There cannot be a Terminator movie without Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s just silly talk to pretend otherwise. But, by the time Terminator 2: Judgment Day was released, in 1991, Arnold was no longer a semi-anonymous hulkster who could believably play a robot. Audiences were too familiar with him. Said another way, in the original Terminator, we viewers saw the character of the terminator. In the sequel, we see Arnold. This factor set up a delicate dance for director James Cameron, one he did not execute perfectly.
As before, future earth has been ravaged by machines controlled by the evil computer entity known as Skynet. John Connor is the leader of the human resistance. On its last legs, Skynet sends a new model of terminator back in time to alter past events. Instead of targeting Sarah Connor, the terminator targets John Connor, now ten years old. John is played by Edward Furlong, in his film debut. He is in no way, shape, or form as young as ten, but no Terminator film rewards a viewer who thinks on it too much.
In a twist, the terminator that is hunting down John is not played by Arnold, but by Robert Patrick, in his first significant film role. Arnold plays another terminator, this one sent back in time by the adult John to protect his younger self. It’s an inevitable bit of trickery, fuelled by Arnold’s stardom. I suppose he could have played the bad guy once more in this film without damaging the brand too much, but by this time Arnold was too invested in being the good Godzilla, not the bad one.
Arnold’s terminator doesn’t just have different programming in this film, as it were. The character itself has more human traits. Instead of a monolithic poise and cold detachment to his killing, this sequel terminator carries with it the same aura of badassery which Arnold developed in the intervening years following the first film. This is explained in the plot as the terminator being programmed to learn, to mimic human qualities, but in actuality, all viewers know that the steely gazes, sly smirks, and one-liners are all about Arnold the product. His acting is as wooden as ever, hardly a handicap when playing a robot, but this is the Arnold audiences came to expect. In fact, this movie is the pinnacle of Arnold as Arnold.
Robert Patrick, on the other hand, does a fine job playing the emotionless robot assassin. Whereas Arnold shows some emotion, Patrick resides in that same uncanny valley as the terminator from the first film. He looks and sounds human, but enough of the real thing is missing to make him unsettling. Patrick was of slight and lean build, hardly measuring up to Arnold, who had actually toned down some. So his terminator is different. Rather than living tissue surrounding an exoskeleton, Patrick’s terminator is liquid metal that has the ability form solid shapes of equal volume, making the terminator able to imitate human beings. He can hide in plain sight. Also, having no moving parts, bullets have no effect. This all-metal terminator upends the artificial restrictions of the time machine from the first film, but, remember, thinking about things only exposes plot holes. Just let it go.
Linda Hamilton returns as Sarah Connor, and her character has changed, as well. She’s no longer a damsel in distress. Her encounter with the terminator in the first film, and her knowledge of the impending nuclear apocalypse, has turned her into a survivalist. She’s a cold steel knife-edge compared to what came before. This means she becomes almost partner to Arnold’s terminator, as they both do their best to protect John.
It would be easy to pick on Furlong’s performance in this film. But he had two things working against him. One was his age, meaning he had a lack of experience with acting. The other was Cameron and William Wisher, Jr.’s script. There was a wave of teens and pre-teens in ’90s flicks that had attitude, or what adults at the time perceived as attitude. That basically means flannels and snarkiness. What it also means is that throughout the entire film, Furlong seems like he’s trying to be cool. Which, as most of us know, is exactly how not to be cool. In fact, that’s how a person becomes endlessly annoying. I blame Cameron for this. He was the one that made young John Connor this way, not Furlong.
Cameron was hit and miss when it came to directing his cast, but he mastered the action sequences. At the time this film was made, it was the most expensive production ever, and it shows. The CGI, essential to making the Robert Patrick terminator work, is very refined for its time. The level of destruction and complexity of sets is staggering. There is a helicopter chase sequence near the end that I don’t think can ever be equaled without ditching real helicopters and going full CGI. What I think we are seeing with Terminator 2 is the film Cameron would have made if he had had the budget and resources to go all out with the first film.
But, less is more. What the film gains in grandiosity it loses in closeness. Terminator 2 is spectacle. Terminator was story.