Every good movie sheds its share of bad ideas. One of James Cameron’s for Terminator 2: Judgment Day was reportedly to have Arnold Schwarzenegger—the world’s top box-office draw when T2 went into production—play both the “good” Terminator, sent from the future to safeguard tween John Connor, future Che Guevara of the human resistance, and the “bad” one sent to whack him.
To see why this wouldn’t have worked, look no further than Double Impact, a martial-arts vehicle starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Jean-Claude Van Damme as separated-at-birth identical twins (for precisely two times the Van Damme-age, as the trailer helpfully elucidated), which opened five weeks after Terminator 2. It’s a fun movie, and the Muscles From Brussels actually does sell the illusion of being two different people, sort of, thanks in large part to a revelatory performance by a tub of hair gel. But the tone of affable goofiness this sort of stunt creates, even in an otherwise-tense picture like last year’s Enemy, with its dual Jake Gyllenhaals, would’ve been all wrong for Cameron’s epic tech-panic thriller about humanity’s struggle to overcome its innate murderousness.
So who do you get to physically intimidate a seven-time Mr. Olympia and four-time Mr. Universe onscreen? Schwarzenegger’s 43-year-old physique in T2 is noticeably slimmer than in the first film, made when he was 36, but still hulking enough to beggar the notion of a Terminator as “an infiltration unit” intended to blend in among puny humans. You could find an even bigger guy to throw him around, but then we’re back into the realm of goofiness again. At roughly 16 times The Terminator’s budget, the sequel was already going to be bigger in every way.
But the steroidal 1980s were over. The Soviet Union was breaking up. We didn’t know who our new enemies would be. Maybe nobody. Maybe the people we relied on to protect us.
So in the conception and casting of his antagonist, Cameron went for something radical: modesty. “Nothing special about him,” reads the stage direction describing the T-1000’s entrance in T2’s shooting script, which Cameron wrote with his friend William Wisher. “Certainly not built like a Terminator.”
THE MERCURY MAN
Cameron called up his buddy Dennis Muren at Industrial Light & Magic to get assurances that the then-revolutionary computer-animation techniques ILM was pioneering—debuted in Ron Howard’s 1988 flop Willow, and advanced for the smiling-water-tentacle sequence in Cameron’s The Abyss a year later—could make good on his vision of a liquid-metal being that would morph onscreen.
He’d wanted a creature like this in the first film, one that SkyNet—the self-aware computer network that on “Judgment Day” will nuke the Northern Hemisphere, then spend decades hunting the human vermin scurrying in its ashes—would dispatch from the future after the T-800 sent to kill Sarah Connor got destroyed in act two. The creature would be so dangerous that even SkyNet would only reluctantly unleash it upon the fragile timeline. But it would’ve had to have been realized via Claymation, which wouldn’t have the chrome-like reflective “Mercury Man” look Cameron wanted. And he couldn’t afford it anyway. So he downscaled to a one-villain movie.
In both The Terminator and T2, Cameron put viewers inside the mind of the T-800 via a handful of POV shots of what he called “Termovision”—red-hued camera feeds with scrolling readouts analyzing terrain, people, vehicles, weapons, etc., faster than the eye can follow. It’s a crude device, he acknowledges on T2’s DVD commentary track—why would a computer “see” as though it were a human wearing Google glass?—but effective in suggesting to the audience how a cyborg experiences the world.
We get no such glimpses into the T-1000’s head. It’s more alien and unknowable than the Schwarzenegger model, flowing through the city on frictionless, endlessly regenerating joints, saving its energy for combat. Scarlett Johansson’s lazy-panther performance in Jonathan Glazer’s superb Under The Skin owes something to the T-1000.
Cameron flirted with the notion of casting rock star Billy Idol, but as Idol was recovering from a motorcycle accident in 1990, running was out. The director eventually found Robert Patrick, a 32-year-old former Bowling Green State University linebacker who’d been in several films produced by Roger Corman, the no-budget mogul who gave Cameron his first jobs in showbiz. Patrick’s highest-profile role at the time had been as a terrorist with one line in Die Hard 2: Die Harder.
Patrick trained himself to sprint full speed with his mouth closed, the way no human being runs, to play the catlike T-1000. “In my mind, I kept images of the way an eagle looks, and I kind of gave myself a little head tilt downward, which gave me that forward movement and always made me look like I was moving or in pursuit,” he told The A.V. Club’s Will Harris in a 2012 interview. Standing still, his most remarkable physical attributes were his piercing blue-gray eyes and bullet-shaped head. As rendered in Adam Greenberg’s steel-blue cinematographic palette, his face has a still-cooling quality that suggests he might have just emerged from a cloning tube.
Cameron was smart to cast him. But putting him in an L.A.P.D. patrolman’s uniform? That was genius.
