August 29th? It’s Judgment Day! Or at least it would have been, 20 years ago in 1997, if not for the brave actions of mental patient Sarah Connor, her juvenile delinquent son John, and a reprogrammed T-800 killing machine sent back from the future, who didn’t even have a name, poor thing. To commemorate their selfless work, Terminator 2: Judgment Day has been newly remastered in gorgeous 4K, and also rejiggered for 3D, which is entirely superfluous: it adds nothing to the film, but at least it doesn’t detract from it (as some earlier 3D conversions have). Still, it means we get the chance to see this masterpiece of an action movie on a big screen once more, so it’s all good. (A newly remastered soundtrack is available, too.)
I’m pretty sure I had not seen T2 on a big screen since its original release in 1991 until I attended a recent press screening of the new 3D version, and everything about it holds up remarkably well. Seeing it again cemented it as one of my most favorite movies ever. T2 is edging on toward being 30 years old, and even its pioneering playing-around with CGI still looks amazing. (It won the Oscar for FX that year, and rightfully so.) I’m sure there were good practical reasons for being so circumspect with the liquid-metal morphing — it would have been hella expensive to produce — but it only adds to the suspense and the shock of it, which remains extremely effective even when you know what’s coming. I’m thinking particularly of our introduction to the T-1000 Terminator played by Robert Patrick (Kill the Messenger, Identity Thief): we see it arrive naked in pre-nuked Los Angeles, but we don’t actually see what transpires between it and the LAPD cop it encounters. We of course presume that, after killing the cop, it steals his uniform, per the classic movie cliché (one that is also tweaked by how the T-800 acquires its clothing). It’s only much later, when we understand what the T-1000 is capable of, that we realize that it only needed to touch the cop to copy the appearance of a uniform.
James Cameron (Avatar, Aliens of the Deep), as writer (with William Wisher Jr.: The 13th Warrior) and director, gets a lot of very successful mileage out of playing with action movie tropes, most notably in the sheer relentlessness of the T-1000. By now — I mean, by 2017 — seemingly unstoppable, unkillable action villains and heroes has gone well beyond cliché to the point of implausibility, but the cleverness of the Terminators as a creative invention remains absolute brilliance. They are almost literally unstoppable, and almost literally unkillable, and Cameron upped the ante on himself from 1984’s The Terminator with the T-1000. (I once went through a period of having horrifying nightmares about Robert Patrick, which I blame entirely how chills-inducingly terrifying he is in this movie.) And yet the T-1000 is not magic, and there are plausible limitations to what it can do: I love the scene in which the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger: Aftermath, Maggie) explains to young John Connor (Edward Furlong: The Green Hornet) about how it cannot make guns or bombs, and why. But it will keep getting up and keep running after you, and that’s enough! (Speaking of strength and power with just a hint of vulnerability: I love the bit in which Sarah [Linda Hamilton], who is so robust and capable, simply melts into a puddle of terror when faced with the reappearance of the T-800, which she of course presumes is there to kill her. She’s not completely invincible either, and that’s so much more interesting than if she were.)
There’s just one thing that doesn’t quite make sense about T2, and it never occurred to me until this recent viewing, so it’s clearly not an issue that ruins the film. Just when is this taking place? In T2 it is confirmed that the events of The Terminator took place in 1984, so we know that John was born in late 1984 or in 1985. He’s around 11 or 12 here, which means this is set somewhere between 1995 and 1997… yet we’re also told that Judgment Day, which is supposed to happen in 1997, is still more than three years away from events that take place here. Is the timeline getting even more jumbled up with all the messing around it’s seeing? Happily, with a science-fiction time-travel story, there are always workarounds that can be found to account for mixed-up dates. I just haven’t hit on a good one yet.
It’s fascinating to look back at T2 now and realize that it was created in that tiny little temporal gap after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 but before the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Was it reflecting a general consensus that the Cold War and its threat of nuclear annihilation was coming to an end but that some other apocalyptic fear would inevitably take its place? (It’s also kind of fun — though maybe that’s not quite the right word — to note that The Matrix’s AI-induced nuclear apocalypse occurs right around the same time as that of the Terminator series, and could actually be the same event.) It’s pretty incredible that T2 still feels fresh not only technically but thematically: just as Judgment Day keeps getting pushed back in the series, so it does in the real world, and that feeling of living on borrowed time continues to linger. “It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves,” the T-800 tells John, and we haven’t outrun that yet.