Terminator 2 bungles two narrative devices in its opening half hour.
The first is the delivery of the twist that Arnold is a hero this time around. The movie sort of wants this to be a surprise, but not that much. If it did, it would have made Robert Patrick much less suspicious and made Arnold a bit more ominous. And so the moment when Arnold protects John Connor in a mall is a bit of a shrug rather than an “oh shit!”
The second is so minor I’m not even sure James Cameron intended it: The suggestion that some or all of what we saw in the first movie might be due to a mental delusion by Sarah Connor, now committed to an asylum. There’s certainly a way Cameron could have crafted a more psychological, ambiguous film that teased out this premise, but the movie never leaves doubt that Connor is lucid and we should trust everything we have and will see.
What we’re left with is a messy start to a film that really should have been trimmed: Terminator 2 is a half hour longer than its precursor. Most of that is more set pieces, which are universally great, but it still results in an exhausting film. Four-quadrant tentpoles shouldn’t flirt with 2.5 hours. (Cough, MCU.)
There are a few things that Terminator 2 gets unquestionably right. The first is the production values and translating budget to spectacle. This is a proper blockbuster action flick with cutting-edge and effective CGI (the uncanny liquid-metal effect is never not cool and creepy) and massive scope, especially in its road chase scenes.
The other thing Cameron nails is giving his two leads outstanding showcases. Linda Hamilton who didn’t have much to do in the first Terminator delivers a knockout punch as a paranoid mom on the edge of breakdown. Perhaps the film’s best scene is when Sarah Connor hunts down and nearly kills a scientist responsible for Skynet, becoming the thing she’s trying to prevent. Hamilton plays the moment with visceral impact.
Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, is not quite as Herculean of an imposing presence as in The Terminator, but he has a much wider range to play as the friendly robot. His comic skills and magnetic charisma are leveraged in a special way, totally ignored in the original. His moments to be a father figure and machine who learns to love are really inviting.
Unfortunately, Edward Furlong as tween John Connor undoes much of the goodwill Arnold generates. He comes across as a colossal brat and charm vacuum, with a very specific shrill panicked half-scream that never gets less grating as he uses it a hundred times.
The whole movie has a slightly leisurely air to it. It’s inviting fun but rarely menacing in the way that the original is. There’s more to see on the screen, and it’s all polished and exciting, but it does less to stimulate your brain.
So it ends up nearly a wash. Nearly, but not quite. Terminator 2 is bigger, friendlier entertainment than The Terminator, but ultimately a worse film.
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100