Saturday 26 October 2019

Classic Film: Terminator 2 – Judgement Day

Hasta la vista, baby. Ahead of Terminator: Dark Fate, I take a look back at Terminator 2: Judgement Day – a rare breed of sequel that can be considered career-best work for both director James Cameron and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

The Terminator is a lean, mean sci-fi slasher. Sent from a dystopian future that it is impossible to prevent, it's 108 minutes of a cybernetic Arnie stalking his prey through neon-soaked nightclubs.

It was a film no-one expected to hit the big time, a low-budget sleeper hit that was little more than a star vehicle for bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger and a sophomore film for a little-known filmmaker known as James Cameron, who had previously only helmed the sequel to Piranha.

In contrast, Judgement Day arrived burdened with the weight of expectation. Schwarzenegger was now an icon of the silver screen, arguably the biggest leading man on the planet at the time – or at least up there with the likes of Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford. Cameron had gone on to further cement his credentials by directing Aliens, a follow-up to Ridley Scott's Alien, and The Abyss, a critical success that had pushed the envelope with regard to visual effects. 

At the time, Judgement Day was the most expensive movie ever made, with an estimated price tag of between $94 million and $102 million. And in crafting a sequel that expanded on the original in every way, shape and form, Cameron without a doubt made it money well spent – proving that lighting can strike twice when it comes to sequels that surpass their predecessors. 

Judgement Day, just like Cameron's other heralded sequel Aliens, casts a long shadow over everything that came before and has followed in its wake. For the Terminator franchise, this takes the form of three – maybe soon to be four – entries that try and fail to emulate its effectiveness. From 2003's Rise of the Machines to 2015's Genisys, the rest of the Terminator franchise mines Judgement Day for meaning and motifs.

As sequels go, few come as close to perfection as Judgement Day. Cameron once again understands the blueprints of a brilliant sequel – creating familiarity with the first, shifting gears, upping the stakes and subverting expectation. In Judgement Day, Cameron ups the stakes by having not one but two Terminators. The subversion comes from the T-800 switching sides, now a reprogrammed cyborg that is will stop at nothing to save John Connor, rather than kill him. And lastly, the film shifts gears from a straight-up sci-fi horror to a breakneck action thriller.

Not only is Judgement Day longer and more ambitious, it's deeper than the first film. With Arnie at the height of his powers, coming off the back of a string of action hits – Commando, Predator and Total Recall – and family-friendly fare – Twins and Kindergarten Cop, the film gives its lead actor much more to work with. At first, Judgement Day feels like Arnie slotting back into his action hero schtick, as he strides around clad in bike leathers, sunglasses and wielding a shotgun.

But as the film unfolds, and Edward Furlong's tearaway John Connor slowly starts to form a familial bond with the fatherly T-800, Arnie's softer side starts to come to the fore. After a breathless first half, around the midpoint it slows down to explore the burgeoning bond between boy and cyborg.

Cameron doesn't just alter the status quo for Arnie; Linda Hamilton's returning Sarah Connor is a changed woman since the first film, with the burden of protecting a future resistance leader making her a borderline delusional doomsday prepper and oftentimes cold mother figure with a one-track mind: survival. This evolution in her character is another aspect in which Judgement Day builds on the potential of the first film, deepening the world, its characters and the story.

Many films have tried, but none of the subsequent Terminator films have quite lived up to the benchmark laid down by Cameron. A textbook example of the Hollywood sequel done right, Judgement Day has lost none of its impact from the downpour of pale imitations in recent years. With any luck, Dark Fate will have gone back in time to study it and learn from it.

Terminator – Dark Fate is in cinemas across Australia from Thursday 31 October. 

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