♦ complete viewing ♠ partial viewing ≈ television series
♠ Terminator 2: Judgement Day
I wanted to watch this again because I’ve thrashed it hard over the years (23 of them to be precise) and lately have begun to suspect I was being unfair to it. Judgement Day seems to be the franchise favourite among fans and sometimes I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to popular favourites.
So what were my issues with the film going in? Basically just that they’d taken the gritty, ultra-violent, campy B-movie, sci-fi action/horror of the original Terminator and sanitized it into an almost family-friendly, Spielberg-esque boy-and-his-robot buddy movie. I remembered it being basically E.T. if Elliott was a juvenile delinquent and E.T. had been a time-travelling hunter-killer cyborg. While I’ll always have a nostalgic love for E.T., doing a Terminator version was just a terrible concept from the get go.
Rehashing the same time-travel paradox gambit from the first film was probably a bit dodgy to begin with, but I had a huge problem with the switch-up in making Arnie a good guy this time around (at his insistence if I remember correctly). The concept might have been okay if, instead of playing a reprogrammed T-800 sent back to protect John Connor, he was a human being—the one that the T-800’s appearance was based on. Having this “good guy” version of the T-800 completely destroys the character. He’s simply not interesting unless he’s indiscriminately killing people without mercy or remorse. Maybe human-Arnie could even have been fighting robo-Arnie! Or maybe someone like Dolph Lundgren could have been a T-900 cyborg? Anything would have been better than this neutered version of the T-800 and the weird liquid man.
Which was my second major issue with the film. I could never buy the T-1000 concept. While the T-800 cyborg tests your suspension of disbelief, it’s at least plausible. It’s still literally “flesh and blood” while the T-1000 is held together and operates by some kind of unexplained future space magic. It always felt to me like James Cameron only went the ludicrous liquid metal route because he finally had the CGI technology to do it and he wanted to be the first out the gate with it. Also, it smacked of the classic bigger-is-better shark-jumping that’s the Achilles heel of all sequels.
Anyway, I was surprised to discover my qualms going in, though I believe still valid, are not exactly what’s wrong with the film. For starters, there’s the oddly unfocused tone. T2 constantly flip-flops between Goonies-styled shenanigans and the hardcore violence and dark-apocalyptic gore of the original Terminator. What does the film want to be? Mostly just a vehicle for Arnie. Which, it turns out, is exactly what it should not have been.
Though I remembered him being a snooze, I found Robert Patrick‘s T-1000 surprisingly compelling. And shockingly dreamy. This is the guy who would play Doggett on X-Files a decade later? Apparently 10 years did him no favours but, in 1990, he was a fuckin’ blue-eyed dreamboat. His performance also highlights just how terrible Arnie’s performance is. Within seconds of Patrick’s appearance I had a complete reversal on my previous “Ditch the T-1000 and have Arnie fight his robot alter-ego” stance.
From the instant he hits the screen, Arnie is easily the worst thing about the film. When he steps out of the roadhouse in his violently purloined biker-gear and “Bad To The Bone” plays (a clichéd music cue even by 1990), the Fremdsham for all involved in the project is palpable. There’s also the moment when he takes the bar owner’s sunglasses as the finishing touch to his ensemble. Why would this ultra-pragmatic robot want to wear sunglasses at night? Because he wants his vision to be disabled slightly? Like a lot of elements in the movie, it’s a ham-fisted call-back to the original film. But in the first movie he wears sunglasses only to disguise the fact that one of his eyes has been torn out. This kind of cheap gag is precisely why T2 sets my teeth on edge.
On the plus side, I remembered Edward Furlong being a lot more cringe-worthy than he actually is. He still might just have been the ersatz River Phoenix (with his fake Corey Feldman side-kick), but his acting is actually about on par with Phoenix’s (who was a fine teen actor but also a bit over-rated). Furlong’s problem is that in almost all of his scenes he’s playing off Arnie,which is essentially talking at a brick wall. What’s the kid to do?
What shocked me most though was how absolutely terrible the special effects are. For 23 years, my main impression has always been: Well, the film’s a bit shit but I’ll admit the effects really were amazing. Especially for 1990.
The effects from the first film (1984) are dated, but remain convincing for the most part. The effects in Cameron’s Aliens (1986) have weathered extremely well. But neither is the case here and I’m not even talking about the rudimentary CGI liquid metal effects, the limitations of which I actually found quite easy to forgive. It’s the practical effects that are some of the worst I’ve seen.
When Arnie first appears, his time-bubble materializes partially in the middle of a truck trailer and about a foot below the surface of the parking lot. That’s a nice touch but the execution is a bit shoddy. The glowing red-hot metal where the time-bubble has burnt away the trailer looks like it was painted on about as convincingly as the phaser effects in original series Star Trek. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so critical of a 1990 film, but this wasn’t an episode of TOS (or even an early-80’s sci-fi/horror B-movie), it was touted as the most cutting-edge special effects movie of its year and this scene looks more out-of-date than it’s counterpart in the first Terminator.
That was pretty bad, but when Arnie shoots the T-1000 for the first time, the FX crew basically just tape some bent aluminum pie-plates to his shirt and call them bullet holes. You don’t even see it happen. His uniform is pristine, then cut to Arnie shooting, then cut back to the T-1000 and… Whoa! What’s that shit on his shirt? How’d those get there?
It’s like something out of an Ed Wood film.
I was awestruck.
WHAT AM I SEEING?
I made it as far as just after the first big chase scene and couldn’t take any more. I felt vindicated about my steadfast insistence that T2 was, in fact, a terrible film.
But I also felt oddly saddened by the knowledge just how terrible is really is.