Weekend Retrospective - Back in Black

PERFECT SCORE: TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991)

'Good morning, Dr. Silberman... how's the knee?'

It's a big cliché but it is really hard to imagine a time when computer effects were so primitive that film makers couldn't just do anything they felt like. Someone would have an idea they wanted to see on screen, and more than one approach could be considered. Throw in some puppets, a bit of animation, a couple of miniatures. It's all part of a bag of tricks. Even Jurassic Park, lauded for its computer advances was planned as a feature that would use stop motion as well as the big practical creations. It could have been the swan song for Ray Harryhausen's style of movie monsters, or even boosted the popularity of those classic techniques. But there was a new deal breaker on the horizon. Shows like Insektors and ReBoot began to use computer animation and it gained traction even before Pixar broke new ground with Toy Story. All it would take was one idea to make it a big deal for live action films.

 

James Cameron's Terminator sequel had that idea ready to go; his plan for an indestructible liquid killing machine been set aside in 1984 to be used when the technology would make it possible. This time around things had begun to take shape. In some instances I can imagine some of those famous sequences being done differently, by using the practical effects Stan Winston already provided or even with traditional animation techniques. It's interesting to consider how each shot using that iconic morphing effect might have been done just five years earlier, if they put their minds to it. But the ground work done had already been laid, and after creating the water tendril for The Abyss it was the logical choice.

Beyond the visual effects work there's a lot to enjoy about T2. 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, since each is perfect in its own way. While Sigourney Weaver's ass kicking return slightly wins out for me, the original Terminator pretty much equals the film making calibre of the follow up - despite it almost losing out for the number of bad hairdos alone. But while I love all this stuff Kyle and Sarah's extended chase sequence is something I will leave for another time.

The return of Arnold as the T-800 represents not only a new age in amazing effects, but also a kind of anti-authority cinema which is often avoided these days. The light hearted moments during the road trip style journey are extremely contrasted next to the downbeat themes - Cold War nuclear weapons and techno fear are still major elements. There's a mean spirited aspect to many of the characters and settings. John and Sarah are anti-heroes living outside of the law, the villainous T-1000 abuses the uniform it wears, and other authority figures like hospital orderlies are portrayed purely as antagonists. They're never shown as sympathetic, and soon see the receiving end of broom handles, tear gas, as well as knives and stabbing weapons. The idea that 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 spectacle in the wrong hands. Perhaps cold, calculating machines ruling everything isn't such a big change when so many authority figures lack humanity.


The protagonists themselves are a compelling bunch, with Linda Hamilton portraying a damaged action hero, broken by her knowledge of the future than creates the father of her child and the machines that want her dead. It's a great exploration of the character, allowing for moments of both nightmare fuelled paralysis and decisive action. The basic movie is almost identical to the first instalment, but these kind of developments make it satisfying. Elsewhere there's a decent juvenile delinquent turn from Edward Furlong who isn't wholly terrible as child actor (perhaps with the exception of that 'she's gonna blow him away!' line) and a few good supporting roles such as Joe Morton as A.I. creator Dyson, and the welcome return of Earl Boen as sleazy analyst Dr. Silberman.

Overall the writing and performances bring this all together, even during the ham and cheese moments that during the some comic relief moments. It never ruins the idea this is a serious storyline with real stakes despite some goofball Arnold lines along the way. Of course we have to mention Robert Patrick who provides an iconic villain. His unnervingly friendly yet detached performance creates a big bad that is more than just a gimmicky computer generated character. Tonally it works, from his sadistic turns to the sillier finger wagging moments. It's this kind of mixture which keeps things interesting. 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? The nightmare fuel is balanced out to keep things entertaining as these characters develop.

Elsewhere all the ingredients are just as well balanced. The unnatural percussion in Brad Fidel's score works perfectly as a follow up to his sinister work on the original, with more mechanical heartbeat sounds and eerie mood establishing tunes. Visually the film even does the whole teal and orange thing in a way that actually has some meaning. The coldness linking the T-1000's brutal first appearance and things like the first Cyberdyne lab scene is clear, while the sunshine of John's foster home shows a brief moment of humanity, despite its imperfections. These kind of visual cues set out the harsh divide between cruelty and compassion as things progress. The atmosphere is distinct and the inhumane treatment in the cold Pescadaro cells is directly contrasted against the warmth of scenes in Mexico depicting Sarah's allies.


The same kind of meticulous work can be found in the action set pieces. There are a lot of little touches, whether it's creativity or just attention to detail - just check out the T-1000 growing an extra arm during the helicopter chase to use guns while flying. The action in general is incredible, again building on similar moments from the original. There are still big rigs and motorcycles, but it manages to feel fresh. Nothing about it is unsatisfying, and everything is pushed to its logical end. Even the way the liquid metal is treated covers all the bases - it gets melted, blown up, frozen, sliced, and riddled with bullets. There are no options left uncovered.

If there are any things that raise an eyebrow or two it would probably be the time travel aspect. After all the original was pretty well though out paradox style loop in the vein of Twelve Monkeys, where this changes it for the kind of shenanigans from Back to the Future. This plays around with things more and feels looser, with things like the shades and the biker leathers being added just because they are iconic. But it's just too enjoyable to really complain. This is a pretty well liked piece of entertainment, but looking at just why all of this works so well raises plenty of points of interest. There are a lot of harrowing moments, but I think it shows you can get away with certain things with the right of amount of depth and personality. After all blockbusters should have brains and not just be a hollow spectacle. Strangely a film about technology and ideas from another era has been built to last.

5/5