'Terminator 2' wins with thrills, special effects

July 03, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

He said he'd be back and he meant it.

Caparisoned in black leather, encapsulated in shades under a punk brush cut, carrying enough firepower to devastate the entire LAPD, possessed of the same remorseless will, the big guy with the erector-set endoskeleton and computer-chip brain presides over $80 million worth of frenzy in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," which is the biggest, loudest damn movie of the season.

If it shoots, burns or can be blown up, it's in this film.

Director James Cameron's follow-up to the astonishingly resonant "Terminator" of 1984 cost roughly 13 times as much as the original and it's not quite as good, but it's nevertheless a powerful, thrilling document, combining a driving story and an impassioned concern over nuclear war with a vivid dosage of movie-style mega violence, tough-guy romanticism and special effects that are literally unbelievable.

Set a couple of years in the fu-ture, it picks up the story with Sarah Connor (Salisbury's Linda Hamilton) having turned into the compleat woman warrior and being sent, for her troubles, to the nut house. Meanwhile, her 10-year-old son John (Edward Furlong), who is fated to lead the surviving humans against the genocidal machines sometime in the near future after the machines incinerate 3 billion or so of us, is Peck's bad boy, San Fernando Valley style, in his foster home. But Skynet, the computer grid that is to become the nemesis of the future, hasn't given up the plot to eliminate its enemies by sending an assassin back through time to destroy as a child the boy who as a man who is fated to destroy them (or it).

The time travel shenanigans don't bear thinking about unless you like that sort of thing. I think they are based, ultimately, on a paradox which makes them as impossible as an M. C. Escher perspective; when I tried to think them through, I got a big headache.

The gist of the picture is beyond paradox, however. It's that this time, two Terminators descend from the future. One of them is very nasty and one of them is very good and for a few minutes, Cameron replays the game of ambiguous tag that got the first film off to such a start, in which, as these two characters circle their intended victim and protectee, we're not quite sure which one is the good one and which one is the bad one.

Can I be giving too much away to let you know that Arnold is the good guy? Don't you already suspect the unlikelihood that the highest-paid movie star in the world is going to star in an $80 million movie in which he's a child murderer? In fact, one of the amusing strokes in the picture is the way in which Cameron uses his story to recapitulate the Schwarzenegger career -- we watch Arnold begin as that granite block of Teutonic absolutism and gradually thaw into something less formidable and even lovable. He even gets a joke.

The plot trick that sets this up is laughable. It seems that sometime in the future, bad Terminator Arnold was captured and blithely "reprogrammed" by the humans, after they learned that the fearsome T-1000 had been sent through time to destroy the Connor boy. But if you can wink at that, you're on your way through a gigantic chutes and ladders game on the theme of escape and evasion, as the bad guy gets close time and time again and, like some wicked parody of the nuclear family, the machine, the pistol-packing mama and the little boy not only try to survive but to work out a way to save the world from its own approaching obliteration.

T-1000 is played by a blank, catlike young man named Robert Patrick, recently a killer in "Die Hard 2." Though he's sleek and lithe, he's not particularly impressive physically (in human form, that is) and you wonder how he'll measure up against the Michelin Man physique of Arnold. But Cameron's best trick is soon to come: It's that T-1000 isn't a machine but some sort of intelligent "liquid metal" -- in other words, he's a lava lamp with an attitude problem.

The cinema technology that brings this off is extraordinary; the apparition isn't optically matted in with that tell-tale blue line and it never looks animated or fake. The illusion is complete: a palpable, quivering blob of quicksilver that undulates into human form and then out of it. When it's shot, the bullet courses through him as if it's tunneling through lead gelatin.

Yet as astonishing as Patrick and his technical manifestations are, I still miss a real personality, of the sort that Arnold provided the original. He's a force of future nature, but he's always a force, not a mind.

What works in the film isn't just the world-class fireworks, the setpiece escapes, invasions and gunfights. Curiously, amid the blastings, there's more than a few tender moments -- between the mother and son, and the son and his new "father." Yes, they do, hideous as it sounds, become a parody of a family. In the end, the movie turns out to be about small parental things such as sacrifice and love, and it achieves a grand power in its last moments. It's pulped you; and then it moves you. Resonant and sweet, as well as thunderously violent, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" is terrific.

'Terminator 2: Judgment Day'

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton.

Directed by James Cameron.

Released by Tri-Star.

Rated R.


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