By Chris Rogers, Jul 3 2021 10:07AM
Released thirty years ago today, this follow-up to the film that made both director James Cameron’s name and that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, his lead actor, was one of the biggest genre events of the time, as I remember well. Its plot was ingenious, logically continuing that of The Terminator (1984) whilst actually undoing the events that made the original possible, its moral messages compelling and its execution merged traditional action, albeit on an extravagant scale, with ground-breaking digital manipulation. Going from script to screen in just fourteen months, the most expensive production in Hollywood history earned five times as much at the box office and was universally acclaimed. Does it still hold up?
I saw it in Leicester Square, two days after its London opening and with a capacity crowd. It was the last of a handful of films that defined the cinema-going of my early adulthood, after Aliens (1986), Lethal Weapon (1987), Predator (1987), RoboCop (1987) and Die Hard (1988). As all were experienced as crisp new prints, often 70mm, on some of the largest screens in the UK, that cost record was T2’s least important attribute at the time though I was impressed with the visuals. In retrospect, though, I now think that part of the film’s strength is that every cent of the c.$100m that was spent in 1990-91 is there to be seen, in service of the story and with no hint of excess or waste. It looked like what it cost and it cost what it need to, though that disguises an interesting paradox that has taken three decades to emerge.
Critics and audiences responded positively to the film’s startling use of the ‘morphing’ or transition effect, in development since the late 1980s and part of a wider suite of computer-generated imagery brought to fruition two years later in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993). It is this that enabled the T-1000 to walk through cell bars, assume the forms of others and recover from gunshots. My own reaction was no different and was enhanced by realisation that it also permitted action film tropes to be smartly undermined, such as the impact of shotgun blast to the face that could now be seen directly from front and back before being annulled. Almost all of those shots are still entirely convincing. Looking back, however, what really stands out is just how sparing the deployment of this technique is throughout the film.
True, this was sometimes a consequence of its very expense – many of those bullet wounds actually ‘heal’ off-screen to save money, and although funds were available to correct the reversed street sign (‘Plummer’) that resulted from a last-minute decision to flip the shot of the truck crashing off the bridge, none could be found do the same to the smaller but nevertheless readable Freightliner logo on the truck’s grille, which remained backwards – but in general Cameron only uses it where narratively necessary and even then always grounds as much of the shot as possible in reality.
The explanation can be found in his years making low-budget exploitation films for Roger Corman, where money was always tight and in-camera tricks and good editing were necessary to make it stretch. Cameron therefore learned to establish a physical, real-world baseline of stunts, miniatures and animatronics before turning to more insubstantial realms. It’s an ethos fundamental to the success of T2’s action, most obviously in the climactic flight from the T-1000. An extended chase sequence that takes up fully a third of the film’s overall running time, it is still a truly epic feat of sustained, relentless tension and excitement that more than holds its own. Cameron was thus able to create a far more convincing mise en scene that one which relived entirely on the digital, a lesson that could be usefully be learned by many directors today.
The script (by Cameron and collaborator William Wisher) is simultaneously complementary to and an inversion of their work on the first film. Antagonist (“He was the enemy. He was death,” said Cameron of the Model 101) is now protagonist, lines of dialogue are re-used by others and in different contexts and indeed given the earlier Terminator becomes a faultless father, the mother becomes a merciless killer and the son that was dismissive now loves, each of the principals can be said to have flipped their own CPU from read-only to write (albeit that particular story beat was only revealed in the later special edition).
The Cold War, very much ‘on’ when the first film was released but a year over by the time of the second, informs not just the plot but its exposition. Skynet has obvious resonance with Colossus, the sentient, bunkered nuclear warfighting supercomputer in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), something more apparent in an earlier script for the opening sequence where the John Connor of 2029 describes his enemy as sitting “in its fortress in the Colorado Rockies”. Another never-filmed scene would have shown inter-continental ballistic missiles, dread icon of that era, rising from silos beneath the playground of Sarah’s dreams. And as American ICBMs are launched by the turning of two keys in two locks, placed far enough apart to require two people and therefore mutual consent to operate, it is surely no co-incidence that the same system is needed to open the Cyberdyne vault where the remains of that first Terminator are kept.
In fact the film resonates wherever it touches the scale of ways humans wage armed conflict. The script initially had Sarah, in her ‘You don’t know what it’s like to create’ speech, pointing out that every gun ever invented was designed and named after a man, whilst Cameron fetishises yet also satirises movie firefights with his own Minigun sequence in the same way, and with the same weapon, as John McTiernan did in the ‘We hit nothing’ scene from his Predator – both directors are known pacifists. Children play with toy guns as John muses on the doomed nature of man with the Model 101, whilst even Sarah’s unconscious carving of a philosophical message with a simple knife recalls Einstein’s powerful quote about the weapons of any fourth world war.
From the simplicity of a blade to the simplicity of the circle, perhaps the most profound shape in human culture when symbolising the cycle of life and death. The circularity of T2’s story-telling is similarly satisfying as the final scene arrives. Warm, witty but also moving, it’s a reminder that the troubles of today and tomorrow are always present.