Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991)

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong
Written by William Wisher Jr. and James Cameron
Directed by James Cameron

Unlike "Aliens," James Cameron's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" is not wildly different from its predecessor.  In fact, it follows essentially the same plot structure, even down to setting its climax in an industrial setting like the first one.  The differences are in the details, however.  At the time, "Terminator 2" (abbreviated to "T2" in promotional materials) was the biggest and most expensive movie of all time.  This is easy to see, as the wild and intense action sequences here are pretty huge.  Whole buildings are demolished, chase sequences are lengthy and destructive, and lots of incredible digital and makeup effects are littered throughout.

T2 picks up about a decade after the original.  Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has been arrested and forced into an insane asylum for her beliefs that robots from the future tried to kill her.  Her son, John (Edward Furlong) is being raised by two foster parents he describes as "dicks."  John is a troubled boy, the product of having such a bizarre and destructive childhood.  He believes his mother to be a complete looney, and resents her even while crediting her with his many impressive survival and computer skills.

We learn that once again, evil sentient computer system from the future (called Skynet) has sent a machine to eliminate John when he's just a boy, and therefore practically unable to defend himself.  this machine is much more advanced than before - a creature made of "liquid metal", the T-1000 (an exceptionally creepy Robert Patrick) is a shapeshifter, able to take on the form of anyone that it touches, making him far more lethal and insidious than the original model.  But the human resistance is once again able to send someone to protect John - this time, an original Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) reprogrammed to follow John's commands.

After the Terminator saves John, John realizes everything his mother told him was true, and vows to rescue her.  Against the Terminator's recommendations, it and John go to the mental institution where she's being held, and rescue her from the T-1000.  With their new family complete, John and Sarah are told to go into hiding.  But Sarah has a different plan: to kill Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), the creator of Skynet, and therefore change the future.  As they attempt to avert disaster by preventing the coming apocalyptic war with the machines, they must outwit and escape the T-1000 at every turn, which proves more and more difficult as they realize that it can't be killed.

"Terminator 2: Judgment Day" is a huge movie.  It's long, and expensive, and it's tons and tons of fun.  The opening battle sequence set in the future is still impressive twenty years later, with lots of awesome miniature and robotic effects from the late, great Stan Winston.  The first chase sequence through Los Angeles is also a blast.  Each action sequence gets bigger and more impressive until the knock-down, drag-out final battle between the Terminator and the T-1000 in a smelting factory.  In between, we learn more about the characters and their depressing future, and philosophize about the nature of humanity and whether or not we deserve to be saved.

As I said before, "Terminator 2" follows the same basic plot as the first film - In 1984, the Terminator was trying to kill Sarah, and she is protected by Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn, also of Cameron's "Aliens").  There are a series of chases and fights until Sarah manages to destroy the Terminator by crushing it in a factory.  Here, the T-1000 is trying to kill John, and he is protected by the Terminator.  There are a series of chases and fights until they manage to destroy the T-1000 by dropping it into a vat of molten metal.  But these sequences are so impressive that it's extremely easy to forget that you're essentially watching a bigger budget remake of the original.  This is a problem that will plague the next two films, "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" and, to a lesser extent, "Terminator: Salvation."  Thankfully, the excellent (albeit short-lived) TV series, "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" didn't follow this route and managed to carve a nice niche for itself in the franchise.  I still think Fox should have renewed that show for a third season instead of the dreadfully dull, nearly nonsensical "Dollhouse" (which eventually got canceled anyway!).

But I digress.  Here, the characters get more exploration, and the script has a much wider scope.  The franchise themes of fate and inevitability are explored here much better than in the previous or following films, as well as the idea that human life is precious - all human life.  John teaches the Terminator that killing is wrong, because humans matter.  This presents an interesting paradox in a Terminator that won't kill.  Whether the machine values human life, or if he's just following orders, you can decide for yourself.

A lot of props have to go to Industrial Light and Magic's amazing effects work for the liquid metal T-1000.  The morphing effects were revolutionary at the time, and while they may seem simple today, they're so well-done that they can't be considered bad in any way.  Lots of times you watch a movie and the effects look terrible after years and years of perfecting the process.  But the digital effects in "Terminator 2" are ambitious without ever over-reaching.  Watching the T-1000 pour himself through holes, turn his arms into knives or even one great shot where the Terminator punches through his head and the creature morphs so that the head becomes his hands, all of it looks excellent, if only a bit dated.

Is "Terminator 2" better than "Aliens"?  I don't know.  It's something, as I said, I go back and forth on.  Both films are certainly gripping sci-fi action masterpieces.  "Aliens" is the more original of the two, while "Terminator 2" borrows a great deal from the first film.  It's possible that Cameron, taking over "Aliens" from Ridley Scott, wanted to put his own stamp on the franchise whereas with "Terminator", since he'd also created the first film, he could just make a bigger, better version for himself.  Still, "Terminator 2" is an epic friggin' movie, well worth the time.