TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY: IS THERE SUCH A THING AS A PERFECTSEQUEL?
There are two types of people in this world: those who are in on the secret that
James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) is considered one of the best Hollywood
movies ever made, and those who aren’t. Until quite recently, I myself was out of the loop,
and then I met someone who assured me that it was one of the most perfect movies ever
made, that she could probably watch it a million times and still feel like she was seeing it all
for the very first time. No, really, she used those exact words, and my surprise was
considerable, to say the least. If you, too, are one of those oblivious out-of-the-loopers like I
once was, perhaps you are as well: after all, a Hollywood action sequel? In the early ‘90s? Of
the Terminator film, no less, which seemed to have a relatively resolute ending, despite
Schwarzenegger’s ominous “I’ll be back”? That’s really one of the best films out there?
Truly, what is it about this movie that has led it to become the centerpiece of this
weird, quiet cult of success? Well, you’ll be glad to know that I am on the case, I’m sure; I
watched the film and everything. Thought that it was quite good, really. Far from perfect,
but good. I mean, I’m also far from an expert on action cinema, so who am I to say how well
it stacks up against other Hollywood successes, really? It was a tad long, perhaps, and not as
tightly-engineered as I was led to believe, which makes me think that the secret to its
popularity does not solely lie in Cameron’s skill as an action writer-director. No, rather, I
think its true resonance lies specifically within the realm of the sequel, and everything that
There are very, very mild spoilers upcoming, by the way, so consider this your official
mild warning about what the future holds, just in case you are planning on watching the film
and want the truly unadulterated Terminator journey for yourself. Just thought I would be a
good sport for once and let you know.
But first, very briefly, what are sequels, really? As near-pure inventions of the
commercial cinema game, they’ve sometimes got an interesting duality to them, a split
between two conditions: the ability to work with (and, of course, need to cater to) audience
feedback, gleaned from the first installment, and (only sometimes) a lower budget and/or
less oversight from the studio, allowing the director to exert a little more personal influence
or cut a few more corners. This second condition may be slightly less reliable, but it tends to
hold: after all, why pour more money into a feature that will most likely only attract a
fraction of the viewership the first installment received, aka most of the people watching
Terminator 2 in theaters were just those who really, really loved Terminator the first time
around. You get my drift? Or am I just spinning pure bullshit? Who knows, man.
Anyways, these two conditions overlap in one very, very key area: indulgence. It’s
indulgence for the target audience and indulgence for the creators, indulgence all around,
because most of the people connected to sequel-making and -watching are gonna be those
who had vested interests in the previous film, the first time around. Plus, the moneymaking
principle also pushes studios and creators to exaggerate their work even further, motivated
by the need to make the sequel appear even bigger and more exciting than the previous film.
So these indulgences have the potential to be all the more exaggerated, magnified through
the need to make the story bigger, faster, bolder than ever before.
Again, this isn’t always true. Mass commercialized franchises kinda break this rule, so
thanks, Marvel and Disney. Thanks a lot.
Still, it is due to these various parameters - audience indulgence, director’s freedom,
and general excitement and exaggeration - that Terminator 2 came out the way that it did,
becoming a strange combination of both imitation and upgrade with regards to the first
Terminator. A brief overlook:
1. Audience Indulgence
Boom, Schwarzenegger is a good guy now. Bet y’all didn’t see that coming, huh? I
didn’t, for a stupidly long time; Cameron practically had to spell it out for me. Well congrats,
you are now finally allowed to root for your favorite charismatic, steel-chinned (literally!)
killing machine (literally, again!) with the funny accent come from the future! Turns out
Schwarzenegger is just too good-looking to be an emotionless villain. Also, what was it you
loved about the first movie, again? The explosions and the chase scenes, of course. Let’s get
approximately a million minutes more of runtime of that, please.
