Terminator 2: Judgment Day at 20

James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day was twenty years old yesterday. We take a look back at a sci-fi action classic…

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

It’s hard to believe that Terminator 2 is really twenty years old. I can still remember the excitable reviews of the time, which all raved about its seamless, groundbreaking special effects and relentless action.

I also remember my initial scepticism when I first heard that this sequel to the extraordinarily violent 1984 original was given a 15 rating by the BBFC in the UK. Surely, I thought, this meant that Cameron had decided to tone the movie down for a broader audience?

I needn’t have worried, as it turned out. As Cameron proved with Aliens, he’s extremely good at directing sequels, and at coming up with ideas that revisit the themes of the original movie, while finding a way of somehow upping the dramatic stakes.

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The original Terminator was, essentially, one long, nightmarish chase, with Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese dragging Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor by the hand as a seemingly unstoppable cyborg snapped at their heels.

What is so brilliant about Terminator 2 is that, while it’s essentially more of the same, Cameron invests the chase with enough new ideas to make it seem as though you’re watching something entirely different.

In Judgment Day, it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg who’s the protector, this time dragging both Sarah Connor and her teenage son, John, by the hand, as a new, even scarier breed of Terminator (Robert Patrick) pursues them across Southern California.

In a clever twist that displays echoes of the character, Ripley, in Aliens, Sarah Connor is no longer the passive woman in peril she was in the first Terminator, but a fearsome warrior, who’s almost as handy with a weapon as Arnie’s T-800. Later on in the movie, Sarah herself becomes a Terminator of sorts, as she attempts to kill systems engineer, Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), before he can indirectly bring about the creation of Skynet.

Cameron introduced the larger and scarier threat of the queen in Aliens, and Terminator 2‘s T-1000 serves a similar function. Shorter and slimmer than the T-800, this new model is a very different threat from Arnold’s unsubtle walking armoury. Fast, relentless and cunning, the T-1000 can imitate anyone, and morph itself into almost any shape.

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The effects that brought the T-1000 were, for their time, dazzling. You certainly couldn’t call them seamless by modern standards, but they’re full of imaginative ideas that remain unchanged by time. The sight of Robert Patrick walking through the bars of a cell door, clinging to the back of a car with his arms shaped like metal hooks, or his shattered head wobbling about following a point-blank shotgun blast still look astonishing.

In terms of computer graphics, Terminator 2 was perhaps the most important effects movie since 1982’s Tron, and certainly one of the most influential summer blockbusters since Jaws. More than any other movie, Terminator 2 showed both audiences and rival film directors just what you could do with computers, and the film augured a new age of big-budget, CG-laden movies such as Jurassic Park and The Matrix. It was, ironically, a film about the rise of machines that ushered in a new age of ubiquitous computer effects.

Although its striking liquid metal scenes were the strongest talking point among critics and filmgoers in 1991, it’s worth noting that the number of effects shots was quite low, at least by modern standards. Of the theatrical cut’s hundred and thirty-seven minute runtime, only three-and-a-half minutes of those showed the T-1000 undergoing some sort of metamorphosis.

Nevertheless, those shots were a huge undertaking, given the computer technology of the time. Industrial Light & Magic had to expand their team of artists to thirty-six, and those three or so minutes’ footage cost a staggering $5.5 million to bring to the screen.

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While ILM’s achievements become harder to appreciate over the course of time (just because, as an audience, we’re spoiled when it comes to effects), it’s still easy to admire Cameron’s kinetic directing, and some of the most remarkable stunt work of the 90s, courtesy of coordinator, Joel Kramer.

And then there’s the sterling performance of Robert Patrick. An amorphous embodiment of death, he brings an appropriately lizard-like sense of coldness to a role with minimal dialogue. There’s something unforgettably nightmarish about the way Patrick moves in this film, whether he’s prowling around shopping malls, or both sprinting and shooting at the same time.

Where Arnold’s Terminator was scary because of his hulking silhouette and uncanny ability to anticipate the characters’ next move, the T-1000’s sheer speed, not to mention his tendency to stab everyone he meets, makes him even scarier. As Cameron once put it, “If the 800 series is a kind of human Panzer tank, then the 1000 series had to be a Porsche.”

Judgment Day is less noir-ish and gritty than 1984’s The Terminator, with its slick blue cinematography and Guns N’ Roses soundtrack, which probably explains how Cameron got away with so much violence in a 15-rated film. The body count’s slightly lower (including cyborgs, it amounts to twenty-three deaths versus The Terminator‘s thirty-four), but this doesn’t account for Judgment Day‘s numerous knee cappings, stabbings and eye gougings, or its graphic depiction of LA’s nuclear destruction.

The Terminator‘s bleak, nihilistic edge has also been replaced with a more upbeat message about free will and the value of human life, a sign, perhaps, of Cameron’s changing attitudes. This is the director who went from acid-spitting death in outer space in Aliens to pink, fluffy love under the ocean in The Abyss, after all.

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Its slightly overwrought antiwar themes and occasionally iffy script aside (“She’s gonna blow him away!”), Terminator 2 is still the ultimate chase movie. Like a speeding juggernaut, the movie sets off at top speed and never slows down until the final credits.

Other directors have attempted to emulate both Cameron’s urgent style of filmmaking, and the film’s unceasing string of action set pieces, but few have managed to do so with quite so much economy and energy.

It’s an economy and energy that neither of Terminator 2‘s two sequels could replicate. Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines attempted to replicate the chases of the previous two films, but with few new ideas of its own to boast of. (Rise Of The Machines‘ big new concept was to introduce a female Terminator, something that had already been explored in the low-budget rip-off, Eve Of Destruction.)

There was much to enjoy in the flawed Terminator Salvation, including a brilliant Kyle Reese impression from Anton Yelchin, but there’s a listlessness to McG’s direction, and its vision of a dystopian future dominated by machines entirely lacks the nightmarish quality of the one glimpsed in Cameron’s movies.

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To find the true essence of what a Terminator movie should be, you have to go back to 1991’s Judgment Day. It may be twenty years old, but its action is still as breathtaking as ever. You only have to watch the sequence where John Connor, buzzing along on his tiny motorbike, is pursued by the T-1000, who sprints along behind at absurd speed. Brad Fiedel’s fractious music taps away in the background, and that same old adrenaline kicks in all over again.

Even after two decades, Terminator 2 remains a true action classic.

See more of our Looking Back articles here.