James Cameron #4
After the incredibly ambitious The Abyss, which was not received favorably, Cameron probably thought a sure thing might be a better way to go. He decided to return to his feature film debut (Piranha II not counting), The Terminator. There was a second story that he wanted to have told and what a story it is. I remember going into the screening of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and being blown away by it. I can not remember whether I had seen The Terminator (T2) yet (I probably had, I was almost 17), but if that were the case it certainly didn’t bother me. From the moment of the terminator’s foot crashing down on that poor skull I was hooked and Cameron took me and everybody else on a journey that was unforgettable. And coincidentally it cemented Cameron’s name as a sure fire moneymaker.
After a short monologue by Linda Hamilton, returning as a beefed-up Sarah Conner, and our first glimpse at the end of the world, Cameron takes us right back to 2029 AD, where the civil war against the machines is in full effect. John Conner is now the leader of the resistance, but that could soon change, because the machines are sending back a terminator to kill him before he is even born. But that is a story for another movie. This time the machines think they are smarter and they send a terminator back to the time when John is a teenager, a deeply troubled teenager, because living with his mother hasn’t been all that pleasant for him. Luckily for John he has sent back a terminator as well. He managed to reprogram one to obey John no matter what happens. Now the only question remains is which terminator will reach him first. This results in a brilliant game of cat-and-mouse between the two terminators. Caught in the middle are John and his mother Sarah, who has for years been locked away in a psychiatric institution because of her rants about the end of the world.
Cameron wasn’t planning on making a carbon copy of The Terminator. He wanted to shake things up, play with his audience’s expectations. Sarah Conner is no longer the meek victim we saw in part one. She has become bitter and cynical while preparing for the seemingly inevitable demise of the human race. Her arc is especially interesting in T2, because during the movie she becomes the terminator while trying to stop SkyNet from becoming the malevolent force it is bound to become. As a counterweight Arnold Scharzenegger’s terminator is becoming more and more human. Under the influence of young John Conner, the T-800 slowly but surely starts to recognize what it is to be human. He even learns how to smile and not kill someone while on a mission. Cameron plays with the mythos of The Terminator saga, succeeds admirably and made a movie that in many ways is better than its ancestor.
A huge part of T2‘s success can also be attributed to the visual effects. These are phenomenal, as is to be expected from a James Cameron movie. Robert Patrick’s T-1000 is made of liquid metal and we don’t doubt it for one second. When he came walking out of that car crash and morphed into his human form everybody gasped. After that we see him skewer people with needles and swords, drop through a helicopter window in liquid form and assemble himself after being blown to bits. It was astonishing to behold and at that point we knew the face of visual effects were changed forever. There is no doubt in my mind that Cameron’s work on T2 paved the way for future movies. Maybe not the actual soft- or hardware, but more the awareness that it can be done made people go further and further to create what would become some of the most iconic movies of all time like Jurassic Park and Toy Story.
Some of the effects come across as a little dated. Take for instance that iconic scene where the T-1000 walks out of that fiery crash. The animation of that figure is crude at best compared to what is possible today. It is like watching the Taun Taun running across the snowy fields of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. You see clearly that it is stop motion animation and today that could have been much more smooth, but we don’t care. That is what the state of visual effects were back then and it is part of that movie as much as the performances are. The same goes for T2 (and every movie for that matter). Sometimes things are going to look crude, but that is the way it is. However, for the most part the visual effects–practical and digital–are still examples of how visual effects can enhance your story. Something a lot of filmmakers can learn a lot from.
There are some things, however, I do have a problem with. One of them is the introduction of the T-800, Schwarzenegger’s terminator. Cameron uses George Thorogood’s song Bad to the Bone after the T-800 assaults a group of bikers in a bar. I never really understood why Cameron did this, because it breaks the serious tone of the opening in such a jarring way. It certainly doesn’t fit the overall tone of the movie. There are comedic elements in T2, but they stem almost all from dialogue and action, never from audio elements or songs. Another thing is the sloppiness with which some of the scenes are handled. For example: Miles Dyson walks into his clean room without any protective gear, while other people walk around in full get up. This is just lazy and something that could have been fixed easily. And one last thing: how convenient that they happened to end up in a metal smelting factory. With that said, I stop my nitpicking.
Once again the Special Edition is the version of T2 you need to watch. The scenes returned to the movie add a lot of depth to the relationships between the characters. Most startling are two sequences. The first is where Sarah Conner has to remove the microprocessor from the T-800’s head to reset it. She then has to make a decision that could have dire consequences. The other occurs after the T-1000 is blown to bits in the factory. Apparently getting blasted to bits wasn’t so good for the T-1000 after all, because we see him struggle when he comes in contact with other metal. This solves one of the most glaring omissions from the theatrical cut of T2: How did John know which Sarah Conner to trust at the very end? It appears that he could see the difference because the T-1000 was fused to the metal grating he was standing on. It is unbelievable to me that Cameron let this cut go ahead it is that crucial to the outcome. Strangely, though, some small beats are missing from the Special Edition that were in the theatrical cut.
If it wasn’t obvious yet, I absolutely adore this movie, warts and all. The sheer kinetic force of T2 is enough to take your breath away. There is not a moment wasted and still the movie clocks in at a whopping 137 minutes (152 minutes if you are watching the Special Edition). It is to Cameron’s credit that he is able to create such an engaging story in the middle of one of the most spectacularly ambitious action movies ever. Something he was not able to do in his next film, True Lies.