This article originally ran in 2016 and has been updated for the 30th anniversary of Terminator 2 ahead of July 1, 2021.
Welcome to another installment of Vs. This time, in celebration of Terminator 2: Judgment Day‘s 30th anniversary, Mike Vanderbilt and David Buchanan battle over whether the original or the sequel kills it more.
The Case for The Terminator
The Terminator was a surprise hit in the fall of 1984, surprising audiences and critics alike with its blend of sci-fi, horror, brutal action, and a surprisingly bittersweet love story. James Cameron — a graduate of the Roger Corman school of hard knocks — cut his teeth on low-budget fare such as Battle Beyond the Stars and Piranha 2: The Spawning before selling the rights for The Terminator to producer (and fellow Corman protégé) Gale Anne Hurd, with the promise that she would only produce it if Cameron got to direct it.
John Daly backed the film through his Hemdale Pictures moniker, and Orion distributed it. While as a youngster, James Cameron’s sequel appealed to me more with its “A Boy and His Terminator” plotting — replete with an ending cribbed from Old Yeller — it was as I got older that I realized that Cameron’s original is a much smarter, tauter affair than the more juvenile T2.
The Terminator is the best kind of science fiction, utilizing fantastic elements to create a very human story containing themes of hope, family, fate, destiny, and fear. The actual plot of the film is very simple, which is part of why the movie works so well: a robot from the future is here to kill a young waitress, and another time traveler is here to stop that. This is long before The Terminator became the first film in a franchise with a mythology that keeps getting more convoluted with every movie, television series, and video game released.
The Terminator works as a tightly plotted, one-shot film. While the film employs cyborgs, a soldier from the future, and time travel, at its core The Terminator is the smartest slasher movie this side of Halloween and arguably even more terrifying. At least Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees were human at one time, and that compassion is displayed once in a while, usually with a cock of the head. Even the shark from Jaws is simply acting on billions of years of instinct. The titular Terminator is programmed to do one thing and one thing only, as Kyle Reese explains to Sarah Connor:
“It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”
This makes for a truly terrifying villain who is turned into a cuddly teddy bear who only shoots his victims in kneecaps by the time the sequel rolls around. Again, when comparing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 to other horror movie villains: Don’t want to tussle with Jason? Stay out of the woods. Don’t want to be a hot lunch? Stay out of the water. It’s doubtful that Mike Myers would ever leave Haddonfield’s city limits. The Terminator is specifically programmed to make sure that one person — Sarah Connor — is executed. As Reese explains during his interrogation by Dr. Silberman, “He’ll find her! That’s what he does! That’s ALL he does! You can’t stop him! He’ll wade through you, reach down her throat, and pull her fuckin’ heart out!”
That tension of being hunted is taut and almost unbearable over the film’s runtime. The Terminator arrives in 1984 right after the opening credits, and from that moment, he is on the hunt for Sarah Connor. Even when the film slows down after the police station massacre to concentrate on the bittersweet love story between Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton’s time-crossed lovers, there is an overwhelming sense of dread that The Terminator may be right around the corner, ready to complete his mission. Cameron’s sequel is a bloated 137 minutes and hits most of the same beats as the original, but drags along like a limping T-600 model up until the Cyberdyne siege, and with no love story, it just leaves viewers feeling cold and the film feeling very mechanical, very robotic.
Cameron’s original film takes itself very seriously, which serves it very well when dealing with a villain as brutally violent as a murderous cyborg. Cameron’s script doesn’t waste time explaining away the more fantastic and science fiction elements — he smartly covers up the film’s rules of time travel with a great throwaway line (”I didn’t build the fucking thing!). Instead, the writer/director chooses to concentrate on the plight of Sarah Connor, which recalls Chris McNeil’s dilemma in The Exorcist wherein she, an atheist, has to accept her daughter is possessed by a demon because all of the other explanations have run out. Sarah Connor is forced to believe that everything Reese has stated is truth, as do the 30 or so police officers that the T-800 terminates in the police station.
