed to protect John. Sarah forms a wary alliance with the T-800 because now the real Terminator is the more advanced T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a robot made of liquid metal.

In the years between the first and second movies, Schwarzenegger became one of the world’s biggest movie stars. Switching him from the antagonist to a hero gives the audiences more of what they want to see. John also compels the T-800 to stop killing humans, another twist that literally reverses the motive and function of the title character of the original movie. The T-800 is no longer a Terminator.

In addition, “The Terminator” operates as a causal loop; the time travel mission creates the very future conflict they’re fighting against. In “T2,” Sarah looks to break the loop by stopping the creation of the Skynet system that developed Terminators. It opens the possibilities of success by accomplishing their immediate goal in the movie and preventing the future apocalypse.

These story decisions elevate “T2” but have kneecapped every other Terminator movie since because they simply couldn’t match the level of surprise and possibility here. Seeing the villain make a face turn (to use the pro wrestling vernacular) for the first time is powerful; it doesn’t have the same impact when it happens again and again. Meanwhile, the franchise turned fatalistic once it revealed the heroes of “T2” didn’t prevent the apocalypse and would not prevent it again and again because there are no more Terminator movies once they do.

“Ultimately, the film is about the value of human life,” Cameron says in the film’s promotional material. “The film empowers the individual. It says that no matter how inconsequential you may seem to others . . . your individual existence may have great value in the future.”

4. The first impactful integration of CGI.

Call me an old man if you must, but back in the day, filmmakers couldn’t use computer special effects to capture the impossible on screen. James Cameron was one of the first directors who experimented with CGI on his previous movie, 1989’s “The Abyss.” He was determined to use the technology in a more significant way for the T-1000. However, the technology was still limited, so Cameron was very strategic when and how he’d use it to maximize the impact on the story.

Crucially, he didn’t just rely on CGI to sell the T-1000. Cameron used practical effects and props to create damage and weapons for the character. He even hired twins when the story required the T-1000 to disguise itself as somebody else; Hamilton’s twin sister Leslie is in a few scenes. All of it helped create the illusion of powers that the T-1000 possessed, while Patrick infused the character with a swift, mercenary drive that makes him one of cinema’s most memorable villains.

“T2” debuted one of the best silver-screen magic tricks ever seen, akin to audiences seeing “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903 or the original “King Kong” in 1933. Similar movies would come later, but you never forget the first time you see it.

3. Linda Hamilton.

One of the more intriguing changes in “T2” is Hamilton’s performance as Sarah Connor. In the first movie, Sarah began as a young waitress who was thinking about the future more in her immediate social life than global apocalypses. By the time we catch up to her in the sequel, Sarah has been significantly impacted by her future knowledge. Not only has she given birth to John, but she’s deep-dived into survivalist and military tactics to the point where it’s landed her in a psychiatric facility. Sarah’s also leaned out and muscled up, creating a visual departure from her look in the original “Terminator.” Unlike other sequels, we know immediately that Sarah’s lived a life in between movies. It’s an incredible journey from a sweet naive waitress to a formidable woman who’s so determined to stop the future apocalypse that she becomes her own version of the Terminator.

Hamilton’s Sarah Connor isn’t the first female action hero, but in an era before these roles for women were popular, she is a pioneer. It’s because Hamilton was driven to create such a transformation that while the character would return in later projects (Hamilton finally returned to the role in 2019’s “Terminator: Dark Fate”), the version that appeared in “T2” remains our default image of Sarah Connor.

2. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It’s hard to underestimate how quickly Schwarzenegger ascended to the top of the world in between movies. When the original “Terminator” came out, it was only his third starring role (after the Conan movies), but he was primarily known as the former bodybuilding champion from Austria. Even though Schwarzenegger had few speaking lines in “The Terminator,” his dominating presence made an impression, along with his first iconic line, “I’ll be back.”

