For better or worse, Terminator 2: Judgement Day redefined blockbuster cinema 26 years ago. James Cameron’s blockbuster ushered in the era of CGI spectacle and its massive success helped reinforce the Hollywood mindset that was starting to take hold after Tim Burton’s Batman – franchises are all that matter. Now Cameron’s sequel masterwork is returning to theaters with a brand new 3D conversion, and while the film can still stand shoulder-to-shoulder just as well as any mega budgeted blockbuster opening today there’s simply no reason that Terminator 2 requires that extra dimension other than to scratch the itch of its director, who likely just wanted to experiment with the conversion technology.
Of course, we all know the story of Terminator 2 by now. In the future, a war rages between man and machine when the artificial intelligence system Skynet unleashes a nuclear holocaust, leaving a small group of humans to fight for the survival of the species. In 1984, the machines sent a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a killing machine disguised in living flesh, to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) before she can give birth to John Connor, who will lead the resistance. Years later, Sarah Connor is institutionalized and her son John (Edward Furlong) is living in a foster home. Another Terminator is sent back in time along with a T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a liquid metal prototype that can shapeshift, and the war for the future of humanity is to take place in the present. This time, however, one Terminator is a protector for John Connor and the other is the relentless hunter.
Beyond its technical achievement, which was revolutionary at the time, Terminator 2 is just a marvel of storytelling and pacing. James Cameron and co-writer William Wisher, Jr. build upon the mythology created with The Terminator as the story moves from location to location with new details about the nature of the machines and the war that wages in the not too distant future. The ebb and flow that Cameron crafts in Terminator 2 allows for thrilling, eye-popping action and then a modest lull to allow the audience to catch their breath before ramping up the action once again. It’s a model that is oft-imitated but never replicated, a stunning balance between an engaging story with strong characters and bombastic action spectacle, and the two never work against each other. Other action movies and the underwhelming Terminator sequels have tried to reach this level of balance and yet none have even come close to the iconic sequel.
The marketing for Terminator 2 did rob audiences of one of the more interesting aspects of the movie, something that Cameron takes great care to preserve in the film that was ruined by its trailers. Tasha Robinson of The Dissolve discussed this in great detail. In the opening of Terminator 2, it’s not clear exactly that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is going to be the good guy and Robert Patrick’s T-1000 the bad guy. It all builds to a showdown in the hallway of a mall. In slow motion, John Connor is trapped between the two killing machines. If not for the overeager marketing desperate to sell Arnold Schwarzenegger as the hero, this would’ve been a moment of immense intensity where we’re left to wonder who is good and who is evil before Arnold sheds his roses disguising his shotgun and yells, “Get down!” As far as history is concerned, I’d say the spoiler contained in the Terminator 2 trailer ranks only behind the original trailer for Brian De Palma’s Carrie.
Revisiting Terminator 2 for this 3D rerelease, it struck me just how much this movie invaded the popular psyche. Skynet has become shorthand for concerns about artificial intelligence and the fears that worst may occur if artificial intelligence ever achieves the singularity. Is it possible that people would be much more open to the concept of artificial intelligence if not for the apocalyptic nature of The Terminator movies? Is it possible that James Cameron, whose films have always pushed the limits of technology, created a science fiction film that ultimately hindered technological advances? In his gubernatorial run for California and during his two terms in office, Schwarzenegger employed many of the key phrases that were so iconic in Terminator 2, and the actor-turned-politician was labeled “The Governator” during his time in office. Terminator 2 has entered the American lexicon in a variety of ways that its legacy isn’t simply bound to the images on the screen.
As for the 3D conversion, it’s simply unnecessary. The extra dimension adds nothing to the film, but Cameron is such a fantastic director that the conversion doesn’t take away from the film. His action is so visually clear that nothing is incoherent. If you’ve never had the chance to catch Terminator 2: Judgement Day on the big screen, it’s worth tolerating the 3D just for the chance to witness the movie on a screen worthy of its scale. There’s a finality to Terminator 2 that the sequels, without the involvement of James Cameron, have desperately tried to undo in the hopes of milking just a little bit more of money out of the iconic series to diminishing results. Attempts to revive The Terminator series may never die, but no matter how bad the sequels get they can’t undo the greatness of Terminator 2. This is a movie that will live forever.