‘Terminator’ flashback: ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ movie and novelization (1991) (Review)

The latest issue of Star Wars Insider (No. 155) espouses ring theory as a way to glean greater depth from the repeating motifs in the “Star Wars” films. The theory could also be applied to James Cameron’s two “Terminator” films: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991) copies so many plot points and set pieces from the first film that it’s as much a remake as it is a sequel.

Indeed, Sarah Connor’s pre-credits narration simply states that, as before, a Terminator and a protector are sent back through time to fight it out. Other coincidences include a hero being treated as crazy by the authorities (Sarah instead of Kyle), a bad guy taking the guise of the police (the T-1000 instead of the T-800), a climactic highway chase and a bittersweet denouement in an industrial factory.

Yet “T2” feels different from the original. “The Terminator” was one of the last great stop-motion and molded-masks special effects films, and “T2” was one of the first great CGI films. The T-1000’s liquid-metal shapeshifting abilities were mind-blowing in the air-conditioned movie theaters of 1991, and “T2” still holds up as a technically flawless movie.

Whereas Cameron didn’t know for sure that “The Terminator” would be a hit, “T2” was designed to be an epic blockbuster. As such, the script by Cameron and William Wisher is more self-aware than Skynet on Judgment Day (hey-O!): Where the first film is relentlessly grim, “T2” is often laugh-out-loud funny. “The Terminator” had “I’ll be back,” but “T2” has a dozen one-liners. My personal favorite is Arnold’s “Of course, I’m a Terminator,” in response to John asking him if he was gonna kill that guy. Kind of odd that “Hasta la vista, baby” didn’t really catch on, though.

Despite being a smorgasbord of violence, with so many explosions that all future Fourth of Julys will pale in comparison, “T2” wears on its sleeve a sensitivity to killing — which, in the story, is explained by John instructing the T-800 to not kill anyone (“T2” features more bullets to the knee than any other film in history, though). Indeed, the theme of a robot learning to be human is a classic sci-fi trope, and it forms the heart of this film the same way a traditional (albeit time-crossed) romance yarn provided the heart of the original.

“T2” is a blatant anti-technology film that says something positive about technology, thus managing to please adherents of both viewpoints. All the good guys agree that destroying the Cyberdyne technology is essential; the bad guys are either ignorant (the police and mental ward workers, and Dyson until he’s scared straight) or a programmed machine (the T-1000). No one verbally points out that the technology in and of itself isn’t evil. For example, a study of the arm and chip could lead to advancements in artificial limbs, which would improve many people’s lives. What our heroes really have to prevent is the U.S. government giving autonomy to Skynet.

But by showing the T-800 protecting John and demonstrating an ability to learn (and become more human, so to speak), “T2” holds up machines as helpers rather than destroyers. By that reading, the Cyberdyne raid comes not so much from anti-tech zealotry as it does from sheer pragmatism: It’ll be easier to destroy Cyberdyne’s research than to convince the powers-that-be to be wary of bad outcomes.

I like the original movie slightly more due to its grittiness, but I can’t begrudge folks who rate “T2” as one of those rare sequels that’s better than the original.

CHARACTERS AND ACTORS

John Connor: It’s easy to forget how daring it was for Cameron to make our first exposure to the iconic character that of a 10-year-old punk who entertains himself by stealing cash from ATMs. Edward Furlong has been criticized by some, but I find him effective in the role, with good chemistry across from the purposely robotic Arnold. My only quibble is that he seems a couple years older than 10 (he was 12 during production), but I suppose John has been hardened by his life. (Actually, our very first screen vision of Connor is the 2029 facially scarred warrior played by Michael Edwards. And Linda Hamilton’s son, Dalton Abbott, plays Toddler John in a dream sequence.)

Sarah Connor: Hamilton impressively sculpts her body and deepens her voice to become an iconic female action hero after her Campbellian journey of the first film. Here, she should be in the teacher role, but in the “Terminator” films, everyone is a teacher and a student simultaneously: Indeed, Sarah and the T-800 learn love and the value of human life from John. The “T2” novelization by Randall Frakes says Sarah is killed during the war (in the history of Kyle’s timeline) when John is in his 20s – thus putting Sarah in her 40s when she dies. In the new timeline, which averts J-Day, she’s a happy grandmother in 2029.

Kyle Reese: In a deleted scene, Michael Biehn returns for one of Sarah’s dream sequences, where Kyle reminds her that “the future is not set.” The novelization tells us that John and Kyle “weren’t friends.”

Miles Dyson: Between this role as the Cyberdyne scientist and his turn in “The X-Files’ ” backward-time-travel episode, Joe Morton became one of my favorite character actors. Dyson’s adrenaline-laced fear is palpable as he shakes uncontrollably when attacked by Sarah and, later, the SWAT team.

TERMINATORS

T-800, model 101: Although Arnold Schwarzenegger reprises his role, he’s obviously a different unit from the first film. The concept of a reprogrammed Terminator became so popular that every subsequent screen incarnation has used it, with Arnold playing the role twice more after this (“T3” and “Genisys”). The novelization tells us the 800 series is the name of the endoskeleton itself, rather than the name of the infiltrator variety.

T-1000: In another “X-Files” connection, Robert Patrick – also a fine character actor — plays the steely faced liquid metal shapeshifter, an “advanced prototype.”

CONTINUITY

The film and the novelization never explicitly say “T2” takes place in 1995, but both state that John is 10, meaning the events have to take place in ’94 or ’95. The “Terminator” Wiki says the latter. At one point, the novelization mistakenly says it’s 1992; that’s either a typo or perhaps a holdover from an earlier draft where the writers intended to use a younger John.

