James Cameron is the master of blockbusters. That’s indisputable — he’s broken the worldwide box office record twice, first with Titanic, then with Avatar. Even more astounding that both of these were original stories, hatched from his own mind, not based on any preexisting IP. The sinking of the Titanic was a well-known disaster and had spawned earlier hit films, but Cameron’s Titanic succeeded on the strength of its romance between two fictional characters. That’s what became iconic — not the sinking of the ship itself.
Like many other 80s and 90s properties, I knew the Terminator franchise almost entirely by catchphrases: “I’ll be back” and “Hasta la vista, baby.” Terminator 2 came out several years before I was watching adult action or sci-fi movies, especially R-rated ones.
I do remember Terminator 2: Judgment Day being just about the coolest thing in the world in 1991. I was surprised so many kids my age were allowed to see what appeared to be a violent, adult-geared action movie. I didn’t really want to see it, thinking I was not quite ready for what I might see in such a film.
I caught both Terminators later, as a teenager, once I was a bona fide James Cameron fan. I always liked the films, but never got into them quite as much as I did with Titanic, True Lies, Aliens, or even The Abyss.
October 26, 1984
The Terminator franchise is mostly remembered by its second film, a rock-’em-sock-’em action classic with state-of-the-art special effects. It’s easy to forget how lean, mean, and foreboding the first Terminator is — it’s a straight-up horror movie. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is like the next incarnation of Halloween‘s unstoppable Michael Myers, with a sci-fi twist explaining his invincibility. We’re so used to Schwarzenegger playing the hero, as he does in the sequel, we forget how chilling he is as the first movie’s villain.
The Terminator begins with what I can only assume is an 80s staple, the naked villain introduction. (See also: Die Hard 2.) It boasts a handful of terrific, terrifying death scenes, like Sarah Connor’s roommate Ginger being offed while listening to her Walkman. Linda Hamilton makes for a strong and sympathetic lead, dealing with the harrowing premise that other women named Sarah Connor are being picked off one by one.
It’s pretty astounding that The Terminator was essentially Cameron’s directing debut (Piranha II doesn’t count). As usual with Cameron, The Terminator is built around a fascinating idea, executed brilliantly. It was all right here from the start.
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY
July 3, 1991
As he did with Aliens, Cameron followed up a moody horror classic with a sequel that’s a straight-up action flick, turning the damsel in distress into a total badass. This time, though, it wasn’t Ridley Scott’s original, but his own.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day does what a good sequel should — turning the original on its head. It would have been easy enough for Arnold Schwarzenegger to return as another evil killing machine. It’s much more inspired to have him play the hero this time around — especially because it fucks with Sarah Connor’s head. Imagine, the guy who tried to murder you years ago shows up again, and this time, he’s your only chance of survival?
Sarah Connor has completely transformed since we last saw her, but it makes perfect sense. When the story begins, she’s locked up in a mental institution, ironically unable to protect her son even though that’s her sole prerogative. And this time around, we actually get to meet John Connor, who understandably thinks his mom is a total psycho. Robert Patrick’s lithe, shape-shifting T-1000 serves as the perfect foil for Schwarzenegger’s blunt brute force. He’s menacing in a completely different way than the first film’s Terminator, and yet he’s equally impossible to kill.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the perfect sequel, continuing the story of the first film rather than repeating it. Its nightmarish vision of a nuked Los Angeles considerably heightens the stakes, and this one has the budget to go epic in scope. I may have a slight preference from the grimmer, grimier first film, but it’s hard to find fault with this slick, satisfying sequel. It’s one of the all-time best.