It was 1991 and I wasn't old enough to see an R rated movie in theaters. Thankfully, a new invention that came around my home, and the home of all my friends a few years earlier, made seeing R-rated movies far, far easier. In fact, it made seeing all sorts of movies far, far easier and set me down a path of loving film for the rest of my life. If you didn't own a VCR by 1991, you just weren't "with it." It was the must-own piece of technology and was built to last, not some silly fad like those "CD Players" that crept up around the same time.
Home movie watching was a bit strange, though. Nothing was ever the right aspect ratio, televisions were far from high-definition and audio is about as good as you're going to get off of a piece of magnetic tape. Sure there was that Laserdisc option, but who wanted to lug giant vinyl-sized discs around when you have the convenience of a little rectangular piece of plastic? Oh, how things have grown since then. Now we can't even fathom actual tangible products thanks to streaming and MP3s. To watch anything in 1991 meant two things for someone who was eleven: you can either go see Disney and PG movies at the theater, go with an adult to see a PG-13 one, or watch R-rated movies on tape. Early teens were a strange time for anyone: you didn't want to be stuck in some kids movie and wanted to sneak around and watching the cool, hip R-rated stuff.
Enter Terminator 2: Judgment Day released on home video in 1991. I honestly can't remember when I first saw it, I just know there was nothing else like it that I had seen before. It was violent, cool, occasionally funny and full of amazing special effects. It had blood, killing, gunshots and all sorts of liquid metal. It was also the very first R-rated movie I fully saw.
I say "fully" because I had seen parts of R-rated movies before plenty of times, but I never actually sat and watched them from beginning to end and, thanks to VHS, sit and watch it again and again. It quickly became one of my favorite movies, and still one of my favorites to this day. I remember drawing Terminators and the poster and scenes from the film in class, not to mention buying numerous comic books, action figures and videogames based on it. Pretty strange now that I think about it: a hard R-rated, ultra-violent movie that was marketed to kids my age.
But I wasn't alone. To this day Terminator 2: Judgment Day is not only looked back at fondly by me, but it holds up incredibly well for a twenty year old film to a point that people still are impressed and entertained by it to this day. The special effects are still top notch, the story incredibly well told and the action set pieces as adrenaline-pumping today as they were back then. Director James Cameron has a tendency with that in his films: they age far better than you think they would, especially when you look at other action movies released in 1991 like Highlander 2, Hudson Hawk and even another personal favorite, Point Break. Timelessness comes with craft, and the great films, whether they be epics, dramas or action spectacles, will always have a place in the echelon of great movies.
A Brief History of Terminator 2: Judgment Day
-After leaps in special effects technology and working out legal issues of the franchise, James and Cameron and Bill Wisher completed a 140 page script for the surprise hit, The Terminator, in 1990.
-Much like Cameron did with The Terminator, he had an early vision and painted and drew ideas of what the film would be, with Arnold reprising his role as the T-800 and Billy Idol as the T-1000. Idol, though, could not do the film as he would later find out. In other early pre-production work, Linda Hamilton trained for thirteen weeks with weapons and to get in shape for a more demanding, physical role.
-Robert Patrick, a then unknown actor usually in small roles, was cast as the T-1000. Like Hamilton, he underwent extensive strength and endurance training for the physically demanding role as well as learned a variety of weapons and martial arts for three months.
-Edward Furlong was cast as John Connor, after a few offers went south to other young actors. It was his first acting role.
-Principle Photography began in October of 1990. Industrial Light and Magic in combination with Stan Winston were in task for the special effects, computer and practical respectively. Despite the praise of the computer effects, and rightfully so, much of the effects in Terminator 2 were practical, including simple prosthesis or the use of twin siblings - the oldest tricks in the book.
-As shooting went on, and months went by, the budget for T2 began to grow as production continued on. It ballooned from 75 Million to become the first film ever with a 100 Million budget.
-Terminator 2 had the unique element of three separate editors on board to cut the film, all working on different segments under Cameron's supervision as a result of the long shoot, one million feet of film (with 300 effects shots) to go through and tight schedules.
-One of the biggest post-production elements was Edward Furlong having to redub nearly every line from the film. Furlong went through puberty during the long shoot and his voice changed from scene to scene.
-Brad Fiedel returned to score the film. It's less synthesizer use found in The Terminator, and more Foley sounds mixed to drum beats, making for a mechanical yet epic score for the film.
-You know the impacts of release: Critical praise and a huge box office opening on July 4th weekend in 1991. Terminator 2 was also nominated for six Oscars, winning four.
Top Ten Lessons I Learned Thanks to Terminator 2
As mentioned, Terminator 2 Judgement Day was the first R Rated film I ever saw, and especially the one I look at as one of those defining moments of shunning my teenage skin and looking to enter adulthood. Yes, watching R-Rated movies to an eleven year old is the defining trait of being an adult, kind of like how drinking your first beer or playing your first violent videogame might be.