By the time he did come back to the franchise, Schwarzenegger had made many profitable and entertaining action films like 1985’s “Commando,” 1987’s “Predator,” and 1990’s “Total Recall” that made the foreign-born actor the most popular American movie hero. And the pay was commensurate; Schwarzenegger reportedly earned $14 million for “T2.”

It was money well spent. While Schwarzenegger is unlikely to play Hamlet or Abraham Lincoln anytime soon, “T2” is one of his best performances, taking a role that brought him to stardom and adding warmth and humor as John teaches the T-800 about the value of humanity. The star had enough power to continue tossing off the quips and kills that made Schwarzenegger so famous. Still, he downplayed that persona to put his trust in Cameron to play the character, and the movie’s better for it. Schwarzenegger would continue starring in movies (including other Terminator movies and reuniting with Cameron for 1994’s “True Lies”), but “T2” is the absolute highlight of his film career.

1. James Cameron.

Who could rank higher than the biggest movie star in the world? Only the director who would become the most prominent filmmaker in the world with “T2.” Cameron is not only a master in conceiving and executing large-scale action scenes; he consistently pushes the limits of what’s possible behind the scenes. It’s that philosophy that’s distinguished him among his peers (and would later lead to the successes of 1997’s “Titanic” and 2009’s “Avatar”), but even beyond that: He excels at directing movies. All the innovative special effects in 1991 wouldn’t hold up 30 years later if Cameron wasn’t effective at visual storytelling.

“What makes ‘Terminator 2’ come alive in a major way is Cameron’s intuitive understanding of the mechanics and psychology of action films,” wrote Kenneth Turan for The Los Angeles Times. “Unlike many of the wanna-bes who find themselves in charge of pictures these days, this is one director who really knows how to direct. Equally at home in small-scale skirmishes like one-on-one chases down narrow corridors and complex, bravura effects involving tottering helicopters, exploding buildings, and as many as five different special effects houses, Cameron flamboyantly underlines, for those who may have forgotten, why the pure adrenaline rush of motion is something motion pictures can’t live for very long without.”

What impresses me about “T2” on my latest re-watch is how efficient and economical Cameron is in his approach to cinematic storytelling. Some filmmakers are good at the story’s action; others can tell their story within the frames of their camera, but as both the writer and director, Cameron’s good at all of it. That’s why the scenes of the T-800 and John bonding in the desert work as well as the truck chase, even though one focuses on dialogue and the other on the action. He’s excellent at giving us exactly what we need in each moment. It’s the number one reason why his movies have become record-shattering cash cows and why subsequent Terminator movies have disappointed without him at the helm.

“There’s only one Jim Cameron,” Schwarzenegger told The Ringer this year. “It’s as simple as that.”

At the Box Office: With Independence Day weekend giving moviegoers an extra day off, “T2” opened on the Wednesday before the weekend, giving it a five-day gross of $52.3 million and $31.7 million for the weekend, easily taking the box office crown for the week.

Last week’s spotlight movie, “The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear,” earned $11.6 million for second place. “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “City Slickers” continue to have a successful run at the box office, earning $10.3 million for third and $8.2 million for fourth, respectively.

The final movie of the top five was another new release, “Problem Child 2,” earning $5.4 million out of the gate. One other notable new release this weekend was “Slacker,” the second film of director Richard Linklater. He would go on to become one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation. “Slacker” earned $24,307 in just two theaters but had a per-screen average that weekend second only to “T2.”

In the News: Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini battle their way into the Wimbledon singles final; Major League Baseball approves the expansion of the league with the additions of the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins in the National League; Beloved television actor Michael Landon (of “Bonanza” and “Little House on the Prairie”) passes away at the age of 54 from pancreatic cancer; “Rush Rush” by Paula Abdul continues to dominate the Billboard Hot 100 with its fourth week at the top. Perhaps some of its success came from the video, which features Keanu Reeves. As we’ll see, that’s an actor who’s about to have a massive summer.

Next Week: “Point Break”

Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on July 2, 2021.

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Mark Ciemcioch

Mark Ciemcioch

Movie enthusiast. Follow and subscribe for exclusive content!

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