If there’s only one film that could accurately claim to be the “greatest action movie of all time” with little to no debate, it would certainly be Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Released just over 30 years ago in July of 1991, T2 was a massive hit and at the time was the “most expensive film ever made,” and it’s no wonder given the technological advancements in computer-generated imagery that had to occur before James Cameron was able to bring his liquid metal Terminator (which he originally wanted for the first film) to life. Sadly, the Terminator franchise hasn’t been doing so hot these past few years. Even Cameron’s return as a producer for Terminator: Dark Fate was unable to save it from being a massive box-office bomb, canceling any immediate plans for a sequel.
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Yet, there has been a recent resurgence in Terminator-related media, including an upcoming Netflix anime series from Mother/Android director Mattson Tomlin, a post-T2 open-world survival video game, an upcoming RPG, and some recently launched fan-made podcasts and internet talk shows, just to name a few. While Terminator might not get another sequel anytime soon, it’s not exactly a dead franchise. But, regardless of the lack of new Terminator movies on the horizon, T2 has remained a sci-fi/action blockbuster masterpiece that, quite frankly, has yet to be dethroned. Between the stellar cast, the clever plot, and the groundbreaking special effects, Judgment Day is one of those sequels that truly surpass the original and continues to wow new audiences to this day. Unlike many of its future sequels, T2 thrives largely because it subverts our expectations while still being respectful to what came before.
Unless you were spoiled by the film’s trailers and overall marketing in the early ’90s (we’re so sorry), you probably didn’t know going into Terminator 2 that Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s T-800 was actually the hero of this story. Instead, you spent the first 30 minutes or so thinking that you were rooting for Robert Patrick, who would turn out to be an even more frightening Terminator than Arnold was. This subversion is pretty subtle at first, and if you know the twist you’d hardly even recognize the little ways that James Cameron is constructing his narrative. For instance, you never see the T-1000 kill anybody or shape-shift for the first half-hour of the film, and when we do see him interact with humans, he’s either very polite, always wearing a policeman’s uniform, or he’s cautious, looking over his shoulder as if someone were watching his every move. Even the side of his stolen squad car reads, “to protect and to serve,” and with those words, Cameron, like the T-1000 itself, is conditioning us to believe that Patrick is the hero of this story.
Contrast this with the introduction of our hero, the T-800 who would come to be called “Uncle Bob” by the young John Connor (Edward Furlong). Arnold’s Terminator arrives and immediately assaults a bunch of bikers at a dive bar before burning one on a grill, stealing his clothes (including his boots), and afterward driving away on a stolen motorcycle as George Thorogood & the Destroyers‘ “Bad to the Bone” fades away in the background. From the get-go, the T-800 isn’t painted as the hero, at least not in the traditional upstanding sense, rather he’s a violent killing machine with a singular goal in mind: find John Connor. Immediately, this T-800 feels familiar, although we know Arnold’s futuristic assassin from The Terminator was destroyed by Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). Because of his violent and uncaring nature, we think we know what he’s about to do and what’s going to happen next. We think we’ve seen this movie before.
Image via TriStar Productions
In less than 30 minutes (or just over if you watch the superior Special Edition), the climactic confrontation between the two Terminators — with John smack in the middle — occurs, an epic reveal that completely flips the audience on their heads as we learn that the T-800 is actually John’s protector, and the T-1000 is an advanced mimic-polyalloy prototype. From this moment on, all bets are off, and it’s better that way. Most of the time, when you go see an action blockbuster, be it Fast & Furious, Mission: Impossible, or the latest Marvel movie, you know exactly what you’re going to get, right down to the kinds of jokes or common phrases (“we’re family”) that’ll hear. Sure, the specifics change, and there’ll no doubt be a few plot twists here or there, but rarely is there a film so drastically different from the original in the way that Terminator 2 is from The Terminator. It’s just a shame that every Terminator sequel post-T2 — except maybe Terminator Salvation — tried to imitate Judgment Day’s greatness with the same familiar plot twists, tropes, and running gags (looking at you, Genisys).
Speaking of twists, Terminator 2 does a number on Sarah Connor, and in a way that makes her incredibly more compelling than last time around. The original 1984 film gave us a much younger, more innocent version of Sarah, one who worked a day job as a waitress, went out dancing at night with friends, and struggled to find a genuine love connection. If you were looking for a relatable main character, the first version of Sarah Connor fit the bill. She was an everywoman we could all relate to, especially in how she responded to the news of a future nuclear war and being pursued by a killer cyborg. Of course, after being saved by a soldier from that post-apocalyptic future, Sarah’s perspective began to change. By the end of the original film, she had fallen in love (only to lose it), had killed a Terminator, and discovered that she was pregnant before driving off into the storm. Yet, even after all that, she’s still not the warrior woman we see in T2.
