It was 30 years ago on July 3, 1991 that Terminator 2: Judgment Day hit movie theaters and sequels would never be the same again.
The bar had also been lifted on action movies as well. Gone were the days of the Cannon Group action movies that may have had gunfire and explosions but boring plots and pedestrian wooden acting in between the eye candy.
Normally, sequels were either cash grabs, like Ghostbusters II, or movie franchises focusing on comics, such as those Pink Panther movies. But most of them either failed at the box office and/or were mauled by critics. Anyone remember Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo released less than a year than its predecessor.
Even 1970s classics such as The French Connection and The Exorcist couldn’t escape the sequels following the success of The Godfather Part II.
So, when Terminator 2 came out, it was a surprise that it was actually better the first and made far more money.
The first Terminator movie was a surprise sci-fi action movie released in 1984 produced on a modestly low budget of about $6-7 million by the now defunct Hemdale production company and distributed by Orion Pictures. It ended up grossing over $78 million worldwide, half of which was at America’s box office.
And I must say it was a well made movie with a great plot, acting and pacing and thrilling action scenes.
The movie had the good fortune of hit both the home video and cable market right when they both exploded in the mid-1980s. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who played the titular character, became a star and his catchphrase, “I’ll be back” was used constantly in movies.
Arnold’s star rose but Linda Hamilton, who played the female lead Sarah Connor, had to rely on TV with Beauty and the Beast after King Kong Lives failed and other movies, such as Mr. Destiny, had her reduced to supporting roles.
James Cameron hit paydirt with Aliens and then almost lost his life making The Abyss, when an assistant director failed to refill his oxygen tank. The turmoil surrounding that movie meant that Cameron had a lot riding on the Terminator sequel. If it bombed, he probably would’ve gone back to cheap movies and script writing that was common at the beginning of his career.
The good news Schwarzenegger had a big hit in 1990 with Total Recall (which is probably his best movie and role, next to the first two Terminator movies) and was showing off his comedic side with Twins and Kindergarten Cop.
This time, Arnold was playing a good guy as the T-800 as the movie is set in the mid-1990s. SkyNet has sent a more advanced Terminator, T-1000 (Robert Patrick in a very menacing role as a mostly blankless expression demeanor) back to Los Angeles. This cyborg can shapeshift, where as the T-800 was just a hulky cyborg. Both are deadly and both are out to kill each other, but only this time, the T-1000 is trying to kill John Connor, (Edward Furlong in his first role) now a tween, and anyone who gets in the way.
The T-800 has a goal to protect John but has to obey him. And Sarah Connor is now in a psychiatric hospital trying to convince anyone who’ll listen about the pending doom when the computers launch nuclear warheads and begin to annihilate humanity.
Hamilton got a lot of attention for her change in portrayal going from a regular young waitress in southern California to a badass woman who don’t take no shit off anyone. And Hamilton does a damn good job at it. As a matter of fact, this along with Thelma and Louise showed audiences and America that women didn’t have to be damsels in distress. If you were to ask 100 people at random who’ve seen this movie to name three memorable scenes, everyone would probably reply the scene where Sarah one-arm cocks a shotgun as she blows buckshot into the T-1000.
Cameron and company threw everything on the table from high-speed chases to massive explosions to thousands of rounds of gunfire being fired at anything and everything. And what the hell not? Let’s have a helicopter chase an armored truck and then get have the helicopter slam into the truck.
Michael Bay and Zack Snyder probably watched it and pleasured themselves when they first saw it.
But surprisingly, it didn’t seem excessive. Cameron and co-writer William Wisher knew when to stop the action and violence to have scenes that furthered the plot. And these scenes don’t seem like exposition or drag the movie down.
They actually help the plot as John is a young man finds the father figure he needed in the T-800. And there’s something amusing about John telling the T-800 how to act less like a cyborg by answering people by saying “No problemo” and of course, “Hasta la vista, baby.”
Also in the plot is the feeling that Sarah doesn’t really trust the T-800. Why should she? The first one tried to kill her by any means necessary. But at the end when the T-800 saves her life, there is a mutual respect between the two as she shakes the T-800’s hand.
With production costs reported anywhere between $90-100 million, it was the most expensive movie at the time and even Schwarzenegger later said reshoots were being done and edited about two weeks before the release.
One notable production note is how the bar scene at the beginning where the T-800 walks in to look for clothing was filmed on the same night a motorist named Rodney King was being videotaped being beaten by four Los Angeles police officers not far from the bar.
The T-1000 wears the clothing of a LAPD officer and there’s been discussion that Cameron did so because he was upset over the paramilitarization of police officers by the early 1990s. Even though not many officers are shot or killed, police were still upset about them being targeted in both this movie and the video game. Apparently, no one was upset about the scene of Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), being shot wildly by SWAT personnel or how they fire on the T-800 even though he isn’t armed.
Without a doubt, a lot was riding on this movie. And the success changed not only sequels but action movies in general. By the mid-1990s, movies like True Lies, Speed, Bad Boys, Twister and The Rock, would do what T2 did and go for broke. Blown Away in 1994 used massive explosions, one of which came close to injuring Jeff Bridges when debris flew near him and the ending angered many Bostonians as the explosion of the ship was just a little too much when it reportedly shattered 8,000 windows.
While Speed 2 was a letdown, both Scream 2 and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me pushed the limits of sequels. Unfortunately, Die Hard With a Vengeance decided that John McClane should be almost invincible and the franchise began to show its edges. By the beginning of the 21st Century, it was all about the sequels.
And even the Terminator franchise itself would go down that rabbit hole with several sequels and reboots, none of them achieving what the first two did. I’m almost certain that if The Abyss had been a bigger success, the whole thing would’ve ended with Sarah Conner in Mexico driving off in her Jeep.