The Brilliance of the Terminator 2: Judgment Day Opening Sequence

Blockbuster cinema has few opening sequences as strong as the one you'll find in James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day...

For my money, Terminator 2: Judgement Day is a pretty perfect movie. While I know there are certain things people dislike about it (heck, even I could do without the “I need a vacation” line), this is a film that just gets better and better the more I watch it … and I’ve watched it a lot.

Not always from beginning to end. Not always with my full attention. But if it’s on TV, I’ll put it on. Thanks to the wonder of digital media, I can also now enjoy it on my phone or tablet wherever I am (and it’s testament to the movie that it looks gorgeous on a screen of any size).

It never gets boring. It never makes me cringe. The acting, story, cinematography, production design, timeless effects, and emotional punch never fail to astound me.

Something else that never fails to impress? That opening sequence.

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“3 billion human lives ended on August 29th, 1997 …”

Plenty of films have fantastic introductions. Jaws. Star Wars. The Dark Knight. Raiders Of The Lost Ark. The first Terminator movie itself, of course. All of these pull you in, toss you right into the action, and get you pumped to see what happens next.

James Cameron basically took his opening sequence to The Terminator and, armed with a $94 million-ish budget (which sounds modest today), worked absolute magic with it.

While The Terminator gave us a glimpse of the future war between man and machines, it was brief, fairly limited, and followed by a chunk of expository text. Now, that’s not to take anything away from it – that’s still one hell of an opening – but nothing can compare to Terminator 2‘s introduction.

Let’s break it down.

We start with a few establishing shots of early-90s Los Angeles. Traffic. Crowds. Children on swings. Just another day in the City of Angels.

Ominous, low-key music plays over all this: the montage lasts only moments, but it’s vital to show the devastation caused by nuclear war. Sure, LA might be overcrowded and ugly in the shots we see – but it’s teeming with life, home to so many people. This helps to add extra impact to the horrors we see next, and grounds the film in our reality, making the time-travel & killer robots all the more believable.

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Watch Terminator 2 on Amazon

Before we cut to a post-apocalyptic LA, the final shot of its present-day form is incredibly powerful: we see kids playing on swings and hear them laughing. Then, as the footage slows, the image fades to white, signifying the nuclear blast we know is coming.

We see nothing of the destruction itself, though – this is saved for later on in the film, when we see a truly nightmarish, unforgettable depiction of the apocalypse. In that sequence, we again see children playing, having fun with their parents, enjoying the everyday freedoms and joy we take so for granted. The visual motif of the playground returns again and again, appearing in this early shot, Sarah’s nuclear nightmare, and in the future war sequence itself.

All of this ties in with the first two films’ theme of lost innocence. Sarah Connor was an average girl when we first met her in The Terminator, working the same kind of job many of us have, trying to get by, a good person but not someone expecting to feature in the history books .

Then, of course, she discovers this isn’t the case at all – she won’t just get a mention in the books, she’ll actually go on to change the course of history itself.

In Terminator 2, John Connor’s innocence (such as it is) has already been taken away by Sarah before the film even starts. Fed one story after another of his impending role as a “great military leader,” living a nomadic lifestyle, John has seen and heard a lot in his short life. This loss of innocence becomes even greater when he’s forced to flee the murderous T-1000, discover the foster parents he’d fought against have been killed (because of him), and help rescue his mother from certain death.

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The playground is a place where innocence reigns. Young children can have fun, laugh, enjoy being silly together – they’re society’s most vulnerable, and to see what should be a safe place burned to a crisp helps to emphasise just how horrific the nuclear war is (this is even more awful when you consider that such an act of war has happened in the real world, twice).

After the shot centred on the swings fades to white, the screen cuts to a pair of charred skeletons in a torched car. Once, this was just two people out driving, no doubt complaining about the traffic, with absolutely no idea that the end of their world was just moments away. Had the film opened on this image, it would have still been great, but showing us the world we recognise before presenting it as a scorched wasteland is a genius move.

“The Survivors of the nuclear fire called the war Judgment Day …”

The camera then lifts to show dozens more destroyed cars, buildings stripped to their foundations, and the remains of a freeway. A breeze stirs the ashes.

This graveyard is eerily silent, devoid of any of the life we saw flourishing only seconds earlier. In just one shot, Cameron brings us back to the hell we glimpsed in The Terminator, only in much more detail.

Though we’re just moments into the film, it’s already packed a heavier emotional punch than Terminator Salvation – supposedly set entirely in this future – managed in two hours.

The camera then pans across the remains of a playground, no doubt the same one we’ve already seen. Now, there are no children, no parents. No laughter. Just a mangled set of swings, a twisted slide, see-saws, and dozens of skulls.

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While we’ll see families burn later in Sarah’s nightmare, just seeing the after-effects, decades after the bombs fell, is incredibly powerful.

And this is where Sarah Connor’s voiceover kicks in. In less-gifted hands, this could have become something of a cheese-fest, but Cameron’s brilliant writing, and Linda Hamilton’s restrained delivery, help to capture a sense of desperation, of the overwhelming loss the world has suffered, that hits home just how far humanity has fallen. To put it bluntly, this is one war you wouldn’t want to survive.

The first we see of a machine is a T-800 endoskeleton crushing a human skull beneath its heel. As introductions go, this is pretty much as good as it gets: we slowly take in the entire machine, holding a plasma rifle (possibly in the 40-watt range), surveying the landscape ahead, its eyes aglow in the darkness. This is nothing fans of the original haven’t seen before, though it’s of a much higher quality than in the original movie.

Then, however, the action kicks off, and we realize this is actually a battlefield. Explosions light up the sky beyond the T-800. Bursts of purple plasma beams pass over the skeleton’s head. What we’d been led to believe was a desolate, deserted location was actually just moments away from an approaching swarm of machines hunting their prey.