Terminator 2, though, is a little more going for it than just that. It's not just about bullets and liquid metal, but it actually has some interesting lessons and messages to teach us. Here's ten that I took I away from it, both as a child, but also today as an adult:
Honorable Mention: Don't Drink From the Milk Carton
You parents warned you...and see what happened to John's foster father. Our T-1000 could have murdered him at any other time, yet he specifically killed him when he was drinking form the carton. It makes you wonder, did he kill Todd to shut him up, or was did he choose it because he was tired of Todd's carton-drinking bullshit?
Makes me fear for Wolfie. We never find out what happened to the dog.
10: Don't Mess With Another Man's Sunglasses
Or you will get grabbed by the face and thrown twenty feet across the room.
It's just bad form. You can do anything else, but don't mess with a man's clothes and especially his sunglasses. From the moment Arnold's glasses are broken...it feels like something is missing for the rest of the movie. This isn't the only movie to take on this theme, just ask Neo when he disrespected Agent Smith's glasses. He also got thrown twenty feet.
9: Eat Healthy and Work Out Will Prepare You to Kick Ass
We are lazy people by nature. We would far prefer to sit around and watch TV while eating spam than go out of our way to actually walk somewhere.
But what if you want to look awesome and kick ass?
If a 7 x 5 room couldn't stop Sarah Connor from being badass, then we have no excuse either. She has her diet controlled by doctors and works out what seems to be twice a day in between cigarette breaks. Want to look hot? Just look at Sarah Connor from 1984 compared to Sarah Connor from 1995 (yes, this movie takes place in 1995, if you didn't know that). A few years of hot, sweaty, mental institution work out regiments can do wonders.
8: Even the Strongest Have Their Weaknesses
It's interesting to take this massive threat and make him nearly obsolete. As the old saying goes, "there's always a bigger fish in the sea, and that bigger fish is made of liquid metal and can shapeshift."
It turns out our unstoppable beast from a few year prior is now an obsolete model...and boy does it show. This massive metal cyborg, killer of many and nearly indestructible unless you have pipe bombs, doesn't make a dent in the superior T-1000. There's no contest. Slow him down? Sure, a few shotgun blasts and liquid nitrogen can help that along, but mano-y-mano...he's going to need some help.
Which leads us to...
7: Teamwork, Teamwork, Teamwork
A reoccurring theme in Terminator 2 is the idea of working together. From escaping a metal hospital being chased by a liquid metal man to, using connections to arm yourself to forming an alliance with Dyson to destroy Cyberdine and, in the finale, working together to bring down a powerful enemy. All are cogs and gears in a machine and pieces coming together, chugging along until the goal is achieved. When you can't bring down someone on your own, the film showing numerous times that one person (or machine, as indicated from number eight on this list) can't do it alone, you have work together.
6: Sometimes, It's Worth It For the Greater Good (Sometimes)
Decisions...decisions. That's the crux of much of Terminator 2. The decisions we make in life, whether it be past, present or future, causes a ripple. Is it good? Will it mean something? Or will it be something you have to live with for the rest of your life? Sarah Connor felt she could pull a trigger and save the world, but it turns out seeing a son beg for his father's life wasn't what she had anticipated, and it made it all the more difficult. She could save the world, but she couldn't live with herself.
It just wasn't worth it. Not like that and not in a manner that would hurt her, her son and the family of Miles Dyson. Dyson, though, took the mantle himself. He knew what he was risking and had no qualms, even as he knew he would never see his family again by going to his offices to blow it up. To him, having that control was worth it. It was his decisions, not Sarah's. It always was, and we can only hope mankind is better off for it and that it wasn't in vain.
5: Fuck the Police
This little lesson carries over from the first film as well. In both movies, the terminators, infiltration units remember, utilize the police for their own gain. In T2, especially, the T-1000 is even more stealthy and dresses like an officer in various police uniforms, rides around in police cars, bikes and helicopters and interacts like your regular old officer...in that there's something shady going on behind all that.
Don't trust anyone, even the police. Just because someone is wearing a uniform doesn't mean they're in the right...or even police for that matter. As a kid, we're taught the exact opposite, but thanks to T2 (and an extensive history of police corruption) we now walk a little cautiously when the police are around or drive a little carefully when we see them in the rearview mirror. No, it's not because we're doing anything wrong...it's because we can't trust them to always be right.
4: Fate is a Four Letter Word
The "science fiction" aspect of Terminator 2 isn't just about cyborgs and time travel. Like all good science fiction, it discusses (not directly but thematically) the elements of existence in relation to something that human beings are attempting to contemplate. Here it's about pre-destined outcomes and whether or not we can alter them, as well as how much we fear the idea that perhaps we can't.
Fate is something that frightens a lot of people. We don't like the idea of not being in control and that everything is happening for a reason. In T2, Sarah Connor feels she can alter the fate of humanity. Whether or not she succeeds is open to your own interpretations of the film (before it was re-written without Cameron a decade or so later, mind you, then again there is a notoriously famous alternate ending that says she did...but that just causes more questions than there are already due to the numerous, numerous time travel theories). I don't know anyone that would want fate to exist, and if we felt it did who of us would go out of their way to try and change it. Could we change it? Or would it still find a way to happen? Terminator 2 asks a lot of questions, and leaves many answers on the table, but one thing is for certain: the drive and desire to not want fate is clear and the entire point of Sarah's character and, perhaps, our own wishes.