That said, The Terminator is not without moments of levity; however, unlike its sequel, the humor comes from the characters rather than very dated, very ‘90s one-liners. Two of the funnier moments in the 1984 film come when The Terminator requests a “phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range” from Dick Miller’s (the presence of whom alone should give The Terminator the win over T2) sporting goods clerk, to which Miller responds, “Hey, just what you see pal,” and when the T-800’s neural net processor must come up with an appropriate response to a nosey superintendent (“Fuck you asshole”).
While both scenes are played for laughs, neither are intrusive on the story or appear to be inserted into the film simply to build a trailer. Even one of the most iconic lines of Schwarzenegger’s career (“I’ll be back”) originates in this film, as more of a matter-of-fact moment in Cameron’s script that just gets The Terminator into the police station, moving the plot along. “Hasta la vista, baby?” That’s a calculated attempt to sell coffee mugs and t-shirts.
The Terminator is the work of a hungry filmmaker in Cameron and superstar in Schwarzenegger, people who were willing to take risks, making a brutal, violent, smart film that has one foot in low-budget exploitation and the other moving forward towards the crowd-pleasing, Hollywood-approved action cinema of its sequel. Terminator 2 falls under the weight of both the director’s ego and Schwarzenegger’s star power.
Gone is Arnold’s cold, deliberate, primal portrayal of a merciless killing machine (and contrary to popular belief, that requires a great bit of acting), and it’s replaced with a talking robot toy meant to line the shelves at the local Toys R Us. Cameron, on the other hand, becomes more focused on delivering spectacular special effects than an original tale, recycling ideas cut from the first film while hitting all of the same beats: introduction of the Terminators, big action scene, take a break for character development, showdown in a factory.
All of that said, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is by no means a bad film. Despite the softening up of Cameron’s original tale of technology gone awry, T2 features impressive computer-generated effects and plenty of terrific action setpieces. Even Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is a pretty good B-movie, saved by a terrific ending masking nihilism with hope, though the less said about Salvation and Genysis the better. However, when holding Judgment Day up to the original, all of its flaws are magnified. Ever since Terminator 2, the mythology of the series has been twisted and contorted so much that it’s hard to comprehend The Terminator as simply a one-shot film, but despite what the modern geek may think, countless sequels and reboots do not undercut the power of the original (or ruin childhoods).
The Case for Terminator 2: Judgment Day
In retrospect, T2 should never have been green lit, nor should it have received so high a budget. Think about the proposition, in context:
1) Its predecessor was already seven years old.
2) The time-traveler continuity would need to be seamless.
3) The cat-and-mouse, horror-style element of The Terminator’s supernatural stalker premise risks turning into an endless stream of unnecessary Friday the 13th-like sequels.
4) One has to believably resurrect the star actor’s previous role from a fatal — and quite literal — crushing blow, while already contending with points two and three.
Neither movie is without flaws, and one cannot fault 1984’s special effects for being limited by the capabilities of the period, but these are also not Oscar-caliber films and don’t pretend to be. They are more like modern epics. And the second installment, with everything that could have gone wrong, went so indelibly right in triumphant defiance. And I’d dare argue its superiority to the original in a similar vein as The Dark Knight besting Batman Begins, or so it’s commonly thought.
T2: Judgment Day continues the saga of Sarah Connor as she attempts to prevent the impending doom of August ’97 – the date when Skynet will become self-aware, kill three billion people, and begin a war where John, son of Connor and Kyle Reese, will ultimately lead an army against it. This story introduces the newest killing product — T-1000 — as it takes over where the older T-800 failed, by going back in time to kill John himself, instead of his mother before he’s born.
Chaos ensues. Shit goes crazy. The end. Or is it?
It’s the sci-fi action flick, a chance masterpiece, and a once-potential underdog with the guts to bet it all on Schwarzenegger a second time. A pre-neutered James Cameron brought him back, convincingly swapped his position from mindless villain to semi-titular hero, delivered an unforgettable new antagonist, and upped the production ante by shooting this movie like a ’90s rock music video – full of cerulean tints, a ramped-up Brad Fiedel score, and the chrome.
