50 years, 50 films: Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Mechanical madness takes over in the “caring 1990s”.
We managed to get through the 1980s without really touching on that era’s dedication to a school of blundering action that was as short on narrative nuance as it was strong on cheap quips. Throughout that period, the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger occupied a strange place in the movie hierarchy. They often got tolerable reviews. The Terminator was well received by those reviewers that saw it. Total Recall also got a few thumbs up. But there was alway a sense that Schwarzenegger was a novelty who would soon go the way of Lassie or Shirley Temple. The high-concept comedies were beginning to creak into action with Twins. Didn’t this count as a tacit admission that Arnold wasn’t really in it for the duration?
How naive we were. James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day is, in many ways, a less interesting film than its predecessor. The savage cyborg from the future has now become distinctly cuddly. Though the effects seemed astonishing at the time, after so many advances, they now look rather less interesting than the ingenious mid-budget work on The Terminator. But the film offers endless lessons on now to sustain momentum in action cinema. There are twists and turns. But the pace is pretty relentless throughout. Judgement Day also confirms Cameron’s continuing interest in constructing films around female actors: Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton, Kate Winslet. Many feminist critics have been justifiably sceptical about overstating such advances. But the Cameron films did shake a few prejudices.
More than anything else, however, the picture deserves mention for its implicit assertion that the 1980s action aesthetic wasn’t going anywhere. Indeed, Judgement Day gave the genre respectability, ensured that it would control really big budgets and marked out its status as the provider of key annual tent-poles. Cameron opened the door and the likes of Michael Bay happily blundered their way into the party. Even if you don’t care for the picture, you can’t deny its status as an industry bellwether. Cameron went on to direct the two most financially lucrative films of all time.
It remains a cracking film. Cameron’s use of Schwarzenegger is as crafty as John Ford’s use of John Wayne. He knew that there was no hope of portraying the Austrian as a human being. So he allowed Arnie to paint himself into his own weird icon. That object of worship is still with us today. Lassie should have lasted so long.
For 1991, we also considered The Double Life of Véronique, Raise the Red Lantern, Boyz ‘n the Hood, A Brighter Summer Day and My Own Private Idaho