Quite a few years back I noticed The Terminator running on TV and, having enjoyed it muchly in a theatre, I thought “Hey bewdy mate!” watched it and came away disillusioned. The small screen diminished it. I resolved never to do that again and have avoided big screen hits on the home TV ever since.
It is just occasionally possible to recover old favorites. Escape from Fort Bravo lost all its impact on TV but I got an original 16mm Anscocolor copy, put on the wide angle and watched it from six foot away from the screen and all the old satisfactions came back.
My disk of Terminator 2 is still in the cellophane wrap it came with when I dug it out of the bargain bin as a reference fifteen years back and now my patience has been rewarded. The system has hiccupped by offering a big screen opportunity not to miss with James Cameron’s state of the art 3D re-issue. This is good (not as good as Valerian but allow for a quarter century of development) with only the most complex effects work, like Robert Patrick emerging from chequered linoleum, showing marginally fuzzy.
Terminator 2 is pretty much the gold standard for these hi-tech, big budget adventure movies. Like Mad Max or The Dark Knight it uses number one as a prototype for the finished product, upgrading to turn big Arnie Schwarzenegger into the good guy and adding more sophisticated effects and scripting.
If you’ve forgotten, after the war against the machines prologue (first of these?) Arnie appropriately posed arrives on the half shell with bursts of lightning between the shipping containers and makes his way naked to the biker bar where the waitress notes him with impressed amusement, finding a pool player (red computer thinks display assessing the drinkers) whose clothes, bike and sunglasses he makes off with, after having a cigar put out on his bare torso and undergoing some clobbering with the cues.
Linda Hamilton has been put away in the funny farm doing chin ups in the white room where the attendant licks her while she’s in restraints (Oh boy, is he going to get it!) and her interview doesn’t go well with shrink Earl Boen, who doesn’t buy her sweet reasonable act, but she’s made off with a paper clip from his file (cf. Silence of the Lambs) Soon she’s picked her lock and there’s a broken mop in the janitor’s closet.
Arnie has caught up with young Edward Furlong, shocked with the discovery that there really are Terminators, not an invention of his nut case mum. (“nobody believed her - not even me”) Arnie makes an impression using Furlong’s voice in a phone call to his foster parents where Patrick replies as the mother. Now the film is starting to pull away from the herd.
Arnie tricks his opposite number by finding out the name of the kid’s dog barking in the background and deliberately getting it wrong.
Soon they are racing to find Hamilton loose in the hospital taking down attendants with the mop handle. “I’ll be back” and “Come with me if you want to live” get us into the great action set pieces, the elevator sequence and chase, with Patrick just about plausibly keeping up with speeding cars on foot while Arnie bikes on the upper level of the same L.A. motorway section that W.C. Fields used in The Bank Dick. Terrific stunts like jumping the motor bike off the upper ramp at speed.
Now for character stuff, like Furlong looking at Arnie’s wounds and discussing whether he can feel pain or teaching him phrases like “Chill out” to help him blend in, while Linda watches and figures that he’s the role model she was looking for while the kid grew (“The Terminator was the only one who measured up”).
It’s thoughtful enough to make the viewer consider it, like the Dark Knight’s notion of “Chance is the only morality.” They don’t really mean anything but then neither does “Film is truth twenty-four times a second.”
Then we get on with the serious business of the movie - blowing things up and Arnie with his Gatling gun taking out pursuers while Patrick commandeer’s the police chopper. Then there is the chase with the liquid nitrogen tanker leading into the steel mill. The finale - Terminator Arnie realising that he will never understand human tears - is trash movie stirring as much as ET’s attempts to go home.
Performance, filming and writing are all benchmark in this area. Schwarzenegger is terrific within his po-faced limits. The film is full of great touches like the amused glance the biker bar waitress gives naked Arnie, Hamilton’s screaming face frozen on the monitor, from the recording of the session where she stabbed Dr. Boen with his pen, while she’s doing quiet and reasonable for his benefit. Then there is Hamilton’s alarmed reaction when her son shows up in the company of Terminator Arnie or the reflection of chopper pilot Tamburro’s face on the regenerating metal head.
Terminator 2 outclasses the competition partly because all the accomplished fantastic material is located in a convincingly detailed then (and still) contemporary USA with delinquent juveniles jacking cash machines and hanging out in the Galleria Timezone, industrial blight and unfeeling institutions. There’s country and western (a right thinking biker shows up to say “I can’t let you take another man’s wheels” not that it does him any good). Heavy Metal funnies and Plastic man are in there too. Serious (read activist) critics of course hate the film because it has looted their stock, offering a powerful, smart black man with a sound family life, capable of making big decisions, opposed to Military Industrial Complex Cyberdyne. Terminator Arnie is down with offing him, though he’s under Furlong’s orders not to kill people himself. Add a strong female central character - great images of Linda in her tank top blazing away with the pump action while hanging off the side of the pickup driven by the future governor of California.
Like Swarzenegger, James Cameron was on track to making himself a big part of collective awareness. Titanic was to come.
Note: The trailer only includes material from the first 20 min.