2. Director’s Freedom
This is where you can file away all sorts of eccentricities, as well as those daring,
emotionally intense ‘teaching’ moments that may have not made the cut in an inaugural
mass release. I mean, have you seen some of the gore in this thing? Way more intense than
the first Terminator, for sure. And the emotional stakes, somehow, are also higher; I won’t get
into it for spoiler purposes, but if you know, you know - shit gets real, arguably too real. Also
also, Sarah Connor no longer has to look like a scared, permed-up ‘80s housewife. This could
maybe be potentially filed under the first section as well - I, for one, was rooting for Connor
to take things into her own hands just a little bit more in the first film - but I really think
‘80s audiences would have been split at best on that kind of thing.
This is also how you get really unique moments in the vein of Schwarzenegger
rumbling out another “I’ll be back,” with a totally different intention now, of course, and
practically winking at the camera while he does so, or the kitschy montages set to classic
rock, or any number of mildly self-parodying moments. The ironic edge these instances lend
may be slightly false, as this is still a mass-produced film no matter how you slice it, but they
nudge the audience into feeling like they are in on some larger, higher-level inside joke.
And then, there are all of the political asides. God, my cynical 2020 brain hates how
naively these ‘90s action movies frame political issues, and the fact that Independence Day
(1996) was ever shown in theaters is downright incomprehensible to me, but it’s a staple of
the genre, it seems. If Cameron wants to frame this anti-technology debate within an over-
drawn argument about nuclear proliferation and general weaponization, he can go the fuck
ahead, by all means. And if I’m being honest, it probably only made the film more
compelling within its time, allowing it to channel the remnants of America’s Cold War
anxieties into its new, internet-generated fears for a political double-whammy that could’ve
hit quite close to home.
Overall, it’s quirks like these that give a film personality and character atop pure
blockbuster existence, that make it more memorable and give it greater access to the
possibility of cult re-viewing. Greater personality means more of a certain kind of attraction,
even if it may turn off those who don’t completely agree with those choices.
3. General Exaggeration
This bit’s largely a summation of all of the above, really, but it’s important to frame it
like so. Long story short, there are more explosions, more chase scenes, more crying scenes,
more moral lessons, more of everything crammed into this piece of media. And, most
importantly, the plot itself is more than ever before: it literally uses the exact same general
concept that the last film had, but adds greater emotional drama, more protagonists, and a
scarier villain. After all, this villain kicks the last villain’s ass. Literally. That’s what you get
when your old villain suddenly becomes a good guy: you gotta think of a scarier, badder guy
to give him an equal match. It’s the first Terminator story, spun around and maximized and
made all new and improved, drama flying into your face like never before.
Most of these are successes - after all, who doesn’t want to see Schwarzenegger
bonding with a small child while blowing a shape-shifting bad guy to bits? - specifically
within the realm of sequel - do you think seeing Scwarzenegger bonding with a small child
while blowing a shape-shifting bad guy to bits would be at al possible in the first movie? -
taking the last film and revitalizing it so it’s just more, all around.
However, these advancements hold downsides as well, which is why I hesitate to call
it the ‘perfect’ anything. Cramming in so many explosions and chase scenes kinda makes
them lose their shine after a while, if not become straight-up laughable, and the 2-and-a-half
hour runtime really wears you down (or maybe I just get action fatigue unbelievably quick).
Trying to outshine the first film is a tricky game in general, forcing you to lose some of what
made people love the story so much in the first place. And then, as I briefly mentioned
above, the various tongue-in-cheek overindulgences and plain-spoken political messages and
whatever else crazy shit Cameron managed to sneak in here may not be for everyone. Not to
mention the actual implications of the story, which I haven’t touched on at all. That’s just
the nature of eccentricity, and the nature of indulgence, as a whole.
Which leads me to wonder: maybe even the best sequels will never make truly
perfect movies. Maybe even the most ‘perfect’ sequel still only works as just a louder,
brasher, cheekier imitation of another, better movie.
But I also have to wonder, then: so what? The people want to hear Schwarzenegger
say, “No problemo” while he high-fives a kid, and you can’t get that anywhere else. Maybe,
sometimes, a cheeky imitation of another movie is all you need. Both statements can be
BY A. DZH