The Terminator arm and computer chip from the 1984 factory fight provide a bridge to the sequel: Cyberdyne is studying the future tech, and the road will end with Skynet’s self-awareness and Judgment Day. Here, we learn that Kyle told Sarah the J-Day date, at least from history as he knows it: Aug. 29, 1997.

The events of Dark Horse’s “Tempest” comic – where Cyberdyne’s initial foray into reverse-engineering the T-800 wreckage was thwarted in 1984 — are not mentioned in “T2.” The novelization does, however, briefly mention Greg and Jack, the Cyberdyne founders from the first movie’s novelization.

As “T2” opens, Sarah is locked in a mental hospital because of an off-screen attack on Cyberdyne (perhaps a story for a future comic book?). At mid-film, she resolves to kill Dyson, but it’s a good thing she doesn’t, as he proves essential to the raid on the Cyberdyne building. The human/Terminator hybrid in “Tempest” likewise recognized that the specific scientist studying the wreckage should not be targeted, as there would always be someone to follow his work. It’s the materials and research that need to be destroyed.

According to the novelization, in the J-Day from Kyle’s history, nukes were exchanged between the Northern superpowers, thus leaving the Southern Hemisphere in better shape, something the Now Comics also espoused. But the timing is different between the “T2” lore and the Now Comics lore: J-Day happens in 1997 according to “T2,” whereas 1998 was pre-JD in the Now Comics, as the United Nations started a moon base that year. The details are also different: In the Now Comics, Skynet observes humans for a while, then decides they desire death. In the novelization, Skynet launches the nukes as self-defense when the humans realize they’ve given it too much power and attempt to pull the plug.

The details of the 2029 TDE (time-displacement equipment) stories are also different between the various comics and the “T2” novelization. In the novelization, John – knowing that he is pre-ordained to do so — sends back Kyle and the good T-800 as his colleagues tell him Skynet has sent two Terminators back. The comics, for obvious reasons, only chronicle the time travel of the first movie. If we’re being generous, the comic yarns don’t preclude the TDE sequence continuing to include the good T-800’s and T-1000’s time travel. However, the novelization says Skynet sends the T-1000 back in the very instant before Skynet dies. That seems to contradict the continuation of the war in the Now Comics, and “Tempest,” which chronicled a second TDE mission “three months later.”

TIME TRAVEL

“T2’s” time travel sequence – chronicled in the novelization – piggybacks onto the scene from the first movie: John and Skynet each send back their two agents (to 1984 and 1995) in the same sequence of events in 2029 – each at different ends of the TDE facility, thus explaining the different locations of the agents’ arrivals.

As with the 1984 movie, “fate versus free will” is a major subtext of “T2.” But here, free will is the clear victor, which makes sense as these two movies were all Cameron had to say on the subject. But maybe he hedges his bets just a tad …

Evidence for “fate”:

  • The Cyberdyne subplot has fatalistic overtones. Even with Sarah’s victory in the first movie, Cyberdyne still pursues the series of events that will lead toward J-Day (in history as Kyle knows it). Sarah is terrified of fate, as is Dyson after hearing her story – even though he understands it is merely one possible future and it’s not fair to judge him on things he hasn’t done yet.
  • For many years, debate raged over the T-800 forearm left in the gears of the steel plant in “T2”: Was it a plot hole or a hook for a possible three-quel? While it’s not a microchip, the arm could be a way of saying the forces fate will always win in the end (which just so happens to be the theme of the third movie).
  • In the novelization, as he’s sending Kyle and the reprogrammed T-800 back in time, John thinks, “(My) very existence could be erased. Or maybe everything would still turn out the same.” While he doesn’t know how time travel affects reality, John is directed by fate to send the good T-800 to 1995 after he gets the news that Skynet has sent back the T-1000. This version of John experienced the events of “T2” himself, even though the Kyle from the first movie does not share the 1995 events with Sarah. The easiest explanation is that John did not tell Kyle about the 1995 events. This was stupid on John’s part, but understandable in that John didn’t want to befriend Kyle and thus make it harder to send him on the mission. There is a more complex explanation, though. This brings us to …

Evidence that “the future is not set”:

  • Kyle never tells Sarah about Skynet’s 1995 attempt on John’s life. As noted above, this is probably because John doesn’t tell him about the 1995 events. Another possibility is that the events of “T2” did not happen in the history that the Kyle from the 1984 movie knows. If so, the creation of a new event on the timeline is proof that the future is changeable.
  • As noted in the “continuity” section, we’ve read differing accounts of J-Day and the 2029 TDE sequence in “Terminator” lore. The real-world reason is that the movies didn’t concern themselves with the comics. An in-universe reason could be that the contrasting stories happen on different timelines, and an act of time travel allows for new, slightly different events to overwrite the old. Or VERY different events …
  • The end of the novelization definitively states that the future has been drastically changed thanks to the events in 1995. The novelization even has Sarah grab the smashed arm and throw it into the molten steel, tying up that narrative loose end. An epilogue takes us to the new 2029, where Sarah is a grandmother and John is a senator and a father of two kids, who happily play in a park. Sarah had considered looking up “the other Kyle” but decided he would not be the same Kyle.
  • Even if you discount the novelization as being canonical, the movie also concludes with a statement that the future is not set, but more subtly. The movie ends with Sarah’s hopeful line: “If a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.” We see highway lines heading toward the horizon, suggesting a timeline where we can’t see the future.

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