Ah, the summer of 1991. I remember it well. My family lived in Michigan at the time, and my dad was temporarily deployed for a year and currently stationed somewhere in Guam. Yeah, I was a military brat with military brat friends and spent much of that year exploring and playing in the nearby woods.
Yet, while we were running around like idiots, one of the most exciting pop culture events was occurring at the local movie theater — and we had no idea. At that point, movies had yet to consume my life. I recall seeing The Rocketeer that summer season, diving headfirst into Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves when it hit video the following Spring and going bananas over Steven Spielberg’s Hook that Christmas … but that was about it. So, when my friends started talking about a shape-shifting robot duking it out with the guy from Kindergarten Cop in a little movie called Terminator 2: Judgment Day, my genuine, no BS reaction was, “Well, who wants to see that?”
As it turns out, quite a lot of people wanted to see that, which is why T2, as it was dubbed, eventually grossed a massive $520 million worldwide, becoming one of the biggest blockbusters of its day.
The first scene I ever saw was that bit where the T-1000 rose out of the floor to kill that poor security guard — part of a demo reel showing off the film’s FX during the Academy Awards. And yet, I don’t think I actually saw the film until a friend of mine lent me his copy around summer 1994. The only reason I watched it at the time was because everyone I knew was talking about True Lies, which, one of my friends exclaimed, was from the same guy who made Terminator 2.
Naturally, after watching T2, my young teenage mind exploded. The action. The ambition. The FX. Everything worked so well. Is it wrong to suggest that the opening sequence ranks among the best opening sequences in cinema history? I mean, imagine watching 1984’s The Terminator and then stumbling across this:
My brother and I often discuss which films we would love to have seen in theaters on opening night, and T2 definitely ranks up there alongside Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aliens, and Predator as a guaranteed, “Holy s—, I can’t believe what I’m watching” type of film.
However, perhaps the greatest aspect of T2 is its rewatch factor. Here is a blockbuster summer film packed to the brim with thought-provoking ideas that work perfectly in tandem with its astonishing action and well-developed characters.
Speaking on that last point, and finally arriving at, well, the point of this particular article (beyond merely praising a film that has been showered with praise since its release), while Terminator 2 is very clearly an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, the MVP of the pic is Linda Hamilton’s chiseled-to-the-brink-of-insanity Sarah Connor.
Not exactly a hot take, I know, but Sarah’s role (and, by default, Hamilton’s performance) typically get lost amongst the aforementioned conversations about the FX, action, and spectacle. Indeed, as a kid, I paid very little attention to Sarah and only recognized the pivotal role she plays in the story once my mind morphed from a junk-consuming blob to a complex organ capable of retaining information vital to the survival of my species.
What makes Sarah unique is her journey. And while T2 works largely as a standalone film, the original Terminator is necessary viewing if only to witness Sarah’s shocking transformation from the mousy waitress to steely-eyed badass:
Or, at least that’s how the film initially sets her up — as (in trailer guy voice) a badass warrior with some kickin’ deltoids.
As the story progresses, however, we see that Sarah’s knowledge of the future has quite literally nuked her present life. She cares for her son, John, the future leader of mankind, but only because he’s the key to her mission. Throughout the film, we see Sarah as a disconnected individual whose compassion for humanity has dissolved into a pure rage to the point where she quite literally becomes a friggin’ terminator:
I can’t remember who first pointed it out to me, but notice how the red dot sight on Sarah’s gun literally looks like the eyes of a T-800:
That’s one of those subtle visual cues I somehow missed over the course of 2,000 viewings, mostly because I wasn’t really looking for it (and also because, as stated, my mind was equal to that of a hamster’s). Much of my attention remained fixed on Arnold, John, the T-1000, and the spectacle, so much so that I paid little thought to how the plot more or less revolves around Sarah’s actions.
She provides the voice-over for cripes sake!
Still, it’s these little details that make Terminator 2 such a landmark film and are sorely missed in the many disappointing sequels that followed. James Cameron, as he did with Aliens, certainly ups the action and scale of the production but also takes the time to further expand his characters. My brother constantly noted how Edward Furlong’s John Connor slowly develops as a leader throughout the film — his refusal to kill is ultimately what makes him the proper commander of the resistance, even over more physically capable characters like Sarah — while Arnold’s soulless killing machine is given more dimension as he learns to, well, learn and better understand human compassion. His increased empathy works in direct contrast to Sarah’s increased ruthlessness. It’s fascinating stuff.
Perhaps the emotional peak of Sarah’s journey arrives after she fails to kill Miles Dyson. (The bit occurs right around the 2:40 mark in the clip below.)
As a great many others have pointed out in other articles, after her emotional reconnection with John (and the world), Cameron dresses Sarah in the same trench coat style Kyle Reese wore in the original Terminator. It’s a cool visual flourish that subtly reinforces the character’s growth.
Everything in Terminator 2 works in conjunction to bring real emotion to the film’s superb climax:
The only downside to T2 is that it led to four truly awful films. While Hamilton would eventually return in Terminator: Dark Fate, in which her character leaps out of a truck to blast a terrifying robot without much difficulty before dropping an “I’ll be back,” by then the series, like Sarah, had morphed into a pale imitation of its former self and completely lost sight of the nuances that made The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day such beloved classics.
So, while we may never get another great Terminator film, we can still salute T2 as one of the best blockbusters of the modern age, thank James Cameron for giving us an action-packed journey full of style, substance, and soul, and salute Linda Hamilton as one of the more complex and memorable action heroes of all time.