The Terminator came out in 1984. Terminator 2: Judgment Day arrived seven years later. In the interim, Arnold Schwarzenegger became a new kind of action megastar, headlining a string of era-defining beefcake blockbusters. Commando, Predator, The Running Man, and Total Recall: The very titles echo down through history, dripping with gunsmoke and bicep sweat. But that era was coming to an end. The ’80s were over. Always a savvy operator, Schwarzenegger was already planning his pivot: Twins and Kindergarten Cop offered a kinder, gentler Arnold. (He loves kids! He loves De Vito!)
And so the essential twist that led to one of the most influential sequels in the history of blockbuster Hollywood: The Terminator of Judgment Day would be a good guy this time, paired up with a sassy youngster on a mission of mercy. He would face off against a new villain that was state-of-the-art within the world of the movie and in the world of moviemaking. Robert Patrick’s T-1000 is one of the great action villains, a morphing chameleon to contrast with Schwarzenegger’s hulking man-of-action; the T-1000 was also the killer app for digital effects, with director James Cameron building on the technological leaps of The Abyss to create a new kind of monster onscreen.
All this…plus Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, the plucky everygal of the first Terminator reimagined as a gun-toting badass. Terminator 2: Judgment Day introduced a new kind of blockbuster for the ’90s, which is why it’s the next film in our Summer Blockbuster Countdown.
Release Date: July 3, 1991
Box Office: $204 million domestic ($31 million opening weekend); $315 million worldwide. (All numbers from Box Office Mojo.)
The Competition: Judgment Day opened on Independence Day weekend, its only competition was the kiddie comedy sequel Problem Child 2. One week later saw the release of the Oscar-y Boyz n the Hood and future cult classic Point Break; a week later came the gonzo sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. Nothing could really compete with T2, which sat atop the box office for all of July before finally being replaced by the comedy stylings of Charlie Sheen in Hot Shots!
What EW said: “It’s a solid thriller — witty at times, and packed with extravagantly violent sequences in which helicopters, diesel trucks, and entire buildings are blown up with delirious gusto. Cameron, director of the first Terminator, Aliens, and the underrated deep-sea epic The Abyss, has become our reigning master of heavy-metal action. Yet, he has obviously labored to make Terminator 2 a kick-ass fantasy with soul, a pop vision that taps into apocalyptic fears and yearnings. And compared to such visionary spectacles as RoboCop or the Mad Max films, it’s really little more than a $90 million B movie.” –Owen Gleiberman
Cultural Impact Then: With a budget of close to $100 million, T2 was the first time that James Cameron ever made the most expensive movie of all time. Chatter about the budget quickly gave way to a fascination with T2‘s special effects, which, in the very pre-digital ’90s, seemed like a vision of the cinematic future. (The Rocketeer hit theaters just a couple weeks before T2, but it might as well have come from a different century.) It was and remains the highest grossing movie of Arnold’s career, and it essentially ended his ’80s run as a pure-badass action hero: Every other film he made in the ’90s would represent his move towards a kinder-gentler badass (except for Batman & Robin, which we can continue to ignore.) Also, every dude in third grade suddenly had Eddie Furlong’s haircut, and every single person on earth said “Hasta La Vista, Baby” at least five hundred times.
Cultural Staying Power: Terminator 2 is a key moment in the evolution of Hollywood-as-franchise-factory. The decision to sequelize a hard-R action movie into a soft-R special effects blockbuster represented a greater demographic shift, with Hollywood directing its movies to ever-younger audiences. (Terminator 2 was the first R-Rated movie my parents let me watch; trim out the swear words and it’s hard to imagine the MPAA wouldn’t give it a PG-13 today.) It grossed four times what the original film made, cementing the idea that sequels were big business. And so The Terminator as a going concern remains a key part of the Hollywood landscape. Schwarzenegger himself starred in the successful, forgettable Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines; Christian Bale headlined the truly miserable Terminator: Salvation; and now hope springs for Terminator: Genesis, starring Game of Thrones‘ Emilia Clarke alongside a returning Schwarzenegger.
T2 was a career high point for everyone involved at the time. James Cameron went on to become the most successful director in history twice over. Curiously, the film had the opposite effect on its stars: Besides the Cameron-directed True Lies, Schwarzenegger never really achieved the same action-god mojo, ultimately settling for a career in politics. Cameron’s then-wife Hamilton didn’t act much in the ’90s: In a better world, we’d have had several movies with her as the badass heroine. Edward Furlong had a rough go of it. Robert Patrick endures.
T2 helped to invent the modern Hollywood of budget-bursting sci-fi epics, but few of the films that followed in its wake could match the precision of its vision. The movie sits at the crossroads of Cameron’s career, between the bulletstorm shadow-noir of The Terminator and Aliens and the epic romantic visions of Titanic and Avatar. Where True Lies awkwardly meshed those two tones, T2 blends them perfectly: Schwarzenegger’s T-800 is a father figure and a living chaingun, his deadpan deployed for humor but also for melancholy. (“I know now why you cry. But it’s something I can never do.”) Explosive and funny, cynical but also big-hearted, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the very definition of the modern blockbuster.