The Last Days – Chapter II – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991 – James Cameron)

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For seven years the money sat waiting to be taken.  It’s unimaginable today that a successful film failed to be followed up for seven years.  In a world where sequels can follow annually, that they took the time for James Cameron to be ready is extraordinary.

James Cameron has waited seven years (and counting) to shoot a sequel to Avatar (2009).

Almost as unimaginable is the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger.  A hulking, bronzed, close-to-emotionless behemoth, he strode across the cinema of the late eighties and nineties.  “Arnie” as he was affectionately known became the penultimate movie star; the second-to-last actor to be able to open a movie solely based on their name alone.  Your Brad Pitts and Matt Damons would kill for that ability.  He didn’t need a franchise to secure a career.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a sequel in the most traditional sense, a bigger, better, bolder continuation of a beloved film.  The Terminator (1984) is a brutal action picture covering up a deeply affectionate love story.  It also features one of the unspoken great car chases in cinematic history.  It made Arnold a star and Cameron a force to be reckoned with.  They came back together to make the first in a series of Cameron’s attempts to direct the biggest movie ever!

This movie was so big they didn’t even need to correct the spelling of the title.

* * *

For Arnold Schwarzenegger, cinema represented the ultimate capitalist fantasy.  Excess, luxury and material social mobility were represented best by the production of blockbuster movies.  His autobiography, other than being a 656-page extended apology to his ex-wife, repeats the lack of opportunity and brutality of his childhood in Austria.  Superficially, it’s hard to justify his ascent to being the biggest movie star in the world, but never underestimate the self-mythology of the American dream; anyone can make it here because this is the land of opportunity.  Arnie transformed his body into a caricature of comic-book style muscle and tan, gained exposure and entered the movie business.

Following some early films that warrant little attention as they try to squeeze Schwarzenegger’s preposterous frame into reality, Schwarzenegger’s breakout role was in Conan the Barbarian (1982 – John Milius).  Opening with an extended near-silent sequence that introduces us to the horror of Conan’s existence, the film becomes a violent fantasy world where the individual is able to maintain his integrity in the face of oppressive regimes.  For Milius and Schwarzenegger (and a whole swathe of America) it was a political fantasy as much as a fairy-tale fantasy, but Milius was the first to see the truth of Arnie – he was not, and could never be, a convincing everyman.  Cinema would have to expand to fit his frame.  Arnold would function best as living comic-book character.

James Cameron had done it all.  His reputation as a tyrant on set only really comes from the fact that he has fulfilled so many different roles within the production of movies, that he can probably do the job better than you can.  Beginning with The Terminator (more of which later) he begins forging a career of spectacle, becoming one of the pre-eminent post-New Hollywood film directors.  The movies of the eighties became easy to dismiss when compared the relative creative freedom of the seventies (though that earlier decade is remarkably hetero-normative and deeply sexist in a way that is never spoken about).  Fuelled by the success of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), cinema had become populist, spectacular and bombastic.  The most successful directors were operating in a steroid-enhanced, psycho-Spielberg mode.  They made films for everyone, and to this day, as anything that is unashamedly populist is, they were sneered at by many.

We go to the movies to see things we have never seen before.  We go to the movies to see things we cannot see.  The reason McTiernan, Cameron et. al. are worth discussing is because they trade in this imagery.  Our eyes are widened and our minds are opened by their movies.

These types of movies are vital.  Mainstream action movies that can be enjoyed by all ages of people and feature a huge element of fun and humour.  We can manage action movies and we can manage action-comedies, but it’s very hard to successfully put a large element of the latter in the former.  This style of movies originates in the Roger Moore Bond films, before finding their apotheosis in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981 – Steven Spielberg – it’s a shame we can’t talk more about him, but during the nineties he was simultaneously making children’s films and fulfilling his dream of winning an Oscar™).  This style of filmmaking fuels the action cinema of our decade, but is hard to detect nowadays, with even the most generous reading only finding a trace of it in the films of Edgar Wright and perhaps, perhaps, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014 – James Gunn).

Cameron developed a line of successful sequels.  Aliens (1986) and his original script for Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) feature plots that turn slow-burning psycho-dramas into violent action spectaculars.  More importantly, Cameron moved protagonists to the centre of his films, reframing experiences around their psychosis.  For Ripley and Rambo, closure only comes in the sequels through the confrontation of their original trauma.  It is an approach to sequels long-forgotten today.  Nowadays, we just have Captain America fight a different man in a costume.

