TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, from left: Robert Patrick, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1991. ©TriStar Picture
Credit: Everett Collection

Arnold Schwarzenegger is the most popular movie star in the world today — but when The Terminator came out in 1984, his career was in a state of impending fizzle. The reason seemed obvious: How many times could you watch this guy? With his steely Teutonic monotone and his, well, selective range of facial expressions (he had exactly two: the blank stare and the angry glower), he was like some grimly idealized worker off a Soviet propaganda poster from the ’30s. The Terminator changed all that. By casting Arnold the robot actor as a futuristic killing machine, this unbelievably canny thriller unshackled Schwarzenegger’s appeal in two ways: It merged his hulking gladiatorial presence with the gaudy, bloody nihilism of contemporary action flicks, effectively turning him into a post-punk Dirty Harry; and, more than that (for this was the movie’s genius), it transformed his lugubrious one-dimensionality into a comic attribute.

A lot has changed since then. Arnold, in his stardom, has become likable — an enforcer with charm, an outsize hero who proved he could step lightly in comedies like Twins and Kindergarten Cop. And so, in the enjoyably overwrought Terminator 2: Judgment Day, director-cowriter James Cameron pulls a smart switch: This time, Arnold’s terminator isn’t a menacing villain but a good guy, a father protector who is sent from the future to guard the son of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). The first movie, you may recall, ended with Sarah becoming pregnant. Her son, now a punky preteen (Edward Furlong), is destined to become the rebel leader in the coming war against the machines. Now another terminator has been dispatched to alter history by killing him.

This new terminator (Robert Patrick) is boyishly handsome but with pursed lips and cold, dead eyes. He suggