James Cameron has built his reputation on being a director who shows audiences something they’ve never seen before, and won’t see delivered with the same artistry and confidence ever again. Twenty-five years after its release, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is still a prime example of that audacity, as both spectacle and a downcast meditation on humanity’s future.
The original Terminator is, itself, a curveball of a film, using hardcore apocalyptic sci-fi as the framework for what is, essentially, a low-budget horror film about two kids running from an emotionless killer. But even compared to wrapping a story about men versus machines around a story not far removed from an average Friday the 13th entry, T2’s opening act plays Boggle with the status quo in ways that may never fly again in high-budget sequel cinema—a lesson Hollywood learned fast just a short year later when Batman Returns and Alien 3 were released. Brave but gentle Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is now a dead-eyed, doomsaying survivalist, locked in a sterile psychiatric hospital after attempting a terrorist attack on a computer factory. Her son, John (Edward Furlong), the heralded savior of the future yet to come, is the archetypical suburban white-kid rebel in a hip-hop shirt who listens to Guns N’ Roses while playing video games at the mall.
But the biggest surprise, Cameron’s ace, was the T-1000. Revealing The Abyss’s water-snake sequence as—pun unintended—a dry run, ILM’s groundbreaking morphing effects bolster what’s easily one of the greatest, most frightening villains in film: Robert Patrick’s svelte, predatory horror of a murderous cyborg. The T-1000 is more than just an unstoppable juggernaut, but a homicidal nightmare that may embody friends and loved ones, and just as quickly turn into a silvery mass of unholy dread that can distend, distort, stab, and slice at will. The cherry on top is the T-1000 taking the base form of a cop, an added drop of fear and loathing that likely didn’t go unnoticed by anyone black and/or living in Los Angeles in 1991.
Despite the usual expertly crafted mayhem expected from a James Cameron blockbuster, the stretch of film that keeps T2 from being just another sequel carbon-copying its predecessor is when all the initial shocks wear off, and Sarah, John, and the T-800 are well on their way to Mexico. Cameron essentially sets up the Baby Hitler scenario: the possibility of stopping Terminators from ever being created by zeroing in on the root of all evil, an unassuming cybernetics wunderkind, Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), who found the first Terminator’s CPU, and is now well on his way to reverse-engineering the technology that created it. A deleted scene from the film revealed Dyson with nothing but wide-eyed optimism for what his artificial intelligence could do, but the theatrical version of T2 is better served leaving things as they are, with Dyson as a working stiff who got lucky, who finds his home invaded by a maniac wielding automatic weapons, driven by a still-unnervingly grim vision of the nuclear holocaust that starts the war with the machines.
Hamilton gets so little due respect over the years for how much of the film’s midsection rides on her. The caged animal we see in the actress’s first scenes reveals herself—after the mental-institute breakout—to be a broken, traumatized soldier in a world where the war hasn’t even technically happened yet. In a roundabout way, Cameron manages to ace the Vietnam allegory he threw lip service to during Aliens in a far more frightening, heartbreaking manner than he ever could dealing with the constant presence and threat of xenomorphs, but Hamilton’s doing the heavy lifting in articulating Sarah’s coming to grips with a brutal past, and her monstrous decision for her future that has more to do with making the nightmares stop than with saving humankind.
As mentioned, Batman Returns and Alien 3 hit a year after T2, two films that also take the nobility of their heroes for a dark ride. Those two sequels were widely criticized for their darkness compared to their predecessors. T2 has a streak of pure, baleful nihilism running through it, but managed to succeed with audiences in ways those other films did not, and it wasn’t just by pleasing the crowd, though Cameron’s handle on the physics and space of a scene compared to many of his ADHD imitators cannot be understated.
We’re confronted in T2 with the idea that we, the audience, and our heroes know what’s coming, are actively contributing to it, and humanity will not lift a finger to stop it until it’s too late. While Cameron can’t help but overtly state the moral by the end, he does grand work setting up the third act on the basis that it’s not the showdown in the steel plant, or blowing up Cyberdyne, but ultimately the sit-down at Miles Dyson’s table that changes where humanity is going. One man can’t be Satan, killing isn’t the only way we win, and basic, everyday humanity will ultimately triumph in the end. It’s an ethos that the other three Terminator sequels toy with, but ultimately fail to uphold—though Genisys gets closest in showing Sarah and her cyborg protector’s “hope for the best, expect the worst” relationship with judgment day over the course of years. At the end of a long, dark road, Cameron’s film still manages to emphatically find the light, knowing that we ultimately need it to survive.