Take a quick scan around the pop culture corner of the web and I think you’ll find there’s at least one thing everyone seems to agree on: this summer has been one of the worst for blockbuster movies. For every success story like Captain America: Civil War, we’ve seen at least one misfire like Independence Day: Resurgence, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice or Warcraft: The Beginning to bring the mood crashing back down to earth.
This got me thinking about what makes a great blockbuster film, a line of thought which quickly had me reminiscing about one of my all-time favourite popcorn flicks, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and what makes it arguably the greatest blockbuster ever made. Released this month 25 years ago, T2 was a massive hit with audiences and critics alike. The story of a reprogrammed Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent back in time to protect the future leader of the human resistance, John Connor (Edward Furlong), from another of its kind, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), really seemed to strike a chord, and the film terminated (sorry) the competition at the 1991 box office.
Many consider it to be co-writer/director James Cameron’s finest offering – yes, better than Aliens, Avatar or even Titanic. It’s also without a doubt the best entry on Schwarzenegger’s resume, and for those of you too young to remember a time when Arnie was the name in action cinema, trust me: that’s saying something. Over the past 15 or so years, the Terminator franchise has lost a bit of its shine, thanks to a succession of ill-advised follow up entries, but don’t let those put you off – T2 isn’t just the best instalment in the series, it’s also one of the best movies ever made, blockbuster or otherwise.
It’s that rare sequel that improves on its predecessor in practically every way; a masterclass in how to blend pulse-pounding action and suspense with sharp plotting, genuine characterisation and thought-provoking themes. Now, let’s say “Hasta La Vista, Baby” to this preamble, and (time) jump straight into this list of the five reasons why Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the greatest blockbuster of all time.
5. It’s smart
A common criticism of big budget action flicks is that they’re about as dumb as a sack of hammers, and to be fair, many of them are. Fortunately, T2 more than holds its own in the brains department. The story by Cameron and screenwriter William Wisher is incredibly well thought out, and the majority of potential plot holes are not only acknowledged, but quickly and cleverly plugged (most notably, “Why doesn’t the T-1000 just turn into a bomb and blow John Connor to kingdom come?”).
Better still, the script even manages to handle the notoriously tricky mechanics of time travel in as simple and clear a fashion as can be hoped for, even with all the time loops and paradoxes that inevitably come with this storytelling device. But on an even more fundamental level, Cameron and Wisher have built a narrative where the action flows organically out of the story, and where events unfold in a seemingly natural and logical progression – a far cry from the average blockbuster, which is basically just a series of set pieces loosely strung together.
They’ve also crafted an uncommonly insightful action movie, touching on heavy concerns like the inherent self-destructiveness of man, the morality (or lack thereof) of machines, fate versus choice, and even the very nature of what it means to be human. Along the way, they also manage to include a load of clever little flourishes as well – watch as the T-1000 morphs through a barred door, only for its gun to remain caught on the other side – that all add up to make T2 one of the smartest blockbusters around.
4. It’s emotional
Yep, that’s right – T2 is packed to the brim with feels! That’s part of what makes the movie work so well: we’re actually emotionally invested in the characters. All three main leads undergo a well-defined and moving character arc, with the Terminator learning what it means to be human, John transforming from brash delinquent to responsible leader, and his bitter survivalist mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) developing a renewed sense of hope for the human race.
There’s also fantastic interplay between each of these characters. Whether it’s the quasi father-son bond that forms between John and the Terminator, the dysfunctional but ultimately loving mother-son relationship that grows between John and Sarah, or even the tacit comradery that ends up uniting both these parental figures, T2 gives us plenty to chew on in between blowing stuff up.
Sure, debate rages over whether the “thumbs up” scene during the finale is a moving callback to an earlier moment in the film, or an unbearably schmaltzy attempt at heartfelt drama. Personally, though, I’m with those fans who’ll take this kind of big hearted cheesiness over cold nihilism any day.
3. It’s got great acting
Somehow, this never seems to come up when people rave about T2, but seriously: this flick has some fine performances in it. For starters, it features solid turns from the entire supporting cast, particularly Joe Morton as well-intentioned scientist and possible doomsday architect Miles Dyson, and Earl Boen as Sarah’s smarmy psychiatrist, Dr Silberman.
Moving up the ladder to the lead performers, and Linda Hamilton proves utterly convincing as a woman who’s (well-founded) fears for the future have transformed her into a kick-ass warrior even as they’ve pushed her to the brink of insanity. Likewise, Robert Patrick does great work putting a new spin on the established killer robot schtick of the series, playing up the stealthy nature of the T-1000 by switching on the human charm as needed, only with a decidedly sinister edge.
Just as impressive is Edward Furlong, who proves himself one of those rare child actors who can actually, y’know, act. Thankfully, he manages to handle the “kid with attitude” aspects of the role without allowing John Connor to become someone we hope will die, and he totally nails all the more intense emotional beats his character experiences.
But honestly, if there’s an acting MVP for T2, it really is Schwarzenegger. The Terminator is the role that made Arnie a star, no doubt because it plays to his strengths (literally) as a physically imposing presence. This time around, however, the character’s transition into a protagonist means that the Austrian Oak is able to break out his oft-overlooked comedic talents, as well.
T2 is at times a surprisingly funny film, and much of this comes from the brilliant deadpan delivery by Schwarzenegger (“He’ll live” after shooting out a security guards knee caps? Priceless). But most importantly of all, Arnie can be as stiff as he likes without breaking character, leaving the *ahem* heavy lifting to his co-stars when it comes to the capital ‘A’ acting. Truly, it’s the role he was born to play.
2. It’s got amazing visual effects
If you were to pull together a list of the most iconic cinematic visual effects from the last 25 years, the T-1000’s liquid metal form in T2 would be right near the top of that list. The VFX work by ILM for the T-1000 – which represents a cutting-edge blend of CGI and practical effects by the legendary Stan Winston – still stands up well today, and represents a milestone in digital effects artistry.
True, some of the other effects in the film haven’t aged kindly. The nuclear blast dream sequence – despite reportedly being considered one of the most accurate depictions of such a catastrophe ever committed to screen – is slightly undermined by the fact it clearly uses model cars. Heck, even some of the liquid metal CGI now looks a bit ropey by modern standards.
But these are ultimately minor quibbles, and for the most part, you’ll still be as blown away by the effects in T2 today as you were 25 years ago.
1. It’s got incredible action sequences
When it all boils down to it, a film can’t be in the running for “Best Blockbuster of All Time” without having some pretty serious action chops, and T2 certainly has those in spades. From the opening post-apocalyptic fire fight through to the brutal – and blackly comic – brawl at the biker bar, this flick continually serves up excellent set piece after excellent set piece.
I mean, who could forget the first time they saw the Terminator wielding his sawn-off shotgun one handed while riding his Harley in hot pursuit of the T-1000? Or what about the film’s third act, where Cameron proves he’s one of the few directors in the business able to manage sustained action for almost an entire act without either the tension or the audience’s interest levels starting to lag.
First there’s the face-off between a chain gun toting Arnie and seemingly every police officer in LA, which ends in the complete destruction of an entire office building. Next, there’s a nail-biting highway chase involving a helicopter and a great big honkin’ tanker truck, ending in even more destruction. Finally, there’s an unforgettable steel mill showdown, complete with a brutal hand-to-hand confrontation and nerve-wracking game of cat-and-mouse.
So, yeah, it’s pretty safe to say T2 has the action side of things covered just fine.