For a long time now, Terminator 2: Judgment Day has been on my list of movies to watch. I kept hearing comments like, “It’s even better than the first one!” So given how much I liked the first one, I was pretty sure I would enjoy this one even more. And yet when I sat down to watch T2 for the first time, something that might seem insignificant, but in fact is a symptom of a larger problem, bothered me right off the bat. But I’ll get to that.
Ten years after the events of The Terminator, Sarah Connor has been institutionalized for her stories of time-travelling robots, and her son John Connor is in foster care. The self aware-computer Skynet has sent another Terminator back in time, this time to kill John, and the future version of John has sent back another protector to save himself. But it’s different this time, because Skynet’s Terminator is a T-1000, an advanced shape-shifting model, and John’s protector is a reprogrammed T-800—the same kind that tried to kill Sarah the first time around.
John and the T-800 break Sarah out of the mental hospital and go on the run, pursued by the T-1000. Sarah realizes that the future isn’t set in stone, so she heads out to kill Dyson, the man who’s on the brink of reverse-engineering his own computer chip that will one day lead to Skynet. John and the T-800 stop her just before she kills him. They convince Dyson that they need to destroy his work, so after trashing his office, they proceed to Cyberdyne headquarters and blow it up.
This leads to a confrontation in a steel warehouse, where the T-1000 is destroyed. The T-800, knowing that they can only avert Judgment Day if all existing Terminator technology is destroyed, sacrifices himself. Cyberdyne no longer has the information or the technology needed to develop Skynet or the Terminators, and the movie ends with Sarah expressing her hope about what’s coming next. (Although in the special edition, which I didn’t watch, apparently we see an amazing future where everybody lives and John’s a politician, which I can’t see being very successful given how often he says d*ck, sh*t, and f*ck.)
The plot of this movie is basically about John Connor trying to keep his mother alive while she tries to avert a terrible future. But the actual aboutness is a little different.
See, Sarah isn’t nearly the same person she was ten years ago. After all this time, she still misses Kyle Reese with a fierce, aching grief, but from the sounds of it, she spent a long time “shacking up with” (is that slang for “totally nailing”?) various guys who could teach her stuff about surviving in the harsh future ahead. After what happened with the first Terminator, she’s hardened. She’s hateful. She’s cold. And that’s the way she tried to raise John.
But John’s a little different, too. He knows who he’s supposed to become. He knows that when he’s 45 the world will be in shambles, that he’ll be a military leader, and that he’ll meet his father and send him back in time. That’s a hell of a burden for a ten-year-old to carry. John admires his mom (at least after he realizes she’s not crazy) and looks to her for support, but she’s so focused on dealing with the future ahead that she can’t focus on the son who needs her in the present.
So when the T-800 comes along, it makes sense that John latches onto him. He never knew his own father, his mom was institutionalized, and his foster parents were “d*cks.” Nobody in the world cared about him except for this machine, who would have been terminated before it would let him get hurt. John teaches the T-800 how to talk more normally (although with that accent, it’s still got a lot of learning to do) and how killing people is just fundamentally wrong.
One particular scene comes to mind there. Sarah removes the T-800’s CPU, ostensibly to switch on “learning mode” but really to smash the crap out of it. John stops her, and Sarah gets furious: why would he want to save a machine that only exists to kill? John tells her that the world will never listen to him if his own mother won’t, and she relents. But it’s more than just John not wanting his new toy killed or wanting to make a point to his mother: Sarah’s lost her way, and with a child’s optimism, John starts to bring her back.
In the first Terminator movie, the T-800 was a symbol of fear and an unstoppable force of cold, logical evil. In this one, though, he’s a symbol of hope. The T-800 learns and grows, eventually coming to value human life. He promises John that he won’t kill anyone, and much to my own surprise, he actually keeps that promise. A robot shouldn’t hold any value in a verbal promise since its only value lies in maintaining a relationship between two people, but after the T-800 beats back a massive police force at the Cyberdyne building, he scans the scene for fatalities—and finds none.
The T-800 brings a sense of family to John, and to Sarah he brings a sense of hope that she won’t have to live with a future where three billion people die in one day. Only after she realizes that does she move forward with the intent of not just surviving but actually saving the future by setting it on a different course. And after ten years of metaphorically sleeping with a knife under her pillow, that’s a pretty significant character change.
Remember when I said something bothered me, something that seemed insignificant but was actually kind of a big deal? This is the part where I get to that. In the beginning of the film, Sarah Connor’s voice speaks over scenes of future devastation similar to those in the first Terminator movie. She says:
“Three billion human lives ended on August 29th, 1997. The survivors of the nuclear fire called the war Judgment Day. They lived only to face a new nightmare: the war against the machines. The computer which controlled the machines, Skynet, sent two Terminators back through time. Their mission: to destroy the leader of the human resistance, John Connor, my son. The first Terminator was programmed to strike at me in the year 1984, before John was born. It failed. The second was sent to strike at John himself when he was still a child. As before, the resistance was able to send a lone warrior, a protector for John. It was just a question of which one of them would reach him first.”
