Before I sat down and watched The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day more or less back-to-back, I had the idea in my head that they were pretty similar movies. They reside in the same franchise, after all, and both utilized much of the same creative team, with James Cameron notably leading both efforts as writer and director. They are clearly his movies, but why did I walk away feeling so much stronger for one than the other?
More pointedly, why did I walk away thinking T2 paled miserably in comparison to its older brother, T1? The difference is stark, and T2 feels like a completely different film than T1, one that is worse in every regard. Yet, Judgement Day is the series entry most often related to The Terminator franchise. Even before my re-watch, I surely thought the sequel to be the superior movie. So, what changed? Why are the two movies so distinctly different in tone, approach and most importantly, quality?
Well, in a sentence, because somewhere in between The Terminator and Judgement Day, James Cameron became James Cameron™. That is, he grew out of his earlier, more constrained-by-budget efforts, morphing into the megalomaniac and box office juggernaut we know him as today. He became the first filmmaker to gross one billion at the box office, and it seems that was always the goal for his ego. Maybe not that exact figure, but the idea that he could draw a bigger audience than anyone else, that was always lurking in the background of the truck-driver-turned-hitmaker. He just needed time (and money) to realize that ambition.
Earlier in his career, though, Cameron made comparatively smaller films like Piranha Part Two: The Spawning and The Terminator because he had to. His brand of blockbuster cinema had yet to be established, so no one trusted him with a 100 million dollar idea drawn completely from his own imagination. As it turns out, the constraints imposed on the director by a tight budget worked in his favor, as most of his bigger budget work is fairly forgettable trash aimed at the broadest of audiences. Does anyone care about Avatar or the three sequels currently in production?
Cameron’s shift in vision and execution is most visible in the change from T1 to T2. The Terminator is rooted in a lot of big sci-fi ideas surrounding time-travel and the evolution of machines, but the film doesn’t spend too much time getting into the nitty gritty of those ideas. The potential for time-travel paradoxes are revealed to us, and they are a threat, but the script doesn’t overly complicate these theories, as every other Terminator sequel has done. It’s a smart way of handling lofty, tripped-out science fiction concepts – the excitement around those ideas is present, but the film doesn’t get bogged down in their muck.
Not just that, but The Terminator is a straight-faced, hard-nosed drama. Cameron wasn’t messing around here. He took the subject matter seriously and kept the cutesy and jokey stuff to a minimum. This makes the film feel more emotionally mature and weighty. Even though everything depicted on screen feels out there, the audience is invested in the survival of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), so we’re kept grounded.
Most crucially of all, the film feels smaller than T2. There are huge action set pieces involving eighteen-wheelers (because Jim Cameron used to be a long haul trucker so he likes big trucks, I guess), but most of the film’s drama comes from Kyle and Sarah’s growing relationship, as well as the relentless pursuit from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 hunter-killer machine.
Arnold, also, is vastly different in The Terminator compared to T2. When the first film shot, it had only been fifteen years since the Austrian had been crowned Mr. Universe, and by all accounts, he kept his body tight. He’s in tip-top physical shape, but his acting, not so much. That’s why he has so little dialogue in T1, because the only notable leading roles he had landed by then were for the Conan films. This is not to say his earlier, dubbed-over work isn’t worth it is, especially if you’re watching him fight a bear in Hercules in New York – and, c’mon, those Conan flicks are classic. But “Aah-nold” hadn’t become the world’s biggest action star yet, so there wasn’t as much faith in his ability to handle a large amount of dialogue.
This is also a strength in his performance as The Terminator, to be sure. Not that I don’t like Arnold’s later work as tough guy cinema mega star, it’s because – in this case – his general silence adds weight to his embodiment of a single-minded, relentless force of evil. When we see Arnold’s formidable frame marching across the screen, steady and unstoppable toward Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, there’s a sense of dread that they’ll never be able to outrun this killing machine.
That’s what I like most about The Terminator, but for the most part, Terminator 2 undoes all of that goodness. Besides being significantly less Biehn-y without Michael Biehn, in T2 the time-travel gets head-achingly complex, and the tone of the story transitions from serious sci-fi to something like a joke-heavy buddy-cop movie, starring partners John Connor and his robot pal, T-800.
