On July 3, 1991, James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger released arguably the best action film of the ‘90’s: Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The sequel to 1984’s critically acclaimed unstoppable robot-chase movie, T2 set out to build upon and strengthen the post-apocalyptic world created in the first movie. Upon its release, the film was hailed as an instant classic. In the years that have followed, it has remained the high point in a franchise that has continued to run downhill since Cameron left the Skynet apocalypse in his rear view mirror.
How was it that Cameron managed to capture the spirit of the Terminator Universe in a way no filmmaker since has been able to repeat? Each one of the subsequent entries has made equal use of blistering action and half-cheesy-half-cool one-liners like T2, yet time after time after time the series has continued to disappoint both fans and critics. So, where does the allure of Terminator 2 lie and why has it managed to loom so large in the twenty-five years since its release?
It all begins with the end of the world.
An Ode to Simple World-Building
In the not-so-distant future, a military computer program called Skynet becomes self-aware and unleashes an army of murderous robots to snuff out humanity. Skynet is largely successful in this endeavor until some upstart general named John Connor starts turning the tide of the war. In a last ditch effort to preserve its own future, Skynet sends a humanoid machine (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to off John Connor’s mom (Linda Hamilton) before the general is born. Of course the plan totally backfires and not only does said machine get crushed, but thanks to a time-traveling good guy named Reese (Michael Biehn), Connor ends up pregnant with the very savior Skynet was trying to avoid creating.
That’s the original. In the sequel, Skynet gives time-traveling assassination another shot by sending a sweet-ass liquid metal robot (Robert Patrick) after John Connor (Edward Furlong) when he’s ten. Fortunately for young John, old John sends back a friendly Terminator (Arnie again) to protect the kid. Alongside mom, Sarah (Hamilton, truly killing it), the trio sets out to not only keep John safe, but undo the impending deaths of billions of people.
Okay, see what I did there? I coherently explained the set up for both films in two paragraphs. The entire Universe is easy to grasp and easy to get on board with. In a matter of moments, you can get caught up on the backstory and settle in comfortably for the adventure at hand.
The previous films apparently in an attempt to chart their own path — refused to accept this basic setup and the result was either the subversion of Cameron’s work or the unnecessary dilution of its message. Where the later films in the Terminator series focused on quibbling over the minutia of Cameron’s previous films, Cameron focused on making his world concrete and then letting his characters play around.
It’s Sarah Connor’s Show
In the first two Terminator films, the star isn’t John Connor or some un-killable robot. The future general is more McGuffin than anything else. John’s mom, Sarah, is the real star of the movie. She’s the one whose character really develops over the course of the narrative. She’s a happily vacant woman who’s suddenly burdened with the knowledge that she’s responsible for prepping the savior of the world.
As Sarah Connor, Linda Hamilton nails the transition from victim to soldier. She’s intimidating in a way that’s nearly impossible to replicate. You might be the Mother of Dragons, but Linda Hamilton will eat you for breakfast.
Terminator 2 is about the woman coming to believe in something hopeful even when she knows that doomsday is barreling towards her. As much as it’s a awesome action flick, Terminator 2 is also an examination of how a normal person would respond to unbelievable stress and wildly unfair circumstances.
All the other films in the series forgot that and foolishly cast off Hamilton. What resulted was a series of films in which John Connor acts like an action hero while Arnold Schwarzenegger gets brutalized in fifty different ways. There’s no character development, no humanity at stake, and that’s a really dumb thing to leave out of a story that’s literally about saving humanity.
No Fate But What You Make
Here, perhaps, is the most egregious mistake that every latter day Terminator movie has made: fate exists. Not only is that completely opposed to T2’s basic philosophy, it also makes for boring stories (and no amount of kickass action can overcome a boring story).
In Terminator 3 it’s explained fairly early on that there are some fixed points in time that simply can’t be changed, a development that essentially nullifies everything the characters in the series have done up to that point. It also means that anything Connor and Claire Danes do in the film we’re currently watching is useless. Amed with that knowledge, the plot of Salvation — which is concerned with setting up the events of the first film — is rendered moot before the credits are finished rolling. And … God only knows what’s going on with the plot of Genysis.
Unlike those movies, though, Terminator 2 operates on a philosophy of self-determination that’s both empowering to the audience and narratively interesting (because anything could happen). What’s more, in Cameron’s original vision, Sarah Connor’s actions actually have a real-live impact.
The Real Secret
The real reason that Terminator 2 continues to get well-deserved praise and all the rest of the films crash and burn at the box office? In T2 Cameron created a compelling story that centered on relatable characters operating in a unique set of circumstances. Then, he layered mind-blowing special effects and bullet-riddled action scenes on top of that solid foundation.
It seems like the filmmakers involved in the sequels started at killer robots and moved backwards. That didn’t work for Skynet, so why should it work for them?