It was just happenstance that I was watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day around the same time that the President of the United States escalated a nuclear war pissing contest on Twitter. Over the holidays, I was sent a review copy of its recently released 4K edition and what started as “just trying to get caught up” somehow, with one tweet, became “relevant.”
As someone who was a child in the 1980s growing up with the ever-present threat of nuclear war — this piece sums it up pretty well, and it also includes, strangely, a group picture I’m in from 2009 watching the Super Bowl, and I wish I could go back there now — I still sometimes have a recurring dream of seeing a bright white flash, then being engulfed by flames. (To be fair, it’s fairly low on my “recurring dream” list, thankfully. Number one is still “the semester is ending and I just remembered there’s a class I haven’t been to in three months.”) But the scene depicting Sarah Connor’s dream of nuclear annihilation is pretty much spot on to that recurring dream. This moment is absolutely horrifying.
The saddest thing about all this: the sense that Sarah Connor, John Connor, and the Terminator all might be in a better predicament than we are right now. Sarah and John have a robot from the future who just plainly tells them, “Miles Dyson is your problem.” Well, that seems pretty easy to solve. Sure, they try to kill him at first, which is mean, but cooler heads prevail and the Terminator calmly explains to Dyson that, in the future, his scientific research will destroy the planet. This all happens at a dining room table in a suburban home. And Dyson, for his part, is kind of like, “Huh, yeah, that’s no good. Let’s not do that.” (To be fair, he’d already been shot in the shoulder, so maybe he was more susceptible to reason at this point.) With our situation, we don’t even need a robot from the future. We already know who our Dyson is. But it doesn’t matter and that’s what’s so upsetting about the whole thing.
(Also, could you imagine the Terminator entering the Oval Office, showing Trump his robotic hand, and then calmly explaining how his actions lead the world to destruction? Trump would respond, “You’re fake future news. You’re a fake Terminator. I only get my future news from T-1000s.”)
Terminator 2 was released in 1991, the same year the Soviet Union collapsed. We had kind of stopped worrying that nuclear war was a real threat anymore. At the time, I really thought Jesus Jones and Scorpions were right and this was all a thing of the past and we were going to live in an era of World Peace. Jesus Jones lied.
It’s funny, I had forgotten about the scene where the Terminator explains the story to Dyson at a dining room table. In fact, I had forgotten a lot about Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It was such a part of popular culture in the ‘90s that I had somehow convinced myself I had seen it many more times than I actually had. Watching it now, I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I had seen it from start to finish. And I think it’s a movie that suffers from its sequels — that the brand has gotten so diluted with sub-par installments that try so desperately to “world build,” the idea of watching any Terminator movie now seems like a chore. But Terminator 2: Judgment Day is about as perfect an action movie can be.
What a weird thing to say, but there’s something almost quaint and old-fashioned about Terminator 2 that is wholly endearing. (The “go back in time from then to the same amount of time that separates us now” game still fascinates me. This means T2 now is just as old as Dr. Strangelove was in 1991. I guess some things don’t change.) In 1991, this felt like an expertly crafted James Cameron bang-‘em-up action movie. Now, when compared to how movies are made today, it feels like a slow burn that really takes the time to breathe. We spend plenty of time with Edward Furlong’s John Connor before any of the action starts. We see him arguing with his foster parents, Todd and Janelle Voight (I remember these two being much worse than they actually are – they just seem more “tired” and “haggard” than “mean); playing After Burner at the local arcade with Danny Cooksey (Hey, Danny, sorry I triggered your Google alert); and using high-tech equipment to hack ATM cards – you know, all the things kids did to have fun in 1991. But it’s a full hour into the movie before John, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator are all together. And the effects are big and loud, but they’re also given room that allows viewers to process them. One big practical explosion during Terminator 2 is much more appealing to a human brain than thousands of CGI sprites all going off at the same time.
Also, the fake-out about Schwarzenegger’s Terminator being the “good guy” really works if you don’t know anything else before seeing the movie – which, in 1991, was impossible, so that “surprise” was already known. But with some distance, it almost works better now than it did then. When Schwarzenegger’s Terminator first shows up, he’s pretty mean: We watch him throwing a biker onto a hot stove, stabbing another one, then stealing a motorcycle – all to the sounds of Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars Cadillacs,” a song that doesn’t get nearly as much credit for being in this movie as Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “You Could Be Mine.” (Also, as an aside, there is a lot of Pepsi in this movie. I don’t really mind product placement, but I did find it interesting that so many people in the world of Terminator enjoy Pepsi.)
If there’s bad news about Terminator 2: Judgment Day, it’s that the 4K transfer doesn’t really pop off the screen like say, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind do. Ever since my Big Return To Physical Media, I can’t get over just how great movies look in 4K and I now scour the “upcoming releases” of older movies like I used to do in the early days of DVD. But I didn’t have that this time. It looks “fine,” but it’s nothing I’d show someone to convince them that about the benefits of this format.
But the main point to take away from this: Terminator 2: Judgment Day is (a) still great and (b) retroactively depressing because these characters all seem to be in a better situation than we are right now. At least the culprit in Terminator 2 seems to care that his actions lead to eventual destruction. But in our reality, that person obviously doesn’t care and there’s no one in power who seems at all interested in stopping him. And the chances of a nice robot from the future showing up to save us all seem grim.
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