3: It's So Hard To Say Goodbye
Somehow, this story of a killer robot finds a heart as we journey down to his ultimate, and really only fitting, demise. "I know now why you cry," he mutters as his surrogate son begs him to not go. The thing is, his surrogate son is the one that programmed him, probably not realizing it would become the father figure he never had.
Saying goodbye to someone who means a lot to you is never easy, even if it's briefly knowing them. It wasn't easy for Sarah in The Terminator, it's not easy for John here. I find it especially interesting that The Terminator himself comes to understand the why, even apologizing that it must be done, and finding a brief understanding of human emotion even if he can't quite "feel" it himself. I'm sure his programming wasn't expecting that either, he was only there to protect and it turned into something more. It's a fitting end to a brief friendship, but even the briefest can be difficult to leave.
2: There Are 215 Bones in the Human Body
An important lesson learned? No. Yet this is a line that has stuck with me, and a lot of others, for many many years. "There are 215 bones in the human body," explains an irate Sarah Connor to a quivering Dr. Silberman. "That's one. Now hold still."
I just love the impact of that line. She's putting some drain cleaner up on the desk next to Silberman and the whole "now hold still" line indicates she's about to go a lot further than simply breaking his arm. All that...and we learn how many bones are in the human body...of course the number isn't exactly right but who cares. Be badass and educational? That one has always stuck with me for twenty years.
1: Human Beings Kind of Suck
Terminator 2 puts one major thing into perspective: whatever happens to the human race is probably going to be thanks to our own stupidity and arrogance. We like to think we're the best thing in the universe, the center of it even, but in reality we're just on some little insignificant blue sphere in one of countless solar systems in one of countless galaxies. Whatever bad things happen to us, we will only have ourselves to blame...and we're doing a pretty good job of that as is with wars, violence, destroying the planet and finding more fascinating ways to kill each other. Terminator 2 indicates that arrogance will lead to a new technology that will eventually wipe us out completely, and that's probably not too far off from what would actually happen at some point in our existence. If we don't kill ourselves with each other first, we'll probably invent something to do it for us.
In her final voice over, Sarah Connor narrates "If a machine can learn the value of human life...perhaps we can as well." Cut. Print. The entire theme of the film is also it's most important message to be learned.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is about humanity. Yes, it's full of action and violence and science fiction notions of fate versus choice, but it's also a look into us as human beings. It's the human connection that separates it from you typical "blow everything up" action movie. It creates characters you care about and relate to and uses the cold facade of a machine protecting a child as a thematic punch to understanding the "why" to it all - and a great way to transfix the audience into that character themselves. The Terminator learns and understands the value of life as he learns and understands the world he finds himself in. Not just the value of one kid and his mother, but why they go above and beyond the call of duty to send him there in the first place - their survival is more about all of us than anything. Of course I call the Terminator "him" because our resident T-800 has as much of a character arc and development as any character, if not more. He may not show the emotion of Sarah Connor or the drive of John, but even with no emotion he's incredibly well written and Schwarzenegger does the best job of his career (because nobody else could probably do it quite like he does). There's something oddly warming about him, from a little smile to a thumbs up.
There's only a handful of movies that I can say were a phenomenal impact on my life. Not all of them I would classify as "important" or "quality" films. Most of them I'm simply nostalgic for. Terminator 2, though, was a movie that covered all those bases. Not only do I think fondly back to it and how it influenced my love of cinema, from action to science fiction to simply how much it was marketed with toys to me at the perfect age, it's also a damn well made, well written, highly influential and hugely entertaining film on top of it all. That's not something I can say for other nostalgic films I look back at, like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure or even The Goonies. Those are good movies, but they're not overly important ones.
Influence is dependent on the craft of the film. There was nothing that quite looked and sounded and presented itself like Terminator 2. Some might argue that the balance the film found in drama and action, not to mention memorable characters, still hasn't been repeated quite on the same level, even by Cameron himself. There's been bigger and more spectacular action done, but the rare ability to actually have something to say within the action film itself, rather than simply have the action be the only aspect of the film, seems to be a rarity. It was rare then, it's just as rare now.
Like all of James Cameron's films, T2 is about execution. It's not the bastion of quality writing and dialogue, but it is what Cameron has always done and, really, all we need from Action movies to be great: great storytelling. Cameron has always been a storyteller, using action as a means than just an end. His plots are simple, characters just as simple but with memorable personalities and the script with short, efficient dialogue combined with superb pacing, with just a notch for a slight bit of heavy-handed themes that surround it - Aliens is about Motherhood, True Lies (a romantic comedy hidden in an action flick) about Marriage, Abyss and Avatar environmental etc... Cameron's films tend to be a layered mix of ideas and themes that are executed to a sharp tone to be easily accessible. It's not simplicity, it's just well told. Terminator 2 has the layers of humanity, parenthood, generational influence all wrapped in an action packed, tightly woven script that became one of the most iconic films ever made.