We then cut to the rolling treads of a HK (Hunter-Killer), crushing skulls as it goes. A deep industrial droning replaces the silence, signalling the coming of the machines.

We’re now in full battle-mode.

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We see dozens of soldiers moving in formation across the ruins of the city, heavily armed, clad in uniform. Many of these are the same men and women who would have been living ordinary lives in LA once, but are now trained to fight, united against a common enemy. We see this is a tightly-organised unit – they know how to move, how to use cover, how to run-and-gun. Cameron lights the action beautifully: the figures are illuminated only by the flashes of their own purple gunfire and the glow of nearby explosions.

We then see what they’re up against – and it’s terrifying. Multiple HK tanks, multiple aerial HK drones: the humans appear to be outgunned, overpowered, several of them taken down by the remorseless HK’s within seconds.

The cuts come faster now, showing just how chaotic, relentless, and horrific this world is. Discordant music helps to reinforce the sense of panic, of uncertainty.

War is hell, and Cameron doesn’t shy away from showing this … but it still manages to be immensely exciting.

While Cameron did stunning work in The Terminator, considering his limited budget, here he’s showing us a more panoramic view of the war he envisaged. The old world is little more than ruins, replaced by sprawling battlefields, home to one nightly skirmish after another.

Sarah’s voiceover tells us Judgment Day occurred on August 29th, 1997, and this sequence is taking place in 2029. We’re just seeing one tiny portion of a decades-long war, and it looks to rage on for some time yet.

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The sequence then cuts to the inside of a human stronghold. As Sarah’s voiceover tells us about John, the son we’ve yet to see, we follow him as he strides through a narrow, cluttered corridor. As soldiers stop and salute him, we know this is a man with presence, commanding the respect we heard Reese speak of in The Terminator.

Brad Fiedel’s score becomes more militaristic, rousing, yet more gentle and hopeful. John is, as we know from Reese’s stories, the man who turned it all around: mankind was on its way out, for good, until he showed everyone how to “smash those metal motherfuckers into junk.”

When John steps outside to survey the battle unfolding in the distance, we get our first glimpse of humanity’s leader; he’s flanked by soldiers, dressed in fatigues, scarred by years of battle. Again, it’s Cameron’s attention to detail that really helps to make this all feel more real – the soldiers John passes aren’t just standing around, they’re helping wounded comrades, monitoring activity on radar, gearing up for war. Outside, we see soldiers carrying fallen allies into the base; we see sentries at turrets … it looks, sounds, and feels like a war-zone, rather than a set.

In the closing lines of her expository narration, Sarah sets the story up beautifully: “The first Terminator was programmed to strike at me in the year 1984, before John was born. It failed. The second was set to strike at John himself, when he was still a child.”

Here, the camera zooms in on John’s face, slowly, showing us the battle-hardened warrior who so much depends upon. We’ve seen the nightmare humanity now endures, and the brutality of the enemy. We’ve seen the organisation of the soldiers, how well-trained they are, how loyal. Fiedel’s score becomes more and more anthemic, adding to the weight of the story we’re being told.

We then cut to a wall of fire, as Sarah’s narration concludes: “As before, the resistance was able to send a lone warrior, a protector for John. It was just a question of which one of them would reach him first.”

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From there, the theme kicks in, with the same percussive beats we know from the first film. This is less than five minutes in, but Cameron has already shown us what’s at stake, why we should care, given us the scenario for the action about to unfold … it’s an absolute masterstroke of writing.

We won’t know until later that the protector is now Arnie’s T-800, another model of his character from the first film; we won’t know that Sarah will end up teaming with a version of the machine that almost killed her and robbed her of her child’s father. But, in such little time, Cameron has us in the palm of his hand, gripped by the concept, wowed by the effects and the action, ready to see what happens next.

“There is no fate but what we make”

The title sequence itself is outstanding, combining Fiedel’s score with images of fire, of destruction. As the music brings us powerful, evocative notes beneath the iconic beats (mirroring the human and mechanical aspects central to the story), we see more of the playground, with children’s rides aflame. Those same swings we saw being enjoyed in the film’s opening, and later as twisted remains, now burn, the seats themselves still in motion, as if the children themselves have been incinerated and only the ride itself is left.

It’s this heavy emotional aspect that makes Cameron’s Terminator films so beloved, so powerful, so endlessly rewatchable – and it’s also the part that other filmmakers have totally failed to grasp in the sequels. Yes, seeing Arnie in Terminator mode is terrific, and the action is always amazing, but we grow to love Sarah, John, and the T-800 completely. Did anyone really care what happened to Nick Stahl’s John or Claire Danes’ Kate in Terminator 3? Did anyone give a hoot when Christian Bale’s John took a spike through the heart in Terminator Salvation?

Cameron took what could have been a cold, basic action premise and gave us two films with real heart, exploring humanity’s inherent need to destroy, the importance even a single life has (no matter how worthless it may seem at one time or another), and how our desire to protect the ones we love can push us to overcome even the most horrific, overwhelming situations.

With Brad Fiedel’s score, Stan Winston’s stunning effects work, outstanding production design, and, of course, top-notch writing, Cameron crafted an opening sequence that remains completely untouched by any of the three Terminator movies that followed in its wake, or, frankly, by the majority of films. Just compare the passion, the excitement, and the irresistible drive in Terminator 2‘s first five minutes to that of Terminator 3, Terminator Salvation, and Terminator Genisys.

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It just doesn’t even come close.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day is a film that keeps on giving, and its opening is no small part of its brilliance. And for that, fans can be forever thankful to James Cameron … and hope that he comes back to the franchise to send it off with the quality it deserves.

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.