Schwarzenegger continued a run of successful films, slowly gaining power within the industry and love amongst its audience.  Commando (1985 – Mark L. Lester), Predator (1987 – John McTiernan), Total Recall (1990 – Paul Verhooven) are all godfathers to the films we look at in this series, trading on Schwarzenegger’s ridiculous screen presence and revelling in the cinema of spectacle.  They are what the movies are made for.  Schwarzenegger was proving to be so popular, that when he turned his hand to comedy in Twins (1988 – Ivan Reitman), he was as much of a success as he was an action star.  He was uncontestably the biggest star on the planet.  And everywhere he went, people begged him for a sequel to The Terminator.

* * *

The Terminator was so beloved because whilst it is a terrifying action-thriller, it also a deeply moving love story.  It ticks all the boxes, and revealed Schwarzenegger to be a screen presence unlike any other.  It stirs in passions quite unlike other action movies of that decade.

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A terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Excerpted below is a piece of writing on the film by myself.  It shows the strength of feeling about this movie:

Why do I love The Terminator?  Because it’s a greater romance than Notting Hill (1999).

 

Who would have thought, that cinema, whose greatest strength is motion, would be dominated by such stillness?  That a body, wrapped in obsidian leather and sunglasses that reflect the merest hint of light (/hope?), would live on forever.

 

We fall in love with these images, scavenge for them among the waste of cinema, digging for more.  We return to them again and again, whilst we remain stationary in a slowly decaying society.  We accept the everyday injustice of the world, content to exist in the manner in which we have always lived.  Fearful of speaking out, we talk about talking.  Having a “conversation” about an issue is what we do instead of acting.  Even the actors just have the “conversation”.  All things tend towards entropy, but movie remain forever.  The bright spots will always be bright.  The blemishes, uncomfortable.  The failures, interesting, ready to be rescued from the wasteland.  The disappointments forgotten.

 

And we will travel back through them, attempting to rescue them and realign the future of cinema.  Awkward special effects become more “real” than ones and zeros produced on a computer.  We cry out for a return to the artistry of prosthetics long after the filmmaker has abandoned it for immersive pixels produced in New Zealand warehouses.

 

I love you The Terminator.  With your glittering car chase and immaculate leather.  I’m nothing more than a waitress and you saved me.  You pointed the way.  You took a boy and chiselled him into a machine.  You placed the future of cinema in his hands – Schwarzenegger, the penultimate movie star.  He would take a role that was little more than a mute and transform it into an icon.  He would grasp family films and action blockbusters, excel at each and then weld them together though sheer conviction.  No one cried out for them, he saw the way.  He had glimpsed the future and knew he had to dominate it.  The pretty boys would no longer be adequate.  The future belonged to a man bigger than the screen itself.

With that much passion, that much goodwill surrounding a movie, a sequel seems almost inevitable.  But sequels only existed when the original creative team returned.  You may not need the original director, as in the case of Jaws 2 (1978 – Jeannot Szwarc), Psycho II (1983 – Richard Franklin) and Die Hard II: Die Harder (1990 – Renny Harlin), but The Terminator was slightly different as Schwarzenegger and Cameron had only become bigger and bigger since the success of the first film.  Audiences were desperate, Cameron had a vision and Arnie a paycheque.  It was bound to be a success.

* * *

We open within the hostility of 1997.  In actual 1997, James Cameron will be the king of the world as he unveils Titanic upon an unsuspecting legion of teenage girls (and George Lucas, Frank Oz and Steven Spielberg who are befuddled by its success on The Phantom Menace DVD extras).  In cinematic 1997, we face a fate far worse than Leonardo DiCaprio’s Irish Jig.  A world, decimated by computer overlords that have turned against us.

T2 is an explicit repetition of The Terminator.  Its opening moments replay ideas and images from the first movie.  For James Cameron, this is crucial (see the opening stalk through the deserted spaceship corridors of Aliens) as a sequel must confront the horrific images which have indelibly burned their way into the minds of the protagonist (and us, as the audience), in order to overcome and surpass them.

Schwarzenegger storms through a bar, searching for clothes.  The role of the terminator explicitly played to his innate strengths – he has the strange, almost inhuman physique of an action figure.  But this film will seek to reflect the adoration in which he is held by the cinematic audience.  It will humanise him by giving moments of empathy and humour.  And it will impose on him a desire from an exclusively female audience.  Schwarzenegger is no mysterious object of sexuality; he is an object of lust, desired only by women.  The insistence that he is beautiful bizarrely contrasts with his automaton character – in a sense, he is the ultimate fucktoy.

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Genderfluidity in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

The T-1000 by contrast is genderfluid.  It changes, morphs, alters its identity according to its desires.  Simple binary definitions of gender and identity do not apply to it.  It is explicit in that it is identified as being a superior model to the simple heteronormativity of the T-800.  It’s almost as if the future path of sexuality is laid out in front of us…

Arnie has the overweening desire to be a hero.  Schwarzenegger’s world is charmingly black and white.  Capitalism is heroic, America is heroic, I am heroic.  He will only very rarely, and ever so slightly, shy away from his type – see Chapter IX.  There is no “…and you’ve never seen him like this before!” moment to his career.  At this stage, even the impressive weariness he brings to his contemporary roles is absent.  He is straightforward and secure; everything we want our American heroes to be.  Schwarzenegger is a more gifted actor than many will give him credit for.  His control over his body (and in particular, his facial muscles) is profound, and leads to presence diametrically opposed to the shifty, bombastic expression that many actors use to signify their role as the star of a movie.

Quite deliberately, Robert Patrick is no reasonable substitute.  It’s an astonishing performance…without a moment of star power.  Patrick belongs as a seventies action hero – a character actor with an attitude (something that Cameron’s original intention to have Lance Henriksen play the role of the terminator would have reflected).  He can only be crushed by the movie star.

It’s strange to remember a time when movie stars mattered, when the success of films depended on those names above the title.  We’ve replaced them, codified their appeal into franchises.  And yet…they remain the last great hope for us all.  A single star, a presence to guide us through the two-and-a-half hours of chaos that comes within an action picture is the most precious thing.  Movies just don’t matter as much since we started being able to rank the top five Batmans.

In opposition to the contrasting presentations of masculinity that T2 presents is the performance of Linda Hamilton.  Since the first movie she has changed her physicality quite dynamically.  No longer the girl-next-door, her body is a weapon, one as threatening to us as Arnie’s (if not more so given our repressive and simplistic expectations of feminine beauty).  The world around her rejects her form, as we will do, finding no place for her in the cinematic landscape.

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Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

It’s an astonishing performance because it forces us to confront our every notion of femininity.  She is not acceptably attractive.  Her mental health (the great unspoken secret of society) is laid bare.  Her rejection of motherhood (we first see her screaming at a playpark full of happy, smiling children) is apparent for much of the movie.  It is deeply unsettling to the conventional role that women play in these types of films.  Hamilton refuses to be a sidekick or love interest (unsurprising given her ability to transcend this role in the first film).  She is terrifying.  Resilient.  Capable.  Everything we don’t expect.

It’s telling that when the T-1000 reaches back in time, it takes the form of a police officer – a symbol of unfettered power.  From the moment it accesses the police computer to conduct a personal search, the character comes to represent every evil enacted by an individual given the power to oppress others.  He is free to move, enquire, kill any individual he wants to.  It’s almost documentarian in its representation…

Corrupt cops.  Genderfluidity.  New forms of feminism.  James Cameron is sneaking a lot into the movie…

The Terminator movies hinge on the ability to transform the past.  Every movie ends on the suggestion that the heroes have averted the dystopian future.  Every sequel reveals this suggestion to be false, and this future is unprevented.  Time travel exists as an ultimate fantasy – the imaginings we have to go back and correct the errors that haunt us and fill us with guilt.  But for James Cameron, time travel is a way to correct the future, to transform the world into something better.  He is an exquisitely optimistic filmmaker, presenting movies where new eras of humanity dawn (profoundly felt in The Abyss (1989) and Avatar (2009)).  Even unmitigated disasters, such as the one presented in Titanic (1997) are filtered through his lense and become transformative experiences of love.

Within this, Cameron has a tendency to shy away from showing moments of extreme horror.  He understands the effectiveness of the cut…that sometimes the things we don’t see are more terrible than the things we do see.  True horror can be captured in performance.  Is there a cinematic moment as terrifying as the scene where Sarah Connor sees the terminator for the first time in seven years?  He follows in the tradition of Hitchcock, who shows so little and simultaneously so much during the infamous show scene in Psycho (1960).  Perhaps, Avatar would have been a little more enjoyable if a little less had been shown…

This sequel’s quite deliberate attempt to revisit and reframe the events of the first film lead to some extraordinary moments.  Liquid metal morphing into new forms.  Trucks ploughing through Los Angeles.  Terminators cracking and shattering as they tear each other apart.  The highs of this film are high.  There are moments where this film eclipses the first.  But it is tonally uneven.  At the 1:10 mark, they film slips from being a brutal thriller into some kind of family action caper.  There’s nothing wrong with the latter (Cameron will master this form in True Lies (1994)), but the inconsistency is disruptive.  I’m not sure anyone signed up to see Arnold Schwarzenegger learn to become a human by talking like a Hero Turtle.

