Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, James Cameron)

Run. Don’t think, don’t stop, just run. That’s the central notion behind James Cameron’s admirably breathless Terminator 2. Stripped of the semi-budgeted nastiness of the previous film, this is a state of the art effects picture, one clearly a product of its time even if its CG content has aged surprisingly well, but it really rides on a pure traditionalist narrative consisting of equal parts The Great Train Robbery, various Road Runner cartoons, and Buster Keaton’s The General. It has little of the elegance of those projects — not least because it’s nearly twice the length of the longest of them — but it is inevitably a thrill to witness and, really, participate in what amounts to one long chase sequence, and not the world’s worst one by any stretch.

Cameron is a phenomenally good director of action sequences, and this film’s wild setpieces and blown-out metallic menace have remained potent after twenty-plus years. It’s hard to not find one’s heart in one’s throat, creeping closer to the long drop down to the floor from your couch, as young Edward Furlong narrowly misses being nuked by the terrifying Robert Patrick. That plays on parental paranoia and stranger-danger for sure, with a tough but sensibly cautious mom and a big Republican tough, a variation on Shane whereby everybody is out to do a bit of violence for the Greater Good. The film even opens with a nude action hero slamming people around in a dive bar so he can find some clothes — inconvenient for those unlucky sorts, perhaps, but this is all to save us from certain doom. The breathlessness of it all makes for intense, strong hit-to-the-jugular entertainment.

But that only sustains for the first forty-five minutes or so. When the incoherent story takes over, it starts trying patience, and even the broad whiz-bang fun gets to be too much after a while. The pursued is future resistance leader John Connor (Furlong), presently a truant preteen who learned how to hack ATMs from his mom Sarah (heroine of the original Terminator, played in both films by Linda Hamilton) who tried to prime him for his destiny but got carted off to a loony bin instead. The pursuer is the sleek, undaunted, purposeful bot T-1000, sent from the future to circumvent Connor, who in turn sets wheels into motion with his mom’s help to prevent the pigs from taking over the house or whatnot. (This involves a home invasion wrought upon Joe Morton, a fine actor who should be in more good movies instead of stuff like Speed 2.) Oh, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is here as a kinder gentler variation on the first film’s cyborg, awkwardly shoehorned as a father figure for John. It’s an unusual conceit to change a classic-ish villain into a hero for a sequel and it’s understandable that some felt cheated by the transformation into toothlessness, especially when the kid asks Uncle Robot not to kill anyone and he obliges. (An even more bizarre conceit since — boy, times have changed — this film was allowed to be released with an R rating, hence the concessions to family-movie-Friday seem especially weird.)

The somewhat paranoid vision of a WarGames-like government computer project’s rapid technological advancement giving way to eventual terror and dystopia is a decent if threadbare future shock storyline that lets this seem less a generic monster movie than The Terminator, and has some merit as a vaguely socially conscious sci-fi parable even though a lot of it is streamlined to keep the moment-to-moment suspense singing. What you need to know here is bad things are out to get us, seemingly indestructible (“li-quid me-tal”) thanks to the new world of microprocessors and shareware clipart on floppy disks. In a case similar to Aliens, when Cameron lets the rhythm lapse and tries to explain it all, it comes off more as a drunken rant than hard-sf context for a thriller. Terminator 2 would really be stronger if it were more kinetic, if anything. Drop all of the exposition (though Rupert Murdoch’s SkyNET is an amusing contribution to pop culture) and just go all the way with a nearly silent series of crazy action setpieces that are never fully explained. Then stop after 73 minutes or so and end with a star-child Edward Furlong seeing a Monolith at the foot of his bed.

In seriousness, the illogical plot holes scattered around don’t bug me even if they are a distraction from the more immediate pleasures here, but the way Cameron presents the film’s absolute silliness with no sense of irony, replacing it with the kiddie comic relief provided by the Getting Even with Dad cutes of Edward Furlong and his dealings with tough protective Schwarzenegger, leaves me with little affection or enjoyment to glean from it. A film whose story has such lofty pretensions and takes them this seriously requires actual characterization to work, and as in nearly all of his films, Cameron simply doesn’t have time for all that — by the end you feel like you’ve just ridden a Ferris wheel sixteen times without interacting with another living soul.

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