So. Much. Chrome.
Exhibit A: Opening Credits & A Dash Of GNR
Is there anything more satisfying than that blessed intro music? Roaring like a Little Drummer Boy of the Nuclear Holocaust?
Brad Fiedel returned to score T2; however, he leans less on muted ‘80s synths and relies instead upon full-scale bombast. The hi-hats are replaced with pouncing percussion, the leads dance a loving confusion between strings and keyboards (I can seldom tell which), and the implied subtlety of Carpenter-brand terror in ’84 is supplanted with the booming apocalyptic vibrations of ’91.
We open on overhead foreshadowing shots of L.A. traffic (a terrifying sight all its own) and a frighteningly prompt orchestral accompaniment, which then segues into dead silence, flash-forward scenes of the impending Machine War, some vocal narration from Linda Hamilton over gunfire and skeletal citizen remains, and a drum performance so memorable I’d dare say Doctor Who took notice when they later brought back the Master.
It all comes to a clanging halt after T-800 stares us down, red-eyed through heaps of flame.
Seeing that skulled grin gleaming is like being born again. In hell. With pleasure.
There’s also that delicious bliss of MTV-grade, promo-worthy, rock-and-roll tie-in nostalgia…
Exhibit B: Casting
As synonymous as “Ah-nold” is with the role of Bad Terminator/Good Terminator/Old Terminator (see Genisys), and whether it’s the kid in me who wound up seeing T2 first, the cast (particularly leading) of the 1991 installment is leaps and bounds better imprinted than the man behind Kyle Reese. The new faces leave fresh wounds, the old faces feel more at home in their parts, and as popular as this sequel has become, they’ll be riding out their royalties and possible convention stops for decades more to come.
Linda Hamilton returns as a quicker, tougher, colder bastion of her victimized self. Sarah Connor sheds the pretense of a forced, plot-determined romance and becomes a badass in her own right. The only two good things to come from her association with fanboy Reese are son/future Jesus, John Connor, and the forethought to train as a fighting role model and mother of a resistance leader. Both of these characteristics put her several tiers above her last appearance, from busting out of a mental hospital to nearly going Rambo on Skynet tech source Miles Dyson to icing (get it) the T-1000.
Granted, she did not run solo, and her primary motivator is her son, but Sarah never showed an ounce of cowardice, even passing the Bechdel Test during a hostage “negotiation” with a poison-filled syringe to her psychiatrist’s throat. Hell, the first time you see her she’s doing pull-ups on an upended bed while medical students gawk at her inevitable death stare.
Robert Patrick shines as the poker-faced T-1000, a liquid-metal baddie who shapeshifts, mimics voices, makes an LAPD uniform look quite snazzy, and never fucking blinks whilst stabbing his victims, hijacking helicopters with police bikes, or marathon running after speeding cars. His every camera presence chews the scenery, even managing to make a wagging finger appear intimidating. He also chases John Connor down in what appears to be the world’s most durable semi. More on that later.
Schwarzenegger plays a walking mannequin that learns to love beyond his central programming — a role that leans on Arnold’s strengths, those being physique, monotone speech, and a knack for action movie one-liners that limit dialogue. His existence is defended by Cameron’s idea that T-800s are mass produced in the future, and this particular model has been reconfigured to be a protector for John, not an assassin for Sarah.
And it works. It shouldn’t, but it works. Why? Because it doesn’t mess with continuity. Period. And leather-clad trumps homeless bouncer any day of the week, friends. Same as “Hasta la vista, baby” beats “I’ll be back.”
Deal with it.
T2 is, last but not least, a platform for Edward Furlong – an occasionally whiny, but all-too-definitive John Connor. John has no prior speaking roles in what would later become a film franchise, so he had easy work of becoming notable here. His only true fault is when he belts like a Scream Queen during high-intensity fights; however, every other frame of interaction between Furlong and Schwarzenegger effectively shows off a teenager who’s never had a real father figure and a companion educating computers on how to be more human and blend in.
