The curse of a lot of great movies is their success often spawn sequels short on creative or artistic integrity, but long on cynical bankability for undemanding viewers. That’s how so many fantastic films become terrible franchises that churn out ever-paler shadows of their former selves. But there are exceptions of sequels that really work on their own right, and in rare cases, even surpass their predecessors. And if there’s any director capable of that, it would be the inimitable James Cameron, who returned to the movie that made him a household name and produced a much bigger, flashier, louder and faster installment that feels not quite like a sequel, reboot or remake. But somehow, Terminator 2: Judgment Day feels like all of those things, making it one of the most successful follow-ups to one of the greatest breakout hits you’re ever going to see.
The story takes place in Los Angeles 11 years after the events of The Terminator. Having narrowly survived her initial encounter with the T-800 killer cyborg sent back in time by the rogue AI Skynet to kill her, Sarah has not been idle. Fueled by the death of her lover, Kyle Reese, Sarah dedicates herself to making sure young John can and will grow up to be the savior humanity will one day need him to be. She transforms herself into a hardcore commando ready for anything Skynet can throw at her, but along the way, she gets herself locked up in a psychiatric ward while John becomes a delinquent bouncing from foster home to foster home. The plan for saving the future, it seems, had hit the skids. But not so much that Skynet doesn’t think a second attempt on their lives isn’t worth it, so it sends another killer back in time to take care of Sarah and John both. This time, it is a shapeshifting, liquid metal T-1000 that absorb any damage, pour itself into any shape, form itself into any kind of simple cutting weapon, and masquerade as anyone. But Sarah and John have an ally of their own, another time-tossed T-800, but reprogrammed to help our heroes and sacrifice itself for them, if need be. The stage set, the T-800, Sarah and John face off with the unstoppable T-1000 while Sarah realizes that if they really want to stop the robot holocaust called Judgment Day, then she needs to kill the scientist responsible for building Skynet. Sure, the guy is innocent, but what is one life weighed against billions? Only Sarah’s soul, but the stakes are so high, she is willing to hazard even that.
Amid shotgun motorcycle chases, minigun and grenade launcher shootouts, jackknifed semi tankers filled with liquid nitrogen, and survival scenes in and around vats of molten metal, Terminator 2 ditches the angsty horror of its first volume and focuses purely on adrenaline. But what the story gives up in premise and tone, it gains in technical virtuosity. T2 is a flawlessly executed action picture, featuring Oscar-worthy editing, and pushing the nascent realm of CGI to its limits in one astonishing set piece after another, all of which inhabit a scale and complexity that the modest budget of the first Terminator could never have attempted. On this front, T2 redefined the huge, sprawling action-effects blockbuster and inspired a whole new level of bombast and style-over-substance filmmaking that continues to reverberate in every summer release schedule some 25 years later. For that, we might blame T2 for a generation’s worth of forgettable and regrettable popcorn films, but we can’t overlook just how good T2 had to be to inspire them all in the first place.
But where T2 also scores huge points is with its deeper dive on the character of Sarah Connor: no longer a frightened damsel, but a hardened warrior in her own right whose mind is slowly crumbling under the weight of her self-awareness. Haunted by the nuclear fire she feels powerless to stop, confronted with having to trust a machine that tried to kill her once before, and feeling a mother’s fears that she is failing her son, Sarah is a complex, sympathetic badass who is a great hero because she manages to keep carrying on. Her burden is both unique and back-breaking, and we see that best in a great moment of truth during an early-ish action sequence when John and the Terminator decide to break Sarah out of the mental hospital where she has been imprisoned before the T-1000 tracks her down and makes sushi out of her
In the movie’s build-up—not quite as effective as what we got in The Terminator, but still quite good—we see how poorly Sarah is faring locked up. Abused by the staff, tormented by knowing the world thinks she is crazy, and afraid she maybe is going a little crazy (just not in the way the facility shrinks suspect), she is at the end of her rope. So when she finally breaks out and exacts a little revenge upon the guards who have made her life hell, it is a litany of richly deserved payback wrapped in violent catharsis. The instant when Sarah breaks a broomstick handle across one particularly sleazy guard’s face just might be the most satisfying knockout blows in action movie history. Eventually, when the T-1000, John and the Terminator all converge on Sarah at the same time, the action takes on a more familiar pace; kind of like an escort mission and a fetch quest smashed together and strapped to the back of a Saturn V rocket. And while that’s a whole lot of fun, and while getting to cheer for Arnold Schwarzenegger as a robotic hero this time is a hoot, seeing Sarah the momma bear who will not be denied is something special. She’s got a world to save, and if there’s going to be a Judgment Day, she’ll be the one who decides when it happens. Hell, yeah.