When we talk about sequels that equal or even better the originals, a handful of titles are invoked nearly every time:
“The Godfather, Part II”
“Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior”
“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”
And of course “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” James Cameron’s 1991 follow-up to the 1984 time-traveling sci-fi actioner about a cyborg assassin sent back in time to take out one Sarah Connor — and the great soldier that spirals back from the future to protect Sarah and to play an even more pivotal role in the ultimate survival of humankind.
I loved the first “Terminator” but I’d agree the sequel is a superior effort.
The upgrades in “Judgment Day” are myriad:
• Technological advances in computer-generated imagery and other special effects allowed Cameron to come closer to fully realizing his vision for the “Terminator” story.
• There was a massive increase in the budget, allowing Cameron to pursue that vision. The original “Terminator” was made for about $6 million, while the sequel was priced out at 15 times that amount. You can see that money on the screen and in the star power of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who by that time was the No. 1 box office star in the world.
• Arnold Schwarzenegger in effect replaces Michael Biehn as the main male action hero. (No offense, Michael Biehn, but that’s not a close call.)
• Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor transitions from plucky but overwhelmed regular gal to a lean, almost mean fighting machine — well, not a machine, of course, but a fiercely protective mother and hardcore survivalist and army of one.
• The first “Terminator” had a nifty and at times wonderfully head-spinning plot, and it combined action movie pyrotechnics with “Twilight Zone”-type elements such as time travel and what happens when humans try to return to the past and alter things that have already occurred. But the sequel took those elements to the next level, with some of the most impressive chase sequences, hand-to-hand combat sequences and shootouts ever put on film, and a storyline with the brilliant masterstroke of turning the original, dreaded Terminator into a father figure/protagonist, and giving us a much more robotic, deadly, seemingly unstoppable killing machine as the villain.
“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” solidified Schwarzenegger’s standing as one of the most unlikely (and most popular) action movie heroes ever. Its massive success gave Cameron the juice to secure increasingly enormous budgets for ever-more ambitious projects, including “Titanic” (which almost sank his career before becoming an Oscar-winning, billion-dollar plus sensation) and eventually the “Avatar” franchise. And Hamilton’s Sarah and Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley five years earlier in “Aliens” (directed by Cameron) were the prototype action heroines.
It’s nearly impossible to overstate the importance of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” as a creative work and as an influential chapter in Hollywood history.
But hey, it’s been available on various home video devices for decades now. If you’ve seen “Judgment Day” multiple times on your home big-screen (please don’t tell me you’ve only seen it on something you can hold in your hand), should you really go to the theater and pay 2017 prices for the new 3-D version?
• • •
This is no hastily cobbled-together, tacked-on 3-D re-release. In typical Cameron fashion, the conversion of “Judgment Day” to 3-D was a long and laborious and passionate endeavor, with Cameron overseeing a team of nearly 1,000 artists and technicians that spent six months adding the 3-D effects.
They cleaned up scratches and dirt and faded photo chemistry from the original negative, layered in certain colors and shades that weren’t quite right in the first place and made just a few minor fixes and adjustments, e.g., during the truck chase sequence in the 1991 edition, a windshield is shattered, only to reappear intact in a subsequent shot. That continuity error has been rectified.
The 3-D pops out at us in the famous opening credits, with the Terminator’s metallic skull face bursting through flames. For the rest of the journey, it’s on a par with the 3-D in most current films of the genre: occasionally impressive, often little more than icing on the cake, at times almost forgotten.
It’s the brilliance of the film itself that matters most. Seeing “Judgment Day” in such a pristine, enhanced form is akin to listening to your favorite album from the 1990s on a million-dollar sound system.
Even though this movie was made nearly 30 years ago, almost nothing about it feels dated. The special effects are badass. The plot about a nuclear holocaust brought about by blind corporate greed, the uncertainty about whether humankind will have a future — these are hardly things we have trouble relating to in 2017.
So many great moments leap from the screen.
When Hamilton’s Sarah first sees Arnold’s Terminator in his signature outfit and sunglasses, making his way toward her in the hospital, and she has no idea “he” is now on her side — we can feel the terror rippling through her.
When the T-1000 is ripped apart by close-range shotgun fire and makes horrific screeching sounds — only to literally piece itself together — it’s fantastic and scary and wickedly funny.
The bond between Edward Furlong’s 10-year-old John Connor and the Terminator is sweet and funny and, yes, actually quite moving. (Furlong was not the best child actor in the world, but he does better in the lighter scenes with Arnold than in the moments when he’s required to show a tremendous range of emotion.)
Linda Hamilton’s work in this film was nomination-level. The events of “Judgment Day” take place a decade after the original, and by this time Sarah has become a hardcore warrior obsessed with warning the world about the madness just around the corner. Even though we know Sarah is right, we don’t blame the professionals for believing she’s crazy. She IS a little bit off the rails, and even after she escapes from the institution and is on the road with her son and that blasted Terminator, it takes her a long time to allow her heart to soften. Hamilton owns every side of Sarah’s character.
“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” was one of the best movies of the 1990s. Now it’s one of the best movies of the 2010s.
1991 release: ★★★★
3-D 2017 release: ★★★★
TriStar Pictures presents a film directed by James Cameron and written by Cameron and William Wisher Jr. Rated R (for strong sci-fi action and violence, and for language). Running time: 130 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.