In short? Without this movie, others like Iron Giant wouldn’t be the same.
It’s a mutual exchange: John eventually learns that life doesn’t always go your way, but that’s no excuse to stop moving, and The Terminator learns a few choice reasons why humans cry (illustrated during the film’s finale).
Note: If this movie’s ending didn’t have you weeping as much as John himself, you are the true emotionless machine.
Exhibit C: Michael Bay Is a Dickwad
Long before DiCaprio was king of the world and Ferngully: A Study in Blue made him millions, James Cameron scaled up explosions and gun porn to 11 and trampled on the bones of his enemies like a steel heel. Normally, one might argue that simply adding more booms and blasts to your cinematography is equivalent to cheap thrills, but Terminator ’84 was so dialed back on big bangs while simultaneously talking up the eventual war technology that it never got around to telling and showing. It opted for close-up murder, flaunting the latex self-surgery, making light stabs (get it?) at aiming toward gore over gargantuan military hardware.
How else do you even imagine following up the boasts of an Armageddon future? You blow up Los Angeles (naturally) in both the then-present day and in a cornerstone dream/nightmare sequence. Have to make up for lost time and opportunity.
In an era before Independence Day and Heat, long-tracking chase sequences replete with pyrotechnics and diligent mechanical pursuers were not so prevalent. T2 made heavenly work of these traits, lacing a little obvious symbolism in on occasion. Fitting shout-out to Guns N’ Roses, anyone?
For our action-packed portions, look no further than the Galleria knock-down-drag-out that devolves into a futuristic swordsman tracking a motorcycle on foot…that then evolves into one of the greatest chases ever captured on celluloid (if anyone remembers what that is) between a big rig and motorcycle…
…And all of this occurs within EIGHT MINUTES, to say nothing of the Prison Break (aka, The Panic in Pescadero)…
…The Battle of Cyberdyne (aka, T-800 vs nearly all of the LAPD SWAT Team)…
…Or the CO2 truck crash that then boils over into the metallurgy industrial complex.
Fuck, I’m crying again. Damn you, James Cameron.
Exhibit D: Looks Aren’t Everything, But They Are Something
T2 is highly polished and rightfully so by Director of Photography Adam Greenberg. Hearkening back to my statements on Fiedel’s sonic peaks and valleys, which form a stellar leitmotif through to the bitter end (damn it), the textures of this entire motion picture surpassed their 1984 sibling simply by heightening quality.
The Terminator premiered the famous metal endoskeleton we know and cherish, but T2 improved upon it dramatically: more fluid movement, more sincere interaction between actors and props, genuine Foley work on the part of sound engineers tackling little creaks and clanks and buzzes and blips, keeping with the HUD unit’s crimson interface … the list goes on with this single factor alone!
T2 outshines without even trying. Stark contrasts, perfect sheen, and glorious twisted metal resonate for eternity. There’s also the naked time-portal landings surrounded by lightning, but were you looking at the lighting effects or the prominent ass cheeks? No judgment!
Exhibit E: Conclusion
I once got suspended from school for impersonating Arnie’s character for a week straight. Sue me, I was nine.
T2 introduced me to my favorite Guns N’ Roses tune, had me humming George Thorogood (again), and is at least 25% responsible for my love of sunglasses. This movie makes me want to own a life-sized 800 Series Model 101, sans fleshy exterior (for this movie, there’s a v2.4 HUD upgrade installed).
Director James Cameron and the late Stan Winston have created a landmark of on-screen cyborg technology (though technically, they’re androids), and in 1984 it was unveiled to an unsuspecting movie-going audience. Seven years later, the idea expanded, progressed, and became something greater than anyone ever anticipated.
The future was like a dark highway at night. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves. In the case of our reality, determining an outcome is no problemo. Terminator 2: Judgment Day overshadows its big brother with might, merit, sight, sound, and pure awesomeness. In the year of its 25th anniversary, we say to its 32-year-old competition…
Hasta la vista, baby.