Weekend Retrospective - Back in Black

TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991)

It's a big cliché but it is really hard to imagine now a time when computer effects were so primitive. What I mean is a time when someone would have an idea they wanted on screen, and more than one approach could be considered. After all, even Jurassic Park was planned as a feature using a mix of puppetry, practical effects and stop motion. It could have been the swan song of Ray Harryhausen's era of movie monsters or even boosted the popularity of those techniques. Growing up with the release of shows like Insektors and ReBoot, computer animation was definitely gaining speed even before Pixar broke new ground with Toy Story; so in a way it seems to have always been around for me.

Terminator 2 had that big new idea - an indestructible liquid killing machine. Looking at all of the visual effects used, in places I can imagine some of those effects being done differently with the practical effects Stan Winston already provided or even standard animation and camera tricks. The T-1000 remains a ground breaking creation of course but it's interesting to consider each shot using that iconic morphing effect and think how they might have done it just 5 years earlier - though it seems like a logical choice after the work done creating the water tendril for The Abyss.

Much like Alien and Aliens, we could be here all day discussing whether the sequel was a better movie. In a back and forth Smeagol type debate I have often considered this, and while Sigourney Weaver's ass kicking return edges it for me, the original Terminator just about equals the film making calibre of T2 despite it almost losing out on the number of bad hairdos alone. I like them both a great deal but won't go into Kyle and Sarah's extended chase sequence here; I'll give them joint status as classics and leave discussion of the first film for another day.

 

As well as representing new and amazing amazing effects and high standards in production values, T2 has also become a product of another era in cinema which has long been avoided since The Matrix lobby shootout in a post 9/11 world. The light hearted aspects of it's (at times) family road trip style journey are extremely contrasted next to the downbeat nuclear weapons and techno fear themes running throughout the movie; after all the Cold War had only come to an end a few short years before it's release. It's got a mean spirited anti authority aspect to many of the characters and settings - John and Sarah are anti-heroes living outside of the law, the villain abuses the position given by the uniform it wears, and state authorities are shown in a negative light with hospital orderlies and police officers soley there to provide antagonists. They are never sympathetic even on the receiving end of broom handles, tear gas canisters or knives and stabbing weapons. The idea these figures are foolishly bringing about the end of the world by stopping our heroes at every turn adds an interesting layer to a story that could have been a simple action fest in the wrong hands. It forces you to consider that perhaps cold, calculating machines ruling everything isn't such a big change.

Ignoring the technology used to create the film's effects for a moment, it's a classic for many other reasons. Strong capable female lead? Ethnically diverse computer genius? A child actor that isn't horrible? (Okay the exception being that "she's gonna blow him away" line) All of these great elements because of writing and performance. Even the ham and cheese moments that come along when there's some comic relief never ruins the idea this is a serious storyline with real stakes despite some goofball Arnold lines. Robert Patrick provides an unnervingly friendly approach to the big bad instead of reducing him to a computer generated villain, and tonally it works even with his finger wagging moments. After all, where else would you see the horrific results of a nuclear blast in the same movie as all those robotic fish out of water moments? It provides some real nightmare fuel while at the same time keeping you watching as these characters go through their development.




Of course it helps that everything is so well made. The unnatural percussion in Brad Fidel's score works perfectly. Even the look of the film does the whole teal and orange thing in a way that actually has meaning - the difference between the T-1000's arrival or the early Cyberdyne lab scene against the sunshine of John's foster home creates a visual cue showing the harsh divide of man and machine, and an instant atmosphere is given to places where people are treated inhumanely at Pescadaro next to the warmth of scenes showing Sarah's allies and their family. All the set pieces are incredibly well crafted too - even the little touches. The helicopter chase is amazing, but noticing things like the T-1000 growing an extra hand to shoot and pilot at the same time just makes it better. It never feels unsatisfying even down to the ways the liquid metal is treated - it gets burnt, blown up, frozen, sliced, riddled with bullets; I think they got everything you could think of in there.

This is probably one of the more universally liked films I've ever discussed here so in a way something that's unnecessary to talk about; but I found that thinking about just why all of this works so well raised some interesting points. After all blockbusters should have brains and not just be a hollow and dumb spectacle, somehow it's fitting that a film about artificial intelligence has been built to last.