Like many people who grew up in the 1980s, I've seen the original Terminator a good chunk of times. It was one of those films that just seemed to end up in the VCR with great frequency, and, also like many others, I thought the film indicated some interesting ideas for a follow-up. But when 1991 rolled around, the Hollywood hype machine was indicating a lot of things that gave me serious pause to wonder if the film would be what I'd hoped for. For one thing, there was much to-do about this exciting new effect technique being utilzed to bring to life a new "liquid metal" terminator, an idea which didn't (and still doesn't) seem plausible. For another thing, there was the fact that Schwartzeneggar was going to be in it again, which made no sense. For still another, there was the disappointing fact that the film wasn't going to be centered on the future resistance war briefly shown in flashbacks (or flash-forwards, depending on how one looks at it) in the original film. Where else could you go with this story? The answer, it seemed, was that it didn't have to go anywhere at all. It could stay right where it was, but I'll admit that I walked into the theater skeptical and walked out very entertained. That's good. But it's not really enough.
Following an unspecified number of years after the events of part one, we find future savior of humanity John Conner living in foster care, after his mother was consigned to the booby hatch for her crazy rantings about apocalypses and killer robots. Meanwhile, the computer developer who will one day create the sentient machine that will declare war on humanity inches ever closer to bringing about Armageddon, blissfully unaware of the path he's walking. Plagued by recurring and horrible nightmares of nuclear devastation, Sarah tries repeatedly to escape to protect her son, whom she's told will one day grow up to be the man who turns the tide in the war to come. But two more terminators unexpectedly show up in modern times, both tracking John. It turns out one of the pair, who looks identical to the one from the first film, has been reprogrammed to protect John from the prototype T-1000, the aforementioned liquid metal monster. Realizing the T-800 terminator is programmed to obey him, John decides to break his mother out of incarceration, and the three hit the road in an attempt to stay ahead of the T-1000, forming possibly the most dysfunctional family unit in history.
James Cameron does try, and sometimes he succeeds, but rarely in the total package. Almost two decades later, the film still looks great. The effects of the morphing terminator were so visually impressive at the time that they almost completely distracted you from the utter implausibility of the idea, which could be discussed at length after the film had ended but pretty much sold you while it was in progress. On the other hand, it's hard to understand why Cameron chose to essentially repeat his action scenes from the first Terminator almost precisely (the "tanker full of volatile liquid whose destruction seems to destroy the bad guy but actually doesn't" scene is particularly guilty of repetition) instead of creating something new. And in terms of logic, the time-travel elements are a nightmare, casually tossing around ontological paradoxes and generally wiping its ass with the idea of proper cause-and-effect, not to mention making Kyle Reese, the hero of the first movie, seem like an idiot for all of the information he apparently got wrong (the all-metal terminator can use the time machine, the time machine wasn't blown up, oh by the way, I won't warn you that another terminator will arrive in ten years, etc.).
The element that works the best, pioneering FX work notwithstanding, is Linda Hamilton's performance. She quite effectively plays the damaged heroine who's driven to do anything, no matter how terrible, to stop the war that dominates her dreams. Edward Furlong is also pretty effective as John, a kid who's had anything but a normal life but who can still view, as per the privilige of the young, the world in terms of simple morality versus horribly adult, cynical dickerings about "acceptable losses." But the efficacy of the film's message varies widely: Sarah's mid-film epiphany concerning the terminator's innate superiority as a father figure is an odd and interesting choice that doesn't get explored as much as could be done, whereas her later rant about how only women truly understand creation because they can give birth is frankly quite ridiculous; raising a decent kid is one thing (and not limited to females), but simply birthing a child is the biological equivalent of popping in a microwave dinner in terms of creativity-one basic act followed by a bit of waiting, requiring no active input from anyone. And honestly, trying to explain to the terminator why people cry comes off like a bad Data subplot from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I'm glad that Cameron tries to interject some human feelings into films of this ilk, but they all too often come off as having been lifted whole from The Handy Screenwriter's Guide to Basic Sentiment.
For all of its real entertainment value, which is considerable, Terminator 2 just feels in so many ways as if it was simply unnecessary. It may look better than its predecessor, but it's not a better film, and in many ways it's weaker. Not all of this is really the director's fault; by the time the sequel rolled around, the threat of global nuclear holocaust wasn't really worrying anyone anymore. The first film was an effective mood piece in its reaction to the times. T2 feels out of touch with its own era, and its cautionary message falls flat. James Cameron chooses the terminator, supposedly the dispassionate voice of pure, hard data, to make the claim "It's in your [people's] nature to destroy yourselves." Funnily, actual evolutionary biologists say quite the reverse, that human nature tends towards cooperation and empathy; any life-form than tended towards self-destruction would never have become the planet's dominant species. James Cameron films would likely be better off eschewing attempts at high-brow social commentary and concentrating on the shit blowing up. Because, really, the shit blowing up looks really cool.
-review by Matt Murray