Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Ten years have passed since a T-800 came back in time to kill her, and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is still having trouble dealing with it. She's being held in a mental institution due to her insistence that a malignant computer system is going to start a nuclear war before eventually sending back a cyborg to kill her before she can birth the leader of the human rebellion [deep breath]. Meanwhile, said son John (Edward Furlong) is a 10-year-old living with foster parents and thinks his mom is insane. That is, until a T-1000 (Robert Patrick) tries to kill him, followed by another T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who has now been programmed (by future John) to protect him.
"Critical" Analysis:Terminator 2 will be re-released in theaters this weekend. There’s no apparent significance to the timing — it was originally released in July 1991, though we’re close to the 20-year anniversary of Skynet becoming self-aware — so as naked money grabs go, you could probably do worse. Watching it now, 26 years later, it’s significant for the note of optimism it strikes, in sharp contrast to the first movie.
The original Terminator, recall, came out in 1984. The same year President Reagan “joked” about bombing the Soviet Union and a year after The Day After. To say nuclear holocaust was fresh in our minds would be something of an understatement, and the Terminator, herald of a terrifying near-future in which a malevolent A.I. unleashed Armageddon, presented this scenario as an inevitability. “He says a storm is coming,” the old gas-station attendant tells Sarah Connor before she drives off into the Mexican hinterlands, and she (and we) all knew it to be true.
Cut to 1991: the Berlin Wall is no more, and the Soviet Union was on the brink of total dissolution. Director James Cameron, who’d been attempting to make a second Terminator since the late '80s, enjoyed a happy confluence of Carolco retaining the sequel rights and special effects reaching a point where he could finally realize his liquid-metal villain. Terminator 2 made $54 million on its opening (5-day) weekend and would be the highest grossing movie of 1991, eventually taking in $205 million domestically compared to the first movie’s $38 million. Not too shabby.
T2 would also be Cameron's second time following up a horror movie with an action sequel (the first: Aliens). Of course, this time they were both movies he directed. Similarly, it's difficult to say which Terminator movie is "better." Alien, for example, is one of the finest horror movies ever made, and its sequel is a top-notch action flick. The original Terminator is an often terrifying film, thanks in large part to the unexpected authenticity of Schwarzenegger's implacable villain (and the terrifying visions of humanity's post-apocalyptic future).
Which is why — wait for it — Terminator 2 is inferior to its predecessor. Yes, the effects are fantastic (no less a fanboy than Bill Hicks proclaimed the stunts the greatest he'd ever seen), and there's not much more gratifying than a still-in-his-prime Ah-nold unleashing hell on, well, scores of unsuspecting cops (hey, they were knee shots; those guys are fine!). But It's all deliberately...likable: Schwarzenegger repurposed into a crowd-pleasing character and not the nightmare fuel of the first movie.
Cameron clearly wanted to capture the optimism of the time, to the detriment of the finished product. Making the Terminator a Good Guy steals his mystique, and the CGI T-1000 is a poor substitute. Furlong's unpleasant John Connor almost has us rooting for the robots, which is sort of the opposite of ideal. Much props have to be given to Hamilton, however, for going all-in as the almost(?) psychotically obessed Sarah Connor.
Terminator 2 is a good movie, even if the kinder, gentler T-800 would unfortunately end up becoming the norm and Guns N' Roses would be encouraged to release an uneven double album thanks to the success of the tie-in single. But it's not as great as the original, and it marks the descent of the franchise into incoherence. Check it out if you're so inclined (and your neighborhood isn't flooded), but realize you're lining the pockets of the guy who dissed Wonder Woman.
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