' Cinema Romantico: Friday's {Mildly} Old Fashioned: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Friday, July 10, 2015

Friday's {Mildly} Old Fashioned: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Pretty much every Tom, Dick and Harry superhero movie that comes down the pike these days centers around the end of the world. It’s so prevalent, in fact, that movie-going Armageddon has more or less been stripped of its inherent horror, counteracted by men and women in crime-fighting costumes discussing it over what amounts to quip-filled high tea. In “Terminator 2”, however, the subtitle is “Judgment Day”, and its end of the world story feels immediate. It doesn’t skimp on the Armageddon-ish sensation, at one point indulging in a shot of a body being incinerated, a nuclear explosion as the culprit. That’s saying something. Despite a mammoth budget, despite groundbreaking special effects, despite a 4th of July weekend opening, despite taking the title as 1991 Box Office Champion, “Judgment Day” never shies away from conveying the terror of its namesake. It’s action-packed but grounded in that old apocalyptic feeling.


The first “Terminator”, released in 1984, was dark, no doubt. It was centered on the idea that in 1997 machines would become self-aware and engender the beginning of the end of mankind, prompting a human resistance. Thus, a futuristic assassin cyborg, a Terminator, was sent back in time to kill the mother, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who would give birth to the resistance’s leader. There was a low-watt pulse-pounding ominousness that went with the whole film but the horror of Judgment Day itself still somehow felt far off. The instant when you’re delivered the most tragic news you often struggle to comprehend its full weight, and that’s what elevates “T2”; its characters have processed humanity’s impending doom. They’ve had years to wrestle with it and this has inevitably left them scarred.

In the sequel, another Terminator, a super-sleek, liquid metal-y T-1000 (Robert Patrick), is sent back in time to kill teenaged John Connor. And as played by the young Edward Furlong with a 90’s bowl cut and an omnipresent Public Enemy t-shirt, he knows he’ll grow up to lead the resistance in a world laid to waste, and if you know that, why would you clean your room? Why wouldn’t you steal money from the ATM? Why would you do anything other than play video games? He’s something of a brat, but you can’t blame him. His mom’s even worse. In the first film Hamilton played Sarah with a mixture of disbelief and do-it-yourself action heroism. Here she’s not she just buffed up and ripped; she’s off her rocker. Her character is labeled delusional, of course, for speaking up about humanity’s impending demise and locked up in an asylum, but the knowledge that we’re all screwed has left her as someone actively awaiting her own reckoning.

Mankind’s hubris hovers over these movies since they (we) are the ones who construct the machines that will eventually take over, a grave lesson that makes for all kinds of cracks about the robopocalypse even as it draws ever nearer. Yet the neatest bit of irony that writer/director/producer James Cameron employs is how a robot has the most essential arc and the most emergent humanity of all the film’s characters. That’s the T-800 sent back in time to protect John, and eventually, Sarah. It’s played by Arnold Schwarzenegger at the height of his powers, a perfect role in which he’s asked to be expressionless, often silent, and issue monotone one-liners. His best scene finds him matter-of-factly repairing an automobile while John unloads emotional baggage. It works so well because his non-reactions are simultaneously punchlines and pathos.

Their relationship escalates as John instructs his protector in the ethos of non-violence – well, sort of. John repeatedly pleads for the Terminator not to kill anyone, allowing for scads of morbid humor in which the Terminator blasts cops in the kneecaps and then says things like “He’ll live.” In one way, it’s a case of Cameron having his cake and eating it too, veering perilously close to the boundary of Guns Don’t Kill People; People Kill People. Yet in watching these scenes with the benefit of hindsight something even more macabre emerges. The machines that come back to get us we’re our own undoing and we made those guns too.


I’m not saying James Cameron knew when he was shooting “T2” that things were about to take a turn for the worse in the L.A., but the city’s riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict were right around the corner, as was the notorious Rampart scandal. There are eerie harbingers all over the movie, from those all-consuming flames in Sarah's visions to the T-1000 taking the form of an LAPD cop. And Cameron doesn’t seem particularly adoring of early 90’s L.A. as a whole. The story is intimate, restricted to only a few characters, but those who pop up around the side are often unpleasant and clueless, like John Connor’s seemingly indifferent stepdad and an absolutely lecherous security guard. Humanity here doesn’t look like much worth saving.

Myles Dyson (Joe Morten), the man who would create the technology that dooms us all, is eventually held up as a hero, and rightly so, but that’s only after he’s threatened, nearly killed, bloodied, mortally wounded. So often only at the point of dyin’ does man cop to the error of his ways. Cameron shot an alternate ending in which in which the future was bright and dewy and the nuclear catastrophe at the hands of machines becoming self-aware never took place. This ending was scrapped, wisely, for a hesitantly open ending, a wish that humans learn from their mistakes. As if.

In his positive review for “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” the late great Roger Ebert couldn’t help but examine the film’s varying paradoxes on account of its convoluted future/past time-traveling storyline. “If indeed,” he asks, “in the last scene of the film, the computer chips necessary to invent Terminators are all destroyed, then there couldn't have been any Terminators – so how come they exist in the first place?” Well, that’s a legit query, sure, but one that fails to take into account that post “Terminator 2” there would be more “Terminator” movies - “Rise of the Machines”, “Salvation”, and now “Genisys.” No doubt there will be more, even if they claim there won’t be, who knows how high they will go, and with each further addition, the more ability they have to utterly undo everything that was done in “Judgment Day.” “It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves,” the T-800 Terminator explains to young John Connor in regards to humanity itself.

He may as well have been talking about movie producers, but those sequels may as well be talking about us. We can’t leave well enough really good alone. In Hollywood that just means a spate of bad reviews; in the real world, that can mean a whole lot more.

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