If there’s only one film that could accurately claim to be the “greatest action movie of all time” with little to no debate, it would certainly be Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Released just over 30 years ago in July of 1991, T2 was a massive hit and at the time was the “most expensive film ever made,” and it’s no wonder given the technological advancements in computer-generated imagery that had to occur before James Cameron was able to bring his liquid metal Terminator (which he originally wanted for the first film) to life. Sadly, the Terminator franchise hasn’t been doing so hot these past few years. Even Cameron’s return as a producer for Terminator: Dark Fate was unable to save it from being a massive box-office bomb, canceling any immediate plans for a sequel.
Yet, there has been a recent resurgence in Terminator-related media, including an upcoming Netflix anime series from Mother/Android director Mattson Tomlin, a post-T2 open-world survival video game, an upcoming RPG, and some recently launched fan-made podcasts and internet talk shows, just to name a few. While Terminator might not get another sequel anytime soon, it’s not exactly a dead franchise. But, regardless of the lack of new Terminator movies on the horizon, T2 has remained a sci-fi/action blockbuster masterpiece that, quite frankly, has yet to be dethroned. Between the stellar cast, the clever plot, and the groundbreaking special effects, Judgment Day is one of those sequels that truly surpass the original and continues to wow new audiences to this day. Unlike many of its future sequels, T2 thrives largely because it subverts our expectations while still being respectful to what came before.
Unless you were spoiled by the film’s trailers and overall marketing in the early ’90s (we’re so sorry), you probably didn’t know going into Terminator 2 that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 was actually the hero of this story. Instead, you spent the first 30 minutes or so thinking that you were rooting for Robert Patrick, who would turn out to be an even more frightening Terminator than Arnold was. This subversion is pretty subtle at first, and if you know the twist you’d hardly even recognize the little ways that James Cameron is constructing his narrative. For instance, you never see the T-1000 kill anybody or shape-shift for the first half-hour of the film, and when we do see him interact with humans, he’s either very polite, always wearing a policeman’s uniform, or he’s cautious, looking over his shoulder as if someone were watching his every move. Even the side of his stolen squad car reads, “to protect and to serve,” and with those words, Cameron, like the T-1000 itself, is conditioning us to believe that Patrick is the hero of this story.
Contrast this with the introduction of our hero, the T-800 who would come to be called “Uncle Bob” by the young John Connor (Edward Furlong). Arnold’s Terminator arrives and immediately assaults a bunch of bikers at a dive bar before burning one on a grill, stealing his clothes (including his boots), and afterward driving away on a stolen motorcycle as George Thorogood & the Destroyers’ “Bad to the Bone” fades away in the background. From the get-go, the T-800 isn’t painted as the hero, at least not in the traditional upstanding sense, rather he’s a violent killing machine with a singular goal in mind: find John Connor. Immediately, this T-800 feels familiar, although we know Arnold’s futuristic assassin from The Terminator was destroyed by Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). Because of his violent and uncaring nature, we think we know what he’s about to do and what’s going to happen next. We think we’ve seen this movie before.
Image via TriStar Productions
In less than 30 minutes (or just over if you watch the superior Special Edition), the climactic confrontation between the two Terminators — with John smack in the middle — occurs, an epic reveal that completely flips the audience on their heads as we learn that the T-800 is actually John’s protector, and the T-1000 is an advanced mimic-polyalloy prototype. From this moment on, all bets are off, and it’s better that way. Most of the time, when you go see an action blockbuster, be it Fast & Furious, Mission: Impossible, or the latest Marvel movie, you know exactly what you’re going to get, right down to the kinds of jokes or common phrases (“we’re family”) that’ll hear. Sure, the specifics change, and there’ll no doubt be a few plot twists here or there, but rarely is there a film so drastically different from the original in the way that Terminator 2 is from The Terminator. It’s just a shame that every Terminator sequel post-T2 — except maybe Terminator Salvation — tried to imitate Judgment Day’s greatness with the same familiar plot twists, tropes, and running gags (looking at you, Genisys).
Speaking of twists, Terminator 2 does a number on Sarah Connor, and in a way that makes her incredibly more compelling than last time around. The original 1984 film gave us a much younger, more innocent version of Sarah, one who worked a day job as a waitress, went out dancing at night with friends, and struggled to find a genuine love connection. If you were looking for a relatable main character, the first version of Sarah Connor fit the bill. She was an everywoman we could all relate to, especially in how she responded to the news of a future nuclear war and being pursued by a killer cyborg. Of course, after being saved by a soldier from that post-apocalyptic future, Sarah’s perspective began to change. By the end of the original film, she had fallen in love (only to lose it), had killed a Terminator, and discovered that she was pregnant before driving off into the storm. Yet, even after all that, she’s still not the warrior woman we see in T2.