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Thursday, April 24, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 36 - Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

T2: Judgement Day (1991; Tristar Pictures)
Director: James Cameron
Writers: James Cameron, William Wisher, Jr.
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick

I am pretty sure it is safe to call The Terminator one of the best thrillers of the 80’s.  It is a very simple movie in its story and structure, yet it was intensely explosive and entertaining.  In the film Linda Hamilton plays Sarah Connor, a waitress who becomes the target of a time-traveling killing machine called the T-800 sent from the future by a computer-controlled consciousness called Skynet.  She was to bear the child who would lead the resistance against the machines.  Her death would mark the end of the fight for man in the future, so a time travelling human named Kyle Reese was sent back to protect her, but inadvertently falls for her, and well-shot love scene marks a major turning point in the film.  In the end, Sarah successfully destroys the machine that pursued her and shortly after the events of the film, she finds that she was pregnant with Kyle’s child, who she named John, and this brings us to Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

The titular Judgement Day is in reference to a nuclear attack from Skynet that was its first strike in the war against mankind.  The sequel is set a few years before Judgement Day, this time the Terminator is reprogrammed and sent back by the human resistance to protect John Connor.  It is discovered that Skynet is making the first move on the teenage John’s life by sending back a deadly new type of Terminator called the T-1000, a cybernetic liquid metal alloy that can take any solid shape and even replicate the face and voice of humans.  It is Skynet’s deadliest weapon yet, and sending back a requisitioned terminator is the only hope to save John’s life.  

The film focuses on the T-1000’s pursuit of John Connor, and the T-800’s attempts to protect him.  Along the way John orders his protector to help him break his mother out of a mental institution where Sarah Connor was incarcerated after her traumatic encounter with the machine in 80’s had led her to warn of their coming threat and the authorities’ rejection of her warnings resulted in her becoming increasingly violent.  After a successful rescue, he three heroes meet with a weapons dealer, gather a small arsenal, and make an attempt to stop Judgement Day by finding the machines’ architect Miles Dyson and killing him, but ultimately they acquire his aid and attempt to stop the devastating nuclear attack that was only a few years away.

Judgement Day was a mix of ideas from the start.  It was part high-concept science fiction, part action blockbuster and it featured solid performances from everyone.  A big takeaway from this film is Robert Patrick as the T-1000, which is a seemingly-unstoppable juggernaut willing and able to kill anyone and do anything to accomplish its task.  Like the Terminator that tried to kill Sarah before, it is a terror that does not sleep, eat or even slow down.  Yet, the T-1000 is even more deadly as all weapons seem useless and all attempts at eliminating it are futile.  The villain is easily the best thing about this movie, but it still quite excellent as a whole.

I do want to take just a moment and talk about James Cameron as a director.  I will not go on too long here, but I do want to say that he is incredibly talented visual artist, able to weave together great action scenes and has always been ahead of the curve in his ability to harness the latest visual effects technology to its fullest potential.  That said, he has never really come across to me as a particularly capable storyteller.  The Terminator series has a pretty straightforward story as a whole, despite a few attempts to add depth.  Yet, it seems to me that, while Cameron can certainly write an action scene and a solid David vs. Goliath plot, he does not seem particularly good at handling human characters.  One major flaw with Terminator 2 is how Sarah is a normal working woman in the 80’s yet finds herself institutionalized then escapes this facility a trained tactical weapons expert.  There is also the fact that John Connor is a conveniently-skilled hacker, an ability that is necessary for the plot to work, but not fully utilized or expounded upon.  Lastly, there are the plot holes surrounding the Terminator himself.  If he was reprogrammed, how is he being controlled?.  For that matter, how is Skynet controlling him?  If he was assigned orders before he was sent back, then why is he able to deviate from these orders at all?  We see in the unbelievably-flawed Terminator 3 that the machine is more than capable of defying the orders of anyone that sent it back in order to accomplish its ultimate task.  How are the humans able to send anyone back at all?  All of this has been addressed to an extent by outside media like books, comics and (to a certain degree) the later films, but Terminator 2 seems to exist solely for the action.  There is not much of an attempt to expound upon the basic premise, there is only the effort to make everything big and pretty.  This is a problem I would continue to have with Cameron’s films even up until today.  There is simply so much that makes no sense in all of his films, yet these problems are readily dismissed.  I just cannot let him off the hook for his films’ issues, however, because there are just too many of them.

So, why then is Terminator 2 (or T2, as it is known from its early-90's marketing campaign) even on my list at all?  Well, that is a very easy question to answer.  Terminator 2 sits at number 36 because it is a loud, aggressive, fun action flick.  Nothing more, nothing less.  For the same reason Die Hard is held at such high regard, Terminator 2 is a movie I love because it is simply fun to watch.  The performances, while written in a hackneyed sort of way, are still acted well, and the action set pieces and effects scenes are all some of the best of the 90’s.  It is a driving, high-energy film with very little downtime, and that pace keeps me coming back to it every once in a while.

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