Arnold Schwarzenegger may get the above-title billing on this movie, but make no mistake; he’s not the star of this show. The real stars of Terminator 2 are the special-effects team over at ILM. The movie cost over $100 million dollars to make and you can see every single penny on the screen.
T2 picks up 12 years after The Terminator left off. John Connor is now a pre-teen delinquent with a rap sheet for a number of petty crimes. He’s living in foster care after his mother was committed to a mental hospital for unsuccessfully trying to blow up Cyderdyne Industries and thus prevent Judgment Day. It’s all looking pretty bleak for John, when in a blinding flash of light a naked Arnie appears. He’s a terminator, the same model that killed John’s father in the first film. We see the arrival of Robert Patrick in, we assume, the same role as Rees from T1, John’s protector. Of course, because this is a sequel, things are not as they seem. This time Arnie is the good guy, a terminator captured and reprogrammed by the future John Connor and sent back to protect his younger self from the T-1000, a super-upgraded and practically indestructible machine made from a liquid alloy that can mould itself into anything it touches.
It’s the special effects used on Patrick’s T-1000 that make this movie a classic. The effects were absolutely cutting edge in 1991 and have more than stood the test of time. It’s still a marvel to watch a figure made of molten metal walk away from a spectacular explosion and slowly turn into a man. The animation is seamless as the floor of Sarah’s cell in the mental institution suddenly pools into an upright shape and morphs into the mirror image of a security guard. Unlike a lot of other innovative techniques, the effects used in T2 have been copied and perfected in later films, but have never been parodied to the point where they become ridiculous (think of The Matrix’s “bullet time”). Perhaps that’s why the effects still stand up so well.
It’s also down to the seamless combination of cutting-edge computer effects with simple, good old-fashioned stunt work that make T2 such a visual feast. Part of what elevates the iconic shot of the T-1000 striding out of the flames is that this comes at the end of an excellent set piece, that triumph of stunt work and stunt driving that is the truck vs. motorbike chase scene along one of LA’s famous storm drains. Everything about this scene combines to make that final CGI shot work. You see Robert Patrick driving the truck, you see Arnold Schwarzenegger riding the bike with Edward Furlong clutching at his back. You see Arnie cock his shotgun by spinning it on his finger. The noise the truck makes has been enhanced in post-production with the sounds of lion roars to make it sound even more menacing. Everything, from the build-up to the eventual crashing of the truck and the pyrotechnical skill required to create the fireball, is perfect. And so, when we get to that SFX shot it’s rendered all the more breathtaking.
There are so many other shots in this film where ILM more than earned their Oscar (this film won a total of four Academy Awards). There is the scene where the T-1000 is shot repeatedly and, after a moment, the silver bullet holes close up, morphing into tissue and clothing. At no point does this ever look ridiculous, or unrealistic. Considering the film’s age this is astonishing. These techniques have been tweaked in the past 20 years but are still being used today. What’s interesting is that so often when you look at these types of SFX in films today you think “that looks crap”. Think about the remake of Clash of the Titans, or even the CGI shots in the first Spiderman movie (especially the first Green Goblin attack). They don’t look realistic. They don’t hold up. Whereas these shots really do. Could it be because the technology has become more accessible and cheaper to produce these days that the art of creating something that looks realistic has been lost?
Jim Cameron has always been a filmmaking pioneer of sorts, from perfecting underwater filming and the control of water effects in The Abyss that would help him to go on and create Titanic, and more recently blazing a trail in 3D with Avatar. He’s a man willing to take risks to create new technology to help him film more realistic and visually dynamic cinema. He’s not my favourite director by a long chalk, but there’s no doubt that with him you get a lot of bang for your buck.
It’s also true that for all of the cutting edge technology, he never neglects story. Whether you love his questionable characterisation and (it could be argued) sentimental plotting, his action movies, in contrast with many others, actually care about things like character and plot.
Sarah Connor at the start of The Terminator was a ditzy, clumsy waitress. When she’s re-introduced in T2 she’s in a mental ward, doing pull-ups on the upturned frame of her bed. I don’t want to go on a rant about how Cameron treats women in his films (although I could), because I don’t think that’s what we should take away from the character of Sarah Connor. She’s not a gender stereotype, what makes her important is less how Cameron confronts Sarah’s femininity and more to do with the fact that she is actually mad. The knowledge that the world is going to end on 29 August 1997 (looks like we dodged that bullet eh?) has taken its toll on her so completely that she cannot sleep without seeing visions of a nuclear holocaust. The knowledge of what’s to come, that her son is going to be a leader of men in combination with the fact that there is no-one in the world who believes her, has literally driven her insane.
I quite appreciate that Cameron doesn’t pretend that anyone could cope with this. I like that Sarah is obviously mad, I like that she can’t express her love for her son because she’s so pre-occupied with keeping him alive. It makes her a far more interesting and believable character than she was in T1. Her sole concern now is keeping John alive at any cost.
Ultimately the message of the movie is that there is no fate but what we make for ourselves. Sarah, John and Arnie’s T-101 go to destroy Cyberdyne, the technology they have harvested from the original terminator and all of their research and development. They succeed in destroying it all, but the T-1000 is still in pursuit, and in the way of things, absolutely will not stop, ever until John is dead. In addition to more excellent effects, where the T-1000 falls into liquid nitrogen and begins to snap, we also get to the emotional heart of the film.
It’s up to Arnie to save the day, his T-101 has become something of a father figure of John, so when it’s time for the final chip (the one in his head) to be destroyed, it is an emotional wrench. Perhaps they have changed fate this time, perhaps they’ve stopped Judgment Day, but John will have lost two fathers to this fight and his mother sacrificed her sanity to it. Saving the world sure comes at a cost.