TO PROTECT AND SERVE
Schwarzenegger entered the Terminator universe as a potential good guy. In 1983, Hemdale Pictures wanted O.J. Simpson to play the Terminator. To placate the studio, Cameron agreed to have lunch with the star of Conan The Barbarian, a man he had no intention of hiring to play his movie’s hero, time-traveling bodyguard Kyle Reese, who is eventually revealed as John’s father. (The part went to Michael Biehn, who appeared in Cameron’s next three movies, if you count his deleted scene in T2.) Schwarzenegger turned out to be full of good ideas about how to embody the cyborg assassin, though: His eyes should move before his head does, Schwarzenegger said. He should never blink when he’s firing a gun. He should reload without ever looking down from his target. Pretty soon, The Juice was out of a job.
Six years later, when Cameron met Schwarzenegger for breakfast to tell him he’d be killing no one in The Terminator’s sequel, the star balked. “Trust me,” Cameron told his friend. The line made it into the movie.
Cameron had hoped to keep Arnold’s good-guy turn as a big reveal, withheld until the first time the two cyborgs face off in battle. (Well, technically, only the T-800 is a cyborg, with “living tissue over a metal endoskeleton,” as he deadpans to a bewildered John. The T-1000 is 100 percent ’bot.) He surrendered to the reality that the film’s promotional campaign would inevitably spoil the surprise. But as Tasha Robinson’s Keynote observes, the first act of the movie is still built around that intended fake-out.
That’s why the T-1000 looks just a little bit Reese-like. That’s why the naked T-800 who walks into a biker bar just moments after flashing into the late 20th century tunes up the bruisers who react violently to his demand they hand over their clothes, but doesn’t kill them. He really should kill them, given that a later scene implies he’s programmed to terminate anyone who takes a swing at him, until John—whose orders he must obey above all other commands—makes him swear to use only non-lethal force.
Cameron is cheating here, just a little, allowing his peacenik moral to override story logic. That’s okay: Great artists don’t just know what to steal. They know when to fudge the rules, too.
THE BAR FIGHT HEARD ’ROUND THE WORLD
The T-800’s grand entrance in T2 was filmed at a Lakeview Terrace saloon called The Corral Bar, which was torn down in 1997—the year of the nuclear “Judgment Day” in the movie’s future-past. There’s a public library in its place now, which feels like a happy ending. Fun trivia: Dwight Yoakam, whose song “Guitars, Cadillacs” is playing on the jukebox when a naked Schwarzenegger saunters in, used to play at The Corral Bar three times a week before his career took off.
Grim trivia: On the night of March 3, 1991—four months to the day before Terminator 2’s release, and not long after the film’s location shoot—five Los Angeles police officers pulled over a motorist on Foothill Boulevard, just around the corner from the Corral, following a high-speed pursuit on nearby Interstate 210. The driver was drunk. His name was Rodney King. Watching unseen from the balcony of his apartment, George Holliday shot a video of the cops hitting King with their batons a total of 56 times, fracturing his skull. He brought the tape to local TV station KTLA. Preceding King’s assault on the tape was footage Holliday had taken of the T2 location shoot weeks earlier.
“That, to me, is the most amazing irony considering that the L.A.P.D. are strongly represented in Terminator 2 as being a dehumanized force,” Cameron told the Los Angeles Times the day the movie came out in 1991. “What the film is about, on the symbolic level, is the dehumanization we do on a daily basis.”
It’s true. One of the elements that makes T2 one of the all-time great sequels is the way it inverts the equation of its predecessor: Sarah Connor has transformed herself into a soldier, ready to execute SkyNet inventor Miles Dyson in front of his wife and kids if it’ll prevent Judgment Day and the 35-year war to follow. She becomes a Terminator, while the lumbering killbot from the future softens, under orders from John, into a blunt but nonlethal instrument.
STONE COLD OFFICER AUSTIN
It was Cameron’s pal Stan Winston, a visual effects and makeup artist who’d previously worked with him on The Terminator and Aliens, who told him the T-1000, which could look like anything, needed to have a default appearance. It would make more strategic sense for the “advanced prototype” to change its spots again and again until it had closed in on and terminated its targets, which would make it nearly impossible for them to become alerted to his presence. But for storytelling purposes, the decision to give him a consistent appearance from which he deviates only briefly was the right one. Again, great artists know when to cheat. They also have an eerie sensitivity to the zeitgeist. Cameron called up Winston to share his brainstorm that their villain would be a uniformed cop, someone who can stroll in pretty much anywhere without being questioned.
He couldn’t have known what would happen to King while he was making the movie, or about the L.A. riots that would produce news footage that looked a little like the infernal Los Angeles of Sarah Connor’s nightmares after the cops were acquitted of all charges in April 1992. (Two of the four were convicted in federal court the following year, receiving light prison terms.) He couldn’t have predicted the various scandals involving L.A.P.D. officers that would erupt throughout the 1990s, particularly the Rampart scandal, one of the largest police-corruption cases in history.