While The Terminator certainly sets up the drastic change in Sarah’s personality and physicality, Terminator 2 pushes her to the absolute limit. We first catch up with Sarah in a mental institution as Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen) attempts to “fix” his prize patient and convince her that this future she continues to dream of won’t come to pass. To better understand Sarah’s actions rather than demonize her, Cameron shows us her intense dreams of a nuclear war, as well as visions of Kyle Reese (again, if you’re watching the Special Edition), which fuel her escape and her desire to get back to John. When John and the T-800 show up to save her from the T-1000, Sarah is nearly petrified when she sees the face of the creature that killed Kyle, though she forces herself to move on quickly once Robert Patrick shows up, remembering the mission Kyle died to finish.
Between Cameron’s direction and Linda Hamilton’s performance, Sarah’s warrior side is clear. It doesn’t take long before she proves herself to be even more fearsome and capable than Arnold’s Terminator, and it quickly makes sense how John Connor became the future leader of the human Resistance. For initial viewers, this was a huge change, but a welcomed one as Sarah’s offscreen development and training only benefited the character and the plot in the same way that Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) Jedi training between Star Wars films did for Return of the Jedi. It was set up previously, and although we were shocked by the results, it was exciting to see Hamilton as an action hero rather than just another “final girl.”
Jumping into T2 after the first film, you expect that Sarah would be protective of John, especially given his importance to the Future War, but you don’t expect a full-on warrior with a complete arsenal at her command and allies in the desert. Even after she nearly kills Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) and breaks down in her son’s arms, we don’t see her as anything but this new version of Sarah Connor we’ve grown to understand and respect, and although we see a glimpse of the young woman who lost the love of her life 10 years prior, the hardened action hero is still the dominant personality. At least Dark Fate got that part right, though there’s no doubt that Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles did a more impressive job exploring Sarah (played on the show by Lena Heady) and her own personal journey while still honoring the characters from Judgment Day.
Another reason Terminator 2 still thrives is that it doesn’t stop subverting the audience’s expectations with its main characters, and challenges everything we thought we knew about the world from the first film, as well as the tone and themes throughout. The first Terminator film was strictly a horror movie, and Arnold’s first Terminator felt more like a robotic Michael Meyers than the version we see Schwarzenegger play in T2. The film’s lighting is darker, the tone is bleaker, and the stakes are very personal (albeit still apocalyptic), with the intimacy between Kyle and Sarah, and their desire to live, driving the narrative. Even Brad Fiedel‘s score felt more ominous in the original than it did in the sequel. But rather than continue the story as another horror piece, James Cameron switches genres entirely, unapologetically ditching the horror to make Terminator 2 an action flick with high, world-ending stakes. Not every franchise can manage switching genres, but Terminator succeeds here where plenty of others have failed.
While the stakes in the original Terminator are technically high due to the nature of what a world without John Connor would look like, they don’t exactly feel high in the moment since we’re so centered on Sarah Connor. In contrast, the plot of T2 revolves entirely around saving John Connor and stopping Skynet before it can be created, the latter of which is not at all what moviegoers initially expected. This sudden redirection of our heroes’ mission — an idea that Kyle would’ve never dreamed of in the first film — puts our heroes on the offense rather than the defense, making the switch from horror to action paramount to Judgment Day’s success. No one would buy a horror movie where the victims are constantly trying to fight the monster. More often than not, horror characters are struggling to survive, outrun, and outlive the creature that’s chasing them.
But this is not so in T2, and as Sarah, John, and “Uncle Bob” decide to take the fight to Skynet rather than just outrun Patrick’s Terminator, it puts them at odds with a lot more folks than just the T-1000. By changing the tone from horror to action, Cameron gives Terminator 2 — and the audience — lots of room to breathe. With the heavy themes of fate and destiny, the nature of violence, and the value of each human life (not to mention a subtextual commentary on the nuclear family), T2 goes to places that The Terminator never had time to, and that’s a huge part of what makes Judgment Day so special.
While many (including this author) would love for the Terminator franchise to revisit its horror roots and hopefully spark new life into the series, there’s a clear reason that Terminator 2 shed those shackles and hooked itself into Schwarzenegger’s most iconic genre (and it’s clear why every sequel attempted to imitate its success). Even if there is never another Terminator film, James Cameron’s story is complete. They stopped Skynet, they saved the world, and our heroes proved once and for all that “there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” While this seems like a far cry from the bleak ending to The Terminator, it’s a welcomed change that makes Terminator 2: Judgment Day stand out as one of the best action and science-fiction films of all time.