All right, I’ll admit that that’s a pretty great way of starting a sequel: recapping where we’ve been and indicating where we’re going. But there are so many easier ways of doing that without resorting to a voiceover. We saw John Connor for the first time looking through a set of binoculars; his identity isn’t hidden from us anymore, so why couldn’t we have seen him in a meeting with his soldiers?
He could’ve just as easily recapped in dialogue by saying something like, “Skynet already sent a Terminator back to kill my mother before I was born. Now it’s sending another to kill me while I’m still young. Gentlemen, just like last time, we need to send a protector. Let me hear your ideas.” That way we don’t know the plot twist where the T-800 is supposed to protect John, but we’re not getting an information dump that’s impossible to remember.
Then there’s the scene where John is teaching the T-800 how to high-five. Sarah says:
“Watching John with the machine, it was suddenly so clear. The Terminator would never stop. It would never leave him, and it would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice.”
Yes, that’s a great message. Seriously, it is. But you know what? I think the audience would’ve been smart enough to figure that out by themselves. They would’ve seen John having a grand old time with his very own Terminator, and they would’ve recognized that this is the most positive and most honest experience with a father figure that he’s ever had. And they would’ve seen Sarah, all gloomy and stern by herself, and by just a simple expression on her face, she could communicate that she’s realized how necessary the T-800 is not only to John’s survival but to his happiness, too.
Then there’s later on, when they’re telling Dyson about the fact that he’s gonna kill everyone:
Sarah: (voiceover) “Dyson listened while the Terminator laid it all down: Skynet, Judgment Day, the history of things to come. It’s not everyday you find out that you’re responsible for 3 billion deaths. He took it pretty well.”
Dyson: “I feel like I’m gonna throw up.”
Seriously? You seriously had to spell that out for us? It was already there in the dialogue! We literally saw the T-800 spelling it out for him! If you were that uncertain about whether audiences would understand that he was getting full disclosure here, then maybe you should’ve tacked on a little extra detail in the dialogue, James Cameron. There was absolutely no need to include that little bit of voiceover in that scene. If nothing else, didn’t it take away from the overall effect by including Sarah’s sarcastic little “he took it pretty well” at the end?
And then there’s this bit at the end:
“The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”
I know what you’re thinking: “Grace, how cynical can you possibly be? That’s a great message to include.” And you’re right; it absolutely is. But dammit, it doesn’t need to be spelled out for us like that! It could have been communicated with simple shots of an idyllic world where people aren’t hurting each other, where everyone is safe from the horrible future that might have come to exist.
That’s what bothers me most about voiceovers. I know I’ve raged on about it for a while now, but honestly, it just pisses me off. It doesn’t give the audience enough credit. It takes away the audience’s ability to interpret this stuff for itself, and it shows one of two problems: either the writer believes his audience stupid and condescends to them, or he’s too inexperienced and uncertain to just trust that they’re smart enough to understand the message he’s trying to make.
I know lots of people have argued before about the special edition ruining the timeline. It’s true that with the new and brighter future, there’s no war and thus no reason for the Terminators to be sent back in time in the first place, and thus no reason for John to have been born or for Sarah to have any awareness of what the future might have been. And the fact that such a simple argument exists is, I think, proof of the second problem: the writer was too inexperienced and uncertain.
There are a lot of people, most of them much smarter and more articulate than me, who do this kind of thing for a living. They watch movies, they analyze them, and they write about them. It’s a safe bet that any one of them would’ve spotted Sarah’s realization of the T-800’s value to John, or Dyson’s reaction to the fact that he’s a mass murderer, or even the value of the T-800’s sacrifice and Sarah’s renewed hope in the future of humanity.
And people read these reviews (maybe not mine, but other people’s for sure), so even if they hadn’t spotted it for themselves, they would’ve smacked themselves on the head and said, “Right! That was totally there! I get it now!” They would’ve felt much smarter for having realized it (albeit secondhand), and they would’ve been like, “Man, James Cameron is deep!” Instead I’m left with the uncomfortable sensation that he thinks I’m not particularly smart and needed everything spelled out for me.
And when a movie leaves you with that feeling, it’s pretty easy to feel like maybe it isn’t quite as great as everyone says it is.
Final Grade: B-
- The opening sequence was actually wicked cool with the flames and the playground. Very cool reference to Sarah’s nightmare motif, which is worked throughout the film.
- Sarah, there are 206 bones in the human body. Not 215. Do you even science?
- John’s voice kept coming out as a shriek. I couldn’t decide if I was impressed by the actor’s passion, amused by his prepubescent squawks, or annoyed by my bleeding eardrums.
- If the T-1000 can run so fast, why does he spend the last scene just sort of walking menacingly towards John, Sarah, and the T-800? OF COURSE THEY WILL OUTRUN YOU IF YOU DO THAT.
- I love that the T-800 just kept shooting people in the knees. It made me remember a quote from Firefly.
Zoe: Preacher, don’t the Bible have some pretty specific things to say about killin’?
Shepherd Book: Quite specific. It is, however, somewhat fuzzier on the subject of kneecaps.
- This was my absolute favourite line:
The Terminator: Negative. The T-1000 will definitely try to acquire you there.
John: You sure?
The Terminator: I would.
Seriously, doesn’t that just give you chills? The Terminator may be reprogrammed, but there’s no way in hell that he’s tame: he’s still a born killer. That is all.