Unless you were listening to N.W.A. or Public Enemy in the late 1980s—and in the role of John Connor, first-time actor Eddie Furlong wears a Public Enemy T-shirt throughout the movie—you probably didn’t encounter many unfavorable depictions of police in pop culture. Bad cops were the villains of Peter Weir’s Witness in 1985. Mike Figgis’ 1990 film Internal Affairs starred Richard Gere as a womanizing crook in an L.A.P.D. uniform. But most of the time, and certainly at the summertime multiplex, the police were the good guys. Cameron changed that when T2 became the biggest hit of 1991. (Its $520 million global haul is the equivalent of more than $900 million in 2014 dollars.) As usual, he was a few years ahead of everybody else. By the end of the 1990s, his cynicism about the police was pervasive. (Bent cops briefly became an obsession of Cameron’s. In 1995’s Strange Days, which he wrote and his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow directed, the bad guys—one set of them, anyway—are L.A.P.D. officers who murdered a politically engaged rap star, then covered it up.)
A year after T2, Jonathan Kaplan’s suggestively titled Unlawful Entry offered Kurt Russell and Madeleine Stowe as a well-to-do couple menaced by Ray Liotta as the beat cop who answers their 911 call, but then begins to stalk Stowe, believing Snake Plissken isn’t man enough to protect her. In 1997, Curtis Hanson’s superb adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel L.A. Confidential made it to the screen, losing most of its Oscar categories to Cameron’s Titanic. Like many Ellory stories, the movie is about Los Angeles cops who abuse their power. Some do it to make sure guilty men don’t escape justice, others for their own enrichment. But none of them—not even the movie’s nominal hero, Lt. Ed Exley—is entirely on the up-and-up. By 2001, Denzel Washington was taking an Oscar-winning turn as a dirty L.A. cop in Training Day, and the following year brought Shawn Ryan’s superb bad-cop TV series The Shield. But Cameron was as far ahead of the curve on paranoia about bad cops as he had been on society’s willingness to embrace science-fiction actioners toplined by women.
SHOOTING FOR THE LEG
Patrick’s reprisals of the T-1000 role for comic cameos in 1992’s Wayne’s World and 1993’s Last Action Hero speak to its iconic status. He’s somehow ducked typecasting, enjoying a long, varied post-T2 career that’s included roles on The X-Files, The Sopranos, and True Blood, and as Johnny Cash’s stern father in Walk The Line, among others. Still, the experience was profound for him. He named his daughter Austin, after the sacrificial patrolman whose uniform he “wears” in Terminator 2. “robertpatrickT2” is his official Twitter handle.
As in The Terminator, the villain makes the movie, but T2 acts as a sort of sly rebuke to the dark power fantasy that made its precursor a sleeper hit. Cameron has talked about how he never liked the way people rooted for Schwarzenegger in the scene from The Terminator that birthed his most famous catchphrase, “I’ll be back.” Right after making that promise, the T-800 crashes through the front of a police station and mows down 17 officers, while Reese and Sarah sneak off into the night.
Terminator 2 goes easier on the cops in the literal sense. Viewers can infer that the T-1000 has terminated poor Officer Austin, but most of the other police who get shot in the movie are clipped in the leg. (The Termovision graphic that reported “HUMAN CASUALTIES: 0.0” a few minutes earlier presumably updates itself to some fraction of one.) One SWAT cop takes a close-range tear-gas grenade hit in his Kevlar-protected back, hilariously remarking, “God, it hurts!”—Cameron-speak for “I’m okay!”
But its vision of a shape-changing adversary who goes from coolly homicidal to actively cruel in the film’s final moments (“I know this hurts,” he tells Sarah, turning the massive finger-needle he’s just speared through her shoulder), Cameron accidentally created a lasting metaphor for the police as just another impassive institution to which society had willingly surrendered too much power, hoping for protection—an institution like SkyNet. “The Terminator films are not really about the human race getting killed off by future machines,” Cameron says on T2’s DVD commentary track. “They’re about us losing touch with our humanity and becoming machines, which allows us to kill and brutalize each other.”
Indeed, the films’ premise only makes sense on a metaphorical level: Why would an intelligent computer determined to eradicate humankind build shape-shifting robots to sneak into our filthy bombed-out warrens and shoot us? Wouldn’t chemical or biological weapons, which presumably have no effect on machines, be more effective? Of course. But that way lies M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. “Cops think of all noncops as less than they are, stupid, weak, and evil,” Cameron continues. “They dehumanize the people they are sworn to protect and desensitize themselves in order to do that job.”
In 1984, Schwarzenegger’s look as the T-800—spiky hair, studded jacket, fingerless leather gloves—might’ve been the most terrifying thing Cameron could come up with. By 1991, our nightmares had uniforms and close-cropped haircuts. It was going to be a long decade.
This concludes our Movie Of The Week discussion of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Don’t miss that Keynote on the marketing betrayals that helped make T2 an enduring hit, and our Wednesday Forum kicking around the movie’s exploitation-film roots, complex relationship with technology, and practical-effects action. And we hope to see you next week, when Blockbuster month heads into the 2000s with Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin.