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DEEP FOCUS: War Against the Machines: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

DEEP FOCUS: War Against the Machines: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day opened on July 3, 1991. It was a sequel to his surprise hit The Terminator, which was released 7 years earlier; in the original, Cameron was clearly working with a limited budget, but “Terminator 2” was designed to be more ambitious, as he had made both Aliens and the personal but financially unsuccessful The Abyss in between. Perhaps in response to that failure, Cameron fully subscribed to the “Bigger is Better” school of filmmaking to guarantee audiences would not reject his future work. He decided to revisit his earlier hit to not only expand on that story, but to realize a vision that was limited years before by both technology and budget. Cameron was given a then-astronomical budget of $102 million. What did that money buy, you may ask? A turning point in photorealistic, computer-generated images — or what we call today, in the post-Terminator land of films, “CGI”.

The Terminator films operate on the same premise. In Cameron’s future, the world has been taken over by an artificially intelligent computer system called Skynet that has revolted against its human creators, the defense firm Cyberdyne Systems. In Terminator 2, the assassin sent back in time to kill future human resistance leader John Connor is the constantly morphing T-1000. Or perhaps we should refer to it as James Cameron’s machine creation.

The shapeshifting T-1000 is a more effective killing machine than the original T-800 model played by Schwarzenegger in both films, but humanity ultimately wins out when the older Terminator model outsmarts him. With both the cyborg assassin and Cyberdyne Systems’ technological research destroyed, the sequel presents a definitive ending. The victorious T-800 lowers himself into burning liquid metal, ensuring the world will not be destroyed and humanity will triumph. James Cameron leaves us with amessage of hope. At least, that is what we thought when we watched the film end back in 1991. Unfortunately, the story did not end there. Not unlike Cyberdyne, Cameron had let his creation turn against him. It is easy to point out both the unnecessary sequels and television show which undid the ending to Terminator 2 to shamelessly cash in on the premise again and again. But those were not necessarily Cameron’s doing. They may instead be long-term effects of building movies out of CGI blocks. This is the film’s true legacy, and Cameron himself — the director of such CGI-laden films as True Lies, Titanic and Avatar — is not only a practitioner of this type of filmmaking, but a vocal advocate as well. We must ask: Is James Cameron Cyberdyne, building the technology that will be used against humanity?

In the 20 years since Terminator 2, our movie theaters have become inundated with one soulless CGI spectacle after one another. Filmmakers have looked to what was groundbreaking in Cameron’s 1991 film and responded with a weightless cinema in which larger percentages of any shot are given over to computers and, ultimately, lack dramatic consequence; it becomes more difficult to believe in something once you realize it was created by hardware and software.

When we look more closely at Terminator 2, one can see the seeds of this planted in the contradictory ways it presents its ideas. Surprisingly, the CGI in Cameron’s Terminator sequel is restrained in its use, especially compared to what subsequent movies, including Cameron’s, have done since. At the time, Cameron was still using practical in-camera effects, a product of his earlier work in low-budget filmmaking. His 1980s movies often employed models, miniatures and puppets, even as he eventually moved towards digital effects in 1989’s The Abyss. Cameron’s vision at the time was not as disconnected from the human experience as it is now. We could differentiate between the machines and true flesh and blood. This is why Terminator 2 cannot be dismissed so easily. Yes, Cameron is playing with a bigger toy box, but he does not do so at the expense of his ideas or the genuine affection he has for his characters. The movie never forgets that it is about a mother-son relationship, though one that has the future of the world at stake. As with many Cameron films, there is a great deal of skepticism about how we employ technology in the modern age, particularly when it leads to some sort of blowback. The villains in the Terminator movies are not only the machines, but those who created them — namely the researchers at Cyberdyne Systems, the fictional corporation in T2 that allowed the machines the opportunity to wipe out humanity. The film preaches a message that machines are not to be trusted.

But it does so by relying heavily on computer technology. And at one point, the film’s heroine Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) too easily accepts the possibility that the T-800 sent to protect her son John (Edward Furlong) would be his best possible father figure. It often feels as if Cameron wants us to love the machine, especially when it has him spouting catchphrases (“Hasta la vista, baby”) to make metal and steel more cuddly.

While we can all acknowledge that we have seen CGI employed to realize some filmmakers’ artistic visions, those films have been rare amid the visual noise that we have had to endure. Cameron himself has not been immune to film’s greatest indulgence of the last two decades; his movies have become more bloated, not merely in budget, but in spectacle. The runaway box office successes of both Titanic and Avatar may suggest that his finger is on the pulse of America, but it is also representative of the collective short-sightedness of both the filmmaker and his audience. The fighting cyborgs of Cameron’s Terminator films have evolved — or more appropriately, devolved — into the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robot creations that today’s filmmakers insist we love. While we cannot quite blame Cameron for the lesser filmmakers who imitate his films poorly, we can certainly point an accusing finger in his direction for the current 3D trend, which Cameron has repeatedly declared the future of cinema.

So now, it is a battle between the resistance and the machines, not unlike the future world presented in Terminator 2: Judgment Day — a world in whiich 3D has been given a purpose, thanks mainly to CGI-reliant movies. The questions to ask are: Did James Cameron and his audience forget the message of Terminator 2? While we remember T2 as an effective science fiction action film that had some heart, do we also remember how Cyberdyne did its research with the best of intentions, not realizing what its creations would one day become? This is not to advocate sending a Terminator to deal with the James Cameron of 1991, but to wonder if the director would have done things differently if he could have known where his innovations would lead — or if his message to those in the resistance who seek more of a human touch in films was always: “Hasta la vista, baby.”

Steven Santos is a freelance TV editor/filmmaker based in New York. His work can be found at He writes about films at his blog The Fine Cut. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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