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guess who's coming to dinner (stanley kramer, 1967)

terminator 2: judgment day (james cameron, 1991)

I once listed the first Terminator movie at #26 of my 50 favorite movies of all time. I mentioned Terminator 2 a couple of times:

The Terminator was James Cameron’s first hit, his second feature (Piranha Part Two came first). He later spent more money (Terminator 2 cost almost $100 million more than the original, which came in at $6.4 million). He became King of the World with Titanic. Avatar cost more than $300 million. None of them was better than The Terminator, still Cameron’s best film. ...

One of the best things about Terminator 2 is the way Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor became an icon for a certain kind of tough heroine. The roots for that characterization happen in the original, where Sarah goes from fun-loving waitress to terrorized target to mother of a future hero to the person who finally kicks the terminator’s ass, all in two hours.

The Terminator has very little flab; it’s a punk-rock action film. T2 fetishized its special effects, which were indeed amazing for their day, but the result was more Emerson, Lake and Palmer than The Stooges. The Terminator had one superb special effect, and it made the most of it: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Watching T2 again, I realized I’ve been a bit harsh over the years. I stand by what I’ve written, but I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the movie simply because it wasn’t as good as the 26th-best movie of all time. It’s like saying because Do the Right Thing is such a great movie, Spike Lee can never make another good one.

What were the specific critiques above? T2 cost a lot more than the original. Some of the best parts of the sequel were a direct result of the first movie. And it dazzled without a heart. (I admit I got off a pretty good line about The Stooges and ELP.)

I used to think Terminator 2 was flabby, that all the extra money took away from the streamlined excitement of the original. But watching it now, I understand that it was money well spent. Linda Hamilton was great, Arnold got to reprise his signature role, and the combination of Robert Patrick and special effects made for a terrifying villain. It’s more expansive than The Terminator, and yes, on some level it’s more dazzling. But I’m being unfair to say T2 had no heart. It tugged at our own hearts in ways The Terminator never did, and if that was sometimes a bit sappy, well, at least they tried. The original had no time for that kind of emotion ... it’s part of why I prefer it. But at least Cameron wasn’t just trying to repeat himself.

He also deserves credit for the coherence of the action scenes. In 1991, Michael Bay was still four years away from directing his first film. That Cameron knew how to present action didn’t seem all that noteworthy. Nowadays, after years of “chaos cinema”, Terminator 2 is positively old-fashioned, and I mean that as a compliment.

So yes, my own taste preferences will also lead me towards the punks over the Emerson, Lake and Palmers. On that most basic of levels, the first movie was half-an-hour shorter than the sequel, reason enough in most cases for me to react negatively to the long one. But the truth is, Terminator 2 was consistently engaging. The Terminator remains a 10/10, but I’m raising my rating of T2 to 8/10. (#546 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.)

A proper action scene:

Here is an excellent discussion of the film, with a section devoted to its action scenes and their relation to chaos cinema:

The big action and little problems of Terminator 2: Judgment Day

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