Terminator was born from a nightmare.
In 1981, James Cameron was in Italy working on the production of Piranha II: The Spawning (“finest flying killer fish horror/comedy ever made”) and was running a bad fever. That night, in what was no doubt a troubled sleep, he dreamt that a metallic torso was dragging itself away from an explosion holding kitchen knives. Cameron worked on his idea while in Italy and continued to develop it back in the States. A lot of people expected the movie to be a failure but it wasn’t. It was released in 1984 to major success and James Cameron’s career was set.
Six years later, he started work on the sequel.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day picks up eleven years after the first film. John Conner is 10 years old and living with foster parents. His mother, Sarah Conner, has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital after getting caught trying to blow up a computer factory. John soon finds himself under fire from the liquid-metal T-1000 Terminator disguised as a police officer, only to be rescued by the older T-800 model (who I shall refer to as ‘Arnie’). They manage to rescue Sarah from the hospital and they go on the run together.
The majority of T2 (and most certainly the majority of encounters with the T-1000), take place at night. There is an ominous, foreboding feeling, a sense of dread and isolation. Everywhere you go, the Terminator might be there. Everyone you see, the Terminator might be them. It’s a hostile fearful atmosphere that could have come straight out of The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe or Night-Gaunts by H.P. Lovecraft. The way everything slows down when the T-1000 first makes contact with John and then then Arnie shows up, pulling a shotgun out of a box of roses feels like a nightmare. It makes you feel so helpless, as though you’re watching everything happen and you are unable to stop it (it just occurred to me that, as a person watching a film, that is exactly the case).
Another thing the film touches on, if not deliberately, is the concept of the nature of Artificial Intelligence. There are films such as Blade Runner, I Robot and Deus Ex that grapple with the idea of what it means to be human and indeed, what it means to truly be alive. The T-1000 shows brief flashes of emotion and personality. There is confusion and shock on its face when it starts to freeze in the liquid nitrogen. After it reforms, a ripple goes through it that looks to me like anger and frustration. In an effort to lure in John, the Terminator skewers Sarah through her shoulder, pinning her to a wall and telling her to call for her son. When she refuses, it twists the blade, telling her “I know this hurts”. The T-1000 seems to enjoy a certain sadist pleasure in doing so. Now none of this means that the machine was alive, nor does Arnie’s growing personality. They were both learning machines and the more time they spend with humans, the more human-like they appear. While they aren’t exactly alive in the conventional sense, you could almost say that this is the beginning signs of life. They may not experience emotions in the way we do with their emotion responses being a reaction to things we humans say or do but of course this is the very definition of an emotion response. Three or so billion year ago, life on Earth was simple multi-cellular organisms eating and breeding in pools of hydro-carbons. Perhaps these glimpses of deus ex machina are the mechanical equivalent of bio-genesis.
Moving beyond the realms of science fiction, something else I really admire about this film is the way John grows throughout the film. He starts off as a delinquent and when you take a look at his foster-parents, it’s not hard to see why John is so troubled. Todd (the father) is lazy and inconsiderate, doesn’t want to help his wife (Janelle) and is resentful when she insists on him doing the bare minimum that is required to look after a child. Janelle is said (by John) to be somewhat of a bitch but to be fair, that’s probably because of the fact that she has a man-child and a wayward actual child to look after. Of course, once John is reunited with his actual mother and the T-800, his attitude improves and he is shown to be resourceful, capable, mature and very caring. It’s when he’s spending time with Arnie that he truly shines. John has no decent role models and you can see just how much better he is when he is surrounded by love and devotion and support.
This film was a monument of cinema. The special effects, ground-breaking and world leading for the time still hold up twenty-six years later. Animating the T-1000’s liquid metal form took nearly ten months, five million dollars and twenty-five years worth of hours worked. The effects for Sarah’s vision of the nuclear holocaust was made with intricate scale models of cities which were then blown up using air-mortars. If there is one thing I love in science-fiction films, it’s scale models. The amount of work and effort and skill that goes into crafting those tiny pieces of real life is just incredible.
I will admit, the conversion to 3D didn’t really do much for me. This isn’t a space-film or one that involves a lot of flying or anything that really benefits from the 3D but it’s still looks good. So while I don’t think there was really much gained, there certainly wasn’t anything lost. And maybe the aesthetic gives away the fact that the film is 26 years old, but the quality of the footage certainly doesn’t.
They just don’t make films like this anymore. There really isn’t much out there like it. Go see it in the cinema. It’s great seeing classic films like this on the big screen and for a quality film such as this, it will be well worth your money.
– Tim Baker