In July of 1991, the world was treated to an incredible motion picture. “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”. It’s an action movie with science fiction underpinnings, a chase film with the fate of the world as the stakes.
It’s easily one of the greatest “Action Movies” ever made.
But as great a movie as it is, it’s also an important one. “T2” was a milestone movie in the realm of special effects. A groundbreaking pioneer. Audiences stepped into theatres from a world where “CGI” held no meaning for them, and stepped back out after the show into a world where there was no doubt – movies had a powerful new weapon in their arsenal to bring the imagination into reality onscreen.
“Terminator 2: Judgement Day” was the sequel to 1984’s “The Terminator”. “The Terminator” was Cameron’s breakthrough film, and the movie that turned Arnold Schwarzenegger into a household name. Legal wrangling between the various co-owners of the original prevented the sequel from commencing for six years, however, until Carolco Pictures “secured the rights” in 1990 and production could begin.
In a way, the delay was fortuitous. Director James Cameron had actually envisioned the concept of a “liquid metal man” during the production of the original film. Of course, at that time, the technology to realize those effects did not exist. Had he wanted to attempt those effects then, his only option would have been “Claymation”. So if a sequel had been made immediately, the concept would have had to have been abandoned.
But although the effects had their precursors, it’s just and proper that “T2” be remembered as their introduction to the world. Here, they weren’t just being used to create an effects shot, they were being used to create an entire character. A significant portion of the movie. They were on full display, in all their glory, to full effect. It didn’t matter that they had been used briefly prior to this, we hadn’t taken notice before. They were put out there, here, in a way that seemed as if it was nothing we had ever seen.
I distinctly recall seeing the “chessboard floor” shot above for the first time, and my thought was “Ho. Ly. Shit.”
But it wasn’t just CGI effects that made the visuals of the movie incredible. In actuality, CGI was in such a state of infancy that the majority of the effects – things that nowadays would automatically be done via computers – were done with models, animatronics, makeup, and “sleight of hand” camera tricks.
The legendary Stan Winston and his staff created prosthetics, articulated appendages, replica heads, and in some cases, fully animated, life-sized, mechanical puppets (where the T2 gets shot up in the Cyberdyne lobby hall or the flailing, off-balance T1000 in the finale, for examples). They integrated these seamlessly in with the live action actors in makeup and the computer generated effects to create an unforgetable blend of movie magic.
I don’t care if they digitally removed the harness wires… that is AWESOME.
It wasn’t all just “special effects” though. Stunt work was also prominently involved.
Stunt work may be a dying art in Hollywood. As CGI becomes more and more believable, there’s less need than ever to put someone in harm’s way in order to get a dangerous scene in the can. I have mixed feelings about that. Certainly no one wants anyone to get hurt. But there’s something awesome about the concept of the daredevil stuntman risking it all for us in order to take our breath away.
Here, in service of the action sequences, stuntmen jump motorcycles, conduct high-speed highway chases, crash vehicles, fall out of cars, and pilot helicopters in ways that can only be described as certifiably insane. At one point in the film, a stuntman dressed as Arnold leaves the driver’s side door of a pickup truck, hurries through the pickup bed, and climbs on the hood of an 18 wheel tanker truck, all without wire work, going about 40 miles an hour.
Call me a romantic, but I’m going to miss that when it’s gone.
That ‘copter is flying four feet “off the deck” TOPS, people.
Of course, special effects and action sequences without story or characters are the “Star Wars” prequels. Here, Cameron weaves a great story for us all.
As in the first film, a robotic assassin is sent back in time from a future where machines have set off a nuclear holocaust and are now pursuing the complete annihilation of the remainder of the human race. The target in the first film was Sarah Conner, who would eventually give birth to the leader of the human resistance. This time, the target is the young leader himself, her son, John Conner.
There are a couple of major new wrinkles in the concept this time, however. The first being that the evil Terminator is a much more advanced model, the T-1000, made of shape-shifting near indestructible liquid metal. The other being that John Connor sends himself back a guardian. A T-800 model terminator… the same kind that was the villain of the first film.
Turning Arnold “good” was a stroke of brilliance. Don’t forget, in the first movie, he was the villain. A relentless killing machine. Yet by 1991 he was an enormous star. A juggernaut. Allowing the audience to root for him was an inspired choice.
Perhaps not as inspired was the choice of Edward Furlong as young John Connor. He’s been much maligned as a weak point of the film, and perhaps he is. Reportedly, the casting director found him at a local YMCA and championed him due to his “look”. He had never acted before. I think he’s decent enough (it’s not his fault that his voice began to “change” right during the middle of filming), but I can see how people would find him annoying.
The movie compensates with a great performance by Linda Hamilton, though. Potentially the most “Bad Ass” female character in film history, Linda Hamilton’s “T2” version of Sarah Connor begins the film in a high security mental facility, escapes, and at one point arms herself in commando gear to go on an assassination mission, herself. That’s quite a character arc from the starting point of the first film. Hamilton sold out for the part, too, undergoing a physical and militaristic training regimen in preparation to reprise her role.
Per James Cameron’s commentary, when Arnold Schwarzenegger saw her for the first time post training, his compliment was “Jesus, Linda, you’re ripped to shreds”.
At the time of its release, “T2” was the most expensive movie ever made. I recall the media speculating that if the movie didn’t absolutely rake it in hand over fist at the box office, that it would be the end of the big budget blockbuster. Several notable contemporary films had flopped in spite of gargantuan budgets, and the overall production costs (slightly over $100 million) and Schwarzenegger’s salary ($15 million) were considered untenable without massive returns.
No one need have worried. “T2” went on to massive financial success, bringing in over $500 million worldwide. As he would do again in “Titanic” and yet again in “Avatar”, Cameron crafted the most expensive movie put on film to date, ensured the money “made it to the screen” and watched as the film reaped massive commercial success.
“Terminator 2: Judgement Day” is a testament to the magic of movie making. It’s a shining example of how to use special effects and action sequences in support of a story in order to create an spellbinding experience for the viewer. It’s a chase movie with the highest stakes possible, with every major character having their own “arc” (save the villain). It incorporates heavy concepts such as the onset of A.I., the threat of nuclear annihilation, the violence inherent in humanity, and free will vs. pre-determination. By doing so, it becomes the antithesis of the “Mindless Action Movie” – it’s a “Thought Provoking Action Movie”. It can blow you away viscerally as you watch it, and then leave you thinking about the underlying issues afterwards.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.