Movies That Everyone Should See: “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”

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 throughout the 80s, the science of producing visual effects with computers had advanced. As mentioned last week, computer generated imagery was being used behind the scenes as far back as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, but in the 80s they had begun appearing in films. Movies such as “Tron” and “The Last Starfighter” had been using digital effects works prominently, and even the vaunted “Morphing” effects that “T2” is credited with pioneering had already been used in previous films – “The Golden Child”, “Willow”, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and most notably Cameron’s own “The Abyss”.

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”.


42 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”

  1. From a storytelling perspective, I enjoy the 1st Terminator. However, I agree that this is a MTESS for all the reasons you state.

    And my gawd, Linda Hamilton was hot in this movie.

    • T1 was great too, I’ve alwasy put this forward as one of those “sequels that are better than the original” along with Empire and the Color of Money.

      I’m not too partial to Linda Hamilton, but, if it works for you, awesome. 😀

  2. This is my favorite movie of all time, and I consider it to be the best action movie of all time as well. I love the horror elements that Cameron brings in by making the T-1000 a “slasher villain” that could be anywhere at anytime!

    I admit that there is a lot of nostalgia attached to this film for me, but I will defend it as my favorite until the day I die.

    • Don’t have to defend it too hard around here, buddy, I think it’s awesome!

      I just looked back at Flickchart (which admittedly I haven’t tuned up in a few years, but…)

      I have it at #26

      Out of 1,320.


  3. I remember the build up for this movie as well. At the time I loved the 1st Terminator movie and I remember the tasteful build up to the release of T2, never giving away too much and teasing us with the storyline. I could not wait for it to open, and it did not disappoint. As far as a MTESS, I’d like to know who hasn’t seen this movie!

    Great write-up, you include the perfect blend of movie review, historical trivia, technological development and personal perspectives. Masterfully done! Great job!

    • Thank you sir! 😀

      Yeah, putting this together, I came across quite a bit about how they held out on the fact that Arnold was going to be a good guy as long as they could. Seems like a slam dunk now, but back before this one came out, the Terminator (Arnold’s Terminator) was an iconic villain exclusively.

      And I guess that’s the point of the MTESS series, man… If someone HASN’T seen it, they SHOULD!

  4. Now I did see this film and I did enjoy it very much! Wow, in thinking about it, movies have changed tremendously since T2. I think today’s action films try to do too much. That may be the problem.

    • May be. I’ve always said a great action movie is the rarest type of gem, because, like Ray said, so many action films sell the story short.

      And youre totally right – at least a PART of the issue with “today’s action films” is that CGI is overused.

  5. And now I’m itching to watch this and kicking myself for not owning it. T2 and Jurassic Park have 1 thing in common – they have both aged incredibly well. The FX and puppetry in both of these films stands up to what films produce these days. I’m not sure I’d be able to say that about films that are released these days in the next 10-20 years. Stan Winston did an amazing job here – RIP.

    T2 has the perfect blend of action, drama, sci-fi awesomeness and just a brilliantly original story.

    Great write you’ve put together here!

    • Thanks J… you know, there’s a lineage, right? ILM did the effects work on both.

      They do a lot of other movies, too, but I always find it interesting that T2 and Jurrassic park can trace the roots of their special effects back to Star Wars.

      And thank you for the kind words, apreciate it 😀

  6. Great article. I like your outlining of the history and importance of the movie. And I’m with you: I’m going to miss classic special effects and stunt work as well. Though today, I think that directors who still choose those effects are better off for it, as there’s something about them which makes them more real. For instance, look at the special effects in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Much of that was old school effects, and it looked great.

    • Yeah, I know, right? I’ve never understood… I mean, take CGI blood. It doesn’t look better than old school squibs!

      Why the over-reliance on CGI, I dont know. I mean, I realize it can do a LOT of things we’d never be able to see otherwise… I just wish more people would “mix it up” so to speak.

      And thanks Ian, glad you enjoyed. 😀

      • Definitely agree with the over reliance on CG. Having seen the prequel of The Thing and comparing it to the original, no CG will ever beat that puppetry or imagination.

  7. T2 was a much better film than I had expected, largely because it was a smarter film than I had expected. Of course, the first one was also smarter than anticipated, but not to the same extent. (The third… not so much.)

    And I hear you on the special effects. It sometimes seems like Hollywood not only tends to move away from old-school techniques, but doesn’t seem to “get” them in a way, like they’ve forgotten the thought process that went into the techniques to begin with, and this is a large part of why the CGI effects don’t always work. They didn’t think them through. (I can’t help but wonder, as someone who does 3D images and faces these issues, how many films have had CGI blood created by somebody who never bothered to think about the optical properties of the blood. Leave out the subsurface scattering or the reflective or even refractive properties and it’s going to look “off”.) Definitely with you on the stunt actors as well; if it’s not real, it’s hard to make it look real. One disturbing thought that occurred to me, with Hollywood’s tendency to want to adapt old TV shows into films, and their tendency to not always “get it”, is that we may one day be faced with a Fall Guy movie that has faked stunts…

    • Tuh. Well, they’re years away from being able to CGI Heather Thomas… when they can do that, I’ll be willing to trade off on the fake stunts. LOL

      Dont get me started on CGI blood (although I think I brought it up myself, earlier, LOL). One of my biggest peeevs today.

  8. T 2 was one of my all time favorites. My favorite scene is when Arnold was holding onto the crane as it crashed thru buildings in the middle of the city. Nothing bothered Arnold as he crashed thru all the buildings. T 1 had a great story without the special affects. T 2 had great story with great affects.

  9. Agreed on all counts. This is one of those ‘if I flip by it while channel surfing, I’m probably gonna stay’ films. And also agreed on the actual stunts, as opposed to the virtual ones. I’m afraid it’s a lost cause though.

    • Might be. Yeah. Some films still do though. Casino Royal was notable for live stuntwork. Of course even then, there’s a lot of things now they do with wires, etc and then remove them in post. But still. Looks better….

  10. Just about near-perfect action flick! Arnold totally kicked ass and I was so glad that Cameron chose not to do the 3rd one because he would have totally destroyed his legacy of what he did with these films. Great review dude.

  11. Great flick and one of those seminal movies of my childhood that really got my imagination going in terms of apocalyptic scenarios. The SFX are still great, even to this day especially the T-1000 effects which gave me many nightmares back then. Excellent look back at this classic Dan!

  12. Absolutely. A great film from a director who was at the peak of his powers. Cameron knows has to make the BEST sequels! Titanic 2…anyone?

    • LOL! I think there already is a “Titanic 2” Its like some low budget tv parody – like a “Sy Fy” original or something. 😀

      But yeah, between this and “Aliens” he knows how to make a succesful successor…

      We’ll see how Avatar 2 winds up.

      • Yeah, Avatar 2 will be interesting. I hope he concentrates on story/character and creating a great film rather than how to push 3D even further.

      • I really, really don’t want to see an Avatar 2. I know it’ll just be about the technology that Cameron’s managed to use and get even “better” 3D. I don’t care!

  13. Nice post! I agree that the special effects are amazing, especially if you saw the movie at that time… and this is a movie that actually brought me close to tears by the end (yep)

    • While I didn’t get moved to that degree… I am glad you brought that up iPod.

      I was thinking of that while watching it, but it didn’t make it to my write up… How Ballsy is it to have your hero character – even if it is a robot – essentially commit suicide? I understand it’s not like depression related, it’s more like self sacrifice, but still. Great ending.

  14. “Anybody not wearing two million sun block is going to have a real bad day, get it?” – Sarah Connor

    Did Linda Hamilton really sell out OR did she BUY IN here?
    I choose to believe it was the latter.

    Great MTESS post. GREAT MOVIE!

    • Ha. Thanks S. I’m glad you’ve been enjoying these. When it’s not “Awards” season I put one up every Sunday. I HOPE to be back running them this weekend, we’ll have to see how tomorrow goes.

      As for Hamilton, you’re right. I stand corrected. The term bought in was probably a better way to go with it.

      Regardless, she was very impressive. The change in her between one and two was fantastic.

      Thanks for the compliment on the post, glad you enjoyed it, and I agree… phenomenal flick!!

    • Well, glad you found it. I hope I did it justice for you!

      You’ve got me beat! LOL, but you might like to know this movie holds my record for movie I saw the most times in the theatre, with 13 trips. 😀 I’m a big fan of this one too!

  15. i am jealous. i was begging my mom to let me see it when it was out but she didnt let me. under-aged I was. lol but I got it on VHS as soon as it came out. 😀

  16. I read this post yesterday during lunch, and I loved it. You hit on all the most important points. The special effects are still mind-blowing to this day! I think this movie has aged exceptionally well.

    I saw a trailer for After Earth last night and I started thinking about CGI. There’s a very fine line with how advanced it can be without looking completely fake. A lion is attacking Will Smith in the trailer and it just looked so unreal, and not in a good way. More in a “they’ve gone too far with the CGI” kind of way. I generally don’t want to feel like I could just as easily be playing a video game while I watch a movie because of how amped up on CGI it is.

    I too, shall always long for the good old days when stuntmen and elaborate stunts that needed to be completed in a single take meant something to the movie industry… *sigh*

    • Awesome! Glad you enjoyed!

      Yeah I think this one holds up too, due to a combination of great Practical effects (its noted for its CGI, but still there are some awesome stunts!), Arnie’s charisma, Cameron – the master of the action scene – and of course, a great sci-fi story. 😀

      Hopes arent high for “After Earth”, Smash, 😦 Shyamalan has been on a downward trajectory for so long that now I even doubt Will Smith can save him! We’ll see though, who knows. I hear what you’re saying about CGI… there’s nothing worse than when its done badly. 😦

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