Say what you will about James Cameron, but the man commits. Stories of the director’s perfectionism, his control-freak mania and his sheer drive are legion, but I’m talking about something more fundamental to the work itself. Whereas most action filmmakers are content to let emotion and morality take a back seat to the more immediate, commercial elements of their movies, Cameron refuses to relegate such things to the background. The love story in Titanic isn’t just an excuse to stage an extravagant disaster flick; it becomes the picture’s raison d’etre (and, not coincidentally, a key factor in its success). The environmental and anticolonialist overtones of Avatar aren’t there merely to provide some character shading; they practically take over. And now, back in theaters and converted to 3-D, is Cameron’s classic sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day — not a movie about robots and humans fighting to prevent a nuclear apocalypse but rather a movie obsessed with nuclear apocalypse.
Maybe that wasn’t so clear back in 1991, when it originally came out. The Iron Curtain had recently fallen, effectively ending the Cold War and seemingly lifting the nuclear threat. I distinctly remember Sarah Connor’s occasional ruminations on the fate of the human race eliciting chuckles in my theater at the time. Today, however, the overwhelming despair of T2 is impossible to ignore. This is one of the most upsetting blockbusters ever.
In 1984, Cameron’s original Terminator played a key role in turning Arnold Schwarzenegger into a massive global star, and it was a nasty, brutish little beast of a movie — an R-rated horror flick posing as a sci-fi thriller. But it worked (and became a hit) because, playing a killer super-robot sent from the future by our machine overlords to murder the young woman (Linda Hamilton) who would give birth to the leader of the human resistance, Schwarzenegger (and Cameron) used his considerable limitations as an actor to his advantage. Thus did Arnold become an icon of Reaganite, muscles-and-guns spectacle: a terse, emotionless robot racking up an insane body count with an assortment of heavy weaponry.
But by the time T2 rolled around, Schwarzenegger had begun to pursue a softer, cuddlier image. He’d expanded his, um, “range” with comedies such as Twins (1988) and Kindergarten Cop (1990). He’d married a Kennedy. There were reports that he was considering politics. (He did eventually become governor of California; that is indeed a thing that happened.) T2 was thus easy to see as image rehabilitation: This time, Arnold would be playing a robot sent to protect Sarah and her teenage son (Edward Furlong) — a terminator under orders not to kill anybody. (Sure enough, the film features a reassuring glimpse of his robot-brain readout informing him that he has inflicted “0.0 human casualties” after mowing down a small army of cop cars. All the mayhem, none of the guilt.) The bad guy this time wouldn’t be the beefy Austrian but the slender, sleeker T-1000 (Robert Patrick), an even more advanced robot built from “mimetic polyalloy,” able to assume any shape or identity he touches.
T2, while critically acclaimed and immensely successful at the box office, was thus seen by some as a kind of impostor cousin to the first film. Its critics grudgingly admired the bravura hugeness of its action and its revolutionary special effects. (This was one of the first widespread uses of computer-generated “morphing” technology, which allowed faces and objects to seamlessly, dreamily transform into other faces and objects.) But to many, the movie was too slick, too eager to please — a big, expensive Hollywood product lacking the allegedly more authentic and sleazy edge of the original.
Watching T2 today, you can see why it nevertheless resonated 25 years ago. Yes, there’s the expertise of Cameron’s filmmaking, made visceral in this new 4K restoration (which doesn’t gain noticeable extra pop from the 3-D; seeing it on a big screen is draw enough). But the movie’s true power stems from his ability to tap into fears not just of mechanization and dehumanization (notions that Schwarzenegger embodies in his very persona) but also of human obsession and transformation. When we meet Sarah here, she’s far from the soft-featured club girl of the first film, having turned herself into a lean, mean survivalist with a cold, raspy voice. The amount of time the film devotes to Sarah, John and the T-800’s attempts to track down Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) and stop him from creating the microchip that will power the machines that will take over the Earth is telling. So is the question of whether Sarah is justified in wanting to kill Dyson, who has no idea what the future holds for his inventions. (It’s a variation on the baby-Hitler debate, though in this case Dyson is ultimately more than willing to destroy his own creation.)
Cameron has always been fully conversant in the tough-guy vernacular of guns, bluster and manly-man mythology. T2’s vision of Arnold walking naked into a biker bar, beating the crap out of everybody and stealing a guy’s leather jacket, boots and motorcycle — all while “Bad to the Bone” plays on the radio — is an engorged wet dream of macho fetish objects. But there’s a hyper-sensitive sincerity to the director, too, a soft side that can turn Aliens (1986) into a movie about the maternal impulse, or The Abyss (1989) into one about the salvation of a rocky marriage. In T2, that tendency manifests itself in Sarah’s revulsion at a world of men who will eventually destroy the human race, and in the film’s ironic recognition that, for all the terminator’s oft-noted inability to feel emotion, he seems to show more compassion and loyalty than many of the humans around him do.
But most of all, that earnestness is visible in the specter of nuclear annihilation that haunts this film. It’s there in the opening images of a crowded contemporary L.A. freeway turned into a futuristic wasteland of broken skulls and twisted metal. It’s there in Sarah’s nightmare vision (now a popular GIF for our social-media age) of watching a children’s playground (and herself) reduced to ash, wind and fire. It’s there in the very presence of both Terminators, and also in the film’s revelatory special effects. In 1991, you watched T2 and saw characters triumphant over runaway technology and all-powerful computers, but you also experienced a movie that by its very existence demonstrated just how powerful computers were becoming. By the end, Sarah Connor says she’s optimistic, but the images and sounds accompanying her voice-over suggest something else. She speaks in that same cautious rasp, and we see a pitch-black highway. The music broods with menace. Sarah may speak of hope — as did our leaders at the time — but it’s clear that the monsters are still out there.