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The appeal of Schwarzenegger – Big Fucking Guns.  Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Schwarzenegger is a strange presence in action movies.  His appeal lies not in his athleticism or physical dexterity.  Instead, his appeal lies in his ability to hold a very large gun and mow people down with its bullets.  The film has a strange relationship with murder.  It simultaneously condemns it and revels in the gleeful destruction of human flesh.  This is symptomatic of the genre.

For our hero, the destruction of the flesh is the ultimate indignity.  Schwarzenegger, the living embodiment of physical perfection, becomes destroyed, collapsed, stripped of his humanity.  It is better to destroy yourself than continue in a broken body.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day provided everything we wanted.  It was bigger, better and reflected the growing status of its star and director.  And yet…the simplistic thriller of its father film ultimately prove more satisfying.

* * *

 

Cameron would not allow the film to sit still.  He would, as he did with the majority of his films, revise and re-edit it in later years.  Alongside Michael Mann and Ridley Scott, Cameron is the great tinkerer, never satisfied with a film, always finding new shades of the story to be told.  No great work is ever completed, only abandoned.  For Cameron in particular, director’s cuts represented the opportunity to develop and reinstate sequences that relied on extensive special effects, where upon the original release date, time and money did not allow for satisfactory completion.  The special edition of the film creates a greater sense of the interiority of Sarah Connor and the persistence of which the trauma of the original film haunts her.  It adds moments of charm to the characters that appear within.  The unauthorised ultimate edition features a rather stupid scene where Linda Hamilton wears terrible prosthesis and gives us hope from the future.

In reality, there would be no hope in the future.  The Terminator franchise would dwindle before our very eyes.  In 2003, Schwarzenegger would return to the role in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.  The name alone conjures images of a factory plant churning out these films.  Cameron was nowhere to be seen.  T3 repeats the repetition of the first sequel by replaying the same scenario.  A terminator from the future (this time the lady-terminator T-X) travels back in time to kill John Connor.  The T-800 comes back to protect him.  Chases on trucks are repeated with little innovation brought to the screen.  The film fails because it is unable to build upon the trauma of the previous films; closure has already been experienced.

The franchise would continue, slowly and steadily.  From 2008-2009 a mouthful of a television series called the Sarah Connor Chronicles ignored the events of T3 and continued the story of Sarah and John Connor.  Despite some nice moments, including some genuinely surprising moments of suicide, it was woodenly acted and uncompelling.  Plus, it’s TV – it’s indifferently directed at best.  The best television can hope to be is a shit movie.

In 2009, the ridiculously named McG would direct an Arnie-less film set in the dystopian future called Terminator: Salvation and in 2015 a slight reboot of the franchise would occur in Terminator Genisys.  It couldn’t be clearer that in the eyes of the movie producers, an age where a visionary director was essential to a successful sequel was over.  But neither of these films were substantially popular, and the Terminator franchise faced a dead end.

James Cameron went from strength to strength after T2True Lies (1994) was a shamelessly populist family action adventure movie.  Funny, thrilling and featuring some extraordinary stunts and scenes, it was Bond movie in the way the Bond movies are now afraid to be, so concerned have they been since the late-eighties with seriousness and the inner-psychology of their simplistic hero.  Titanic in 1997 defied expectations.  The next “most expensive film ever made” produced by Cameron, it was willed by many in the industry before its release to be a failure.  A combination of a deeply appealing young star, heartfelt, emotional story and thrilling last hour (where Cameron uniquely captured the disorientation of the maze of corridors of the ship sinking into saltwater) caused the film to be phenomenally successful.

And then…not much.  Cameron was never the most prodigious filmmaker, but in the twenty-odd years since the release of Titanic we have only seen one film.  And Avatar (2009) is a glorious mess – simple love story, hyper-real fantasy worlds, thrilling action and adventure…and so very, very dumb.  But it was unlike anything we’d ever seen before, and isn’t that a reason why we go to the movies?  It ended up being the new most successful film ever made.  Nigh ten years have passed since its release…

Cameron will regain the rights to the Terminator franchise in a few years…it remains to be seen whether he will be engaged enough to revisit his deeply popular characters, or whether he will still be busy on Pandora.

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