T2, of course, is much bigger in just about every way. There’s something blowing up throughout most of the movie, and while the synthesized score from The Terminator survives into T2, it’s accompanied by a glaringly out-of-place monster ballad, “You Could Be Mine,” written by 1990s rock n’ roll heroes – and contemporary embarrassments – Guns N’ Roses. They also shot a terrible tie-in video for the song, which feels like a concise representation of the kind of director James Cameron had become by then – the kind of schlock director who would use a popular pop group at the time, to add appeal to his movie.
Really, that’s all that it comes down to. By the time Cameron was making T2, he had fully transitioned into being a mainstream, populist filmmaker who was more interested in pleasing massive audiences than making truly original work. I sound like an asshole writing that, I will add I have nothing against mainstream filmmaking, it’s just that most of Cameron’s movies in the ‘90s and onward have felt safe and boring. The Terminator, by contrast, was a fresh and invigorating addition to the science-fiction genre.
T2 is also derivative in groaning and annoying way. It echoes the first film too closely, and is filled with call backs to it. “Come with me if you want to live,” and “I’ll be back,” are recycled with an eye-wink, in addition to shot gunned terminators who should be dead, suddenly rising once again. It just goes on and on. This video does a great job highlighting just how closely T2 mirrors The Terminator. Some of the echoing works, but there’s just too much of it – so many of the great moments in T2 feel like they were unapologetically ripped straight from The Terminator.
T2 might feel like a clone of its predecessor, given how many shots and beats they share, but the most pre-dominant indicator that Cameron had grown into the “Billion Dollar Man” with T2 is his decision to add John Connor as a central character. In The Terminator, John Connor might not even be real. Or he is, and it doesn’t matter. He’s a symbol of hope more than anything, and Reese talks of him mythically. It’s clear that he’s the key to humanity’s survival, and that’s all we really need to know about him. The Terminator is a movie about Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor, John is just referential.
Yet, in T2, the legendary human John Connor is reduced to a sniveling little shit of a teenager. Nothing against Edward Furlong as an actor, although I don’t think anyone else could have played the role as whiny, which is probably what Cameron was most likely trying to achieve. Yes, we watch John Connor grow through his rebellious years, abandoned by his mother Sarah and never really knowing his father, because of some messed up time-travel stuff – the young John Connor never really had a choice but to be an asshole teenager. But including the character, especially in the way Cameron wrote him, severely undermined the impact that same character carried in the original film. I see what Cameron was aiming for by personifying the character in T2. He wanted us to see how the character persevered and overcame so much, to transform into earth’s salvation, or something inspiring like that.
The thing is, T2 doesn’t really have that effect. In fact, it kind of makes me hate John Connor for being a whiny teenager. You know how they say “never meet your heroes”? Well, maybe they should add to that, “Never meet your heroes as teenagers, because they were probably little jerks.” That’s how I feel about John Connor in T2. I get why the character was written that way, but I don’t want to see it. James Cameron, stop showing us how the sausage was made! But here’s the thing, there’s a more cynical motivation to include teenaged John Connor in Terminator 2 – capturing younger audiences. I fully believe, because James Cameron is the way he is, that he decided to include a young version of the character – and cast him with a real heartthrob of an actor no less – because he knew it would bring in fresh audiences.
Okay, there’s story to be told with teenaged John Connor, and it’s not completely devoid of narrative value. It’s just not the best story to tell within that universe. Show me the “Judgement Day,” or show me the war, Cameron! You saw what happens when you let mediocre-to-shitty directors like Jonathan Mostow or McG (that’s really the name he goes by and yeah, he sucks) tell those stories? We get garbage like Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator Salvation, two franchise entries that I’m certain no one actually likes.
So maybe James Cameron thought he was making a good story decision by focusing his follow up to The Terminator on bratty teenage John Connor, but I don’t believe he was oblivious to the kind of film he was making as result. T2 has broader appeal, and that’s fine, but it’s because of that wider scope that it is an inferior film than its predecessor. It’s not that Terminator 2: Judgement Day is a terrible movie, it’s that it falls short of the original in every way.
But hey, I’m sure they’re both better than Terminator: Genisys, right?