30 Years Later: Terminator 2: Judgment Day
There are a few major things that James Cameron’s 1991 Terminator 2: Judgment Day is especially known for. It was a sequel that was bigger in just about every way from the 1984 original. It used special effects, especially the “liquid metal” effect, in a way that movies never had before.
It had a warning about the dangerous downsides of artificial intelligence and machines more powerful than man. And it was one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best-loved movies, featuring a great deal of humor from the bodybuilder-turned-movie star. It was also one of the final major releases of Carolco Pictures, which was dead a couple of years later.
The film was released nationally on July 3, 1991 – 30 years ago this week – following a Los Angeles premiere two days earlier. Its legacy still holds up today, thanks to all of those elements- the plot, the effects, the action, and that performance from its leading man.
Terminator 2 is set in 1995 when future resistance leader John Connor (Edward Furlong) is just a boy. His mother, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, who famously got jacked up for the role) has foreknowledge that Skynet will become sentient and billions of people will die on a specific date in 1997.
While the first film had Schwarzenegger’s terminator sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor before she could give birth to John, in the sequel John is already born, and the Schwarzenegger character is a good guy, sent back in time to protect rather than to kill. The villain, this time, is the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), who can shape-shift, and recover immediately from any injury or maiming (that the character spent most of the movie dressed as a police officer, in a Los Angeles-set movie released the same year as the Rodney King beating, is not a coincidence, the filmmakers have said.)
The robots spend most of the movie chasing each other around Los Angeles and blowing stuff up real good. Periodically Schwarzenegger, in his robotic deadpan, spouts catchphrases like “Hasta la vista, baby.”
Cameron’s next film, True Lies, which also starred Schwarzenegger, has been criticized over the years for its casual racism and sexism. But T2 holds up much better, and in fact, it’s been called prescient for predicting shady things that corporations are doing with A.I. After True Lies Cameron made Titanic, and then Avatar 12 years after that, and aside from nature documentaries, Avatar and its sequels is all he’s worked on as a director since.
Movie observers like to joke that Avatar broke box office records and then all but disappeared from public consciousness. T2 was also a massive box office hit – it became the first movie ever to cross $200 million in the global box office – but its legacy has endured much more strongly. It’s probably the most quoted action movie of the 1990s, it’s on television frequently, and it contains probably the signature role of Schwarzenegger’s career, which has spanned four decades.
Of course, there’s also the endless sequels.
In addition to the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series, there have been a few sequels since T2, some involving Schwarzenegger and some not, although the different projects have made a confusing jumble of the series’ continuity since some of them have respected the timelines of previous movies and others haven’t. Cameron had nothing to do with any of the post-T2 sequels until he returned as an executive producer of 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate. That movie wasn’t bad, but its poor box office performance may have killed off the franchise for good.
While offering more advanced special effects than what was available in 1991, none of the sequels have been as truly groundbreaking, effects-wise, like Terminator 2. Overall, that movie, more than any part of the franchise, is what we’ll be talking about 50 years from now.
- Stephen Silver
Editor’s Note: For more on Terminator 2, feel free to listen to our original review from the Sordid Cinema Podcast, embedded below.