While I am not a fan of “you ruined my childhood!” as a lamentation, it is possible to ruin something retroactively. With Avatar, for example, James Cameron basically did all of his old tricks, but in such a ham-handed way that one could conceivably go back to his older films and not be unable to see all the strings and levers. It turned out not to be the problem for Aliens (1986), but how would Terminator 2 hold up, given its heavy reliance on at-the-time-cutting-edge CGI?
The answer turns out to be: pretty damn well. It may even be better than it seemed originally, because we’re also all relieved of having to compare to the original Terminator, which is a much simpler and more visceral film. You don’t really even need to have seen the original to enjoy this, as the Flower very much enjoyed it. (This probably isn’t true of the subsequent sequels.)
This film takes place over a decade after the events of the first (only seven years of real time had passed), and Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton, who achieved iconic status in this time period, in no small part for this role) is locked in an asylum after trying to stop the future she sees as inevitable. Her son John (Edward Furlong) is a kind of jerk in foster care with some jerky foster parents, and in-between hacking phones and inappropriately employing the various survival techniques he learned from his mother, he thinks she’s genuinely nuts.
There’s not a lot of set-up though, because before you know it, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is back, but with a twist: He’s been sent back to protect Sarah and John from the newer, more menacing T-1000 (Robert Patrick, kicking ass).
The action is top-notch, again. The CGI, while obvious, holds up very well because it’s visually simple and communicates very well. The menace conveyed by the building of a hostile intelligence from millions of nigh-indestructible nanobots was very trendy back then—almost as trendy as the black computer nerd. (I only point this out because, thirty years later, people like to pretend that the ’70s and ’80s, when all kinds of minorities were mainlined, never happened.)
In between the action, we learn about the characters, which manage to straddle that line between having depth and being, like, totally super serious you guys. Like, Sarah is a bad-ass in this—in a lovely contrast from her previous, more damsel-in-distress role—but John never hesitates to slap her down (metaphorically) when she gets all apocalyptic and preachy. To Furlong’s great credit (and Cameron’s, as the writer), John is a sarcastic teen we don’t hate. He is sympathetic despite his sarcasm and, where hyper-skilled teens are a nuisance in ’90s media, John at least has a reason for his skills, which aren’t much above mere vandalism.
Arnold manages to emote while doing nothing detectable at all. It’s not that easy, when you think about it.
The rules governing Patrick’s behavior are a lot looser. He’s allowed (“programmed”, or whatever) to feign human emotion, so he comes off as chillingly sociopathic. Also, since he typically plays above his actual age (he turns 60 in November), it’s sort of surprising how young and handsome he looks here (at 33).
But when you get down to it, what this movie has that future Cameron movies wouldn’t have is a character like John: Someone to slap it down when it went too far up its own ass. That is to say: Terminator works because it is deadly earnest about what it is: An excellent sci-fi action flick with just enough resonance to feel a little deeper than it actually is. (The big peril, mind, is Artificial Intelligence, that boogeyman of sci-fi going back to before Asimov’s bubble-gum robot stories, and which presents itself as a new peril to every generation, apparently.)
It’s deadly earnest about being entertaining, in other words, without being too serious about its “message”. Its message is in the mouth of its heroine, Sarah, who herself realizes that she’s a little over the top sometimes.
Years ago, when Chuck Jones’ biography Chuck Amuck came out, I remember thinking, “Wow, you hated these producers, and they were surely uncreative dunderheads…but your genius emerged from fighting these guys.” It’s a common refrain in art. The greatest art has a form which is somehow limiting, often severely so, and the smartest artists realize this. (Robert Frost and his “tennis without a net”, Schoenberg objecting, rightly, to his 12-tone system being “free”, etc.)
But Hollywood, especially post-studio-system, is geared to tell successful directors that they can do no wrong. Go ahead and make a movie about a super-powered alien and a bat-themed vigilante that only makes sense in a three-hour cut? Two hours and ten minutes about a sexually ambiguous dressmaker? A space opera but without any heroics? You’re the one with the vision, boss!
Something like Terminator 2 is a truly rare beast these days: It’s a big-budget action flick with a very distinctive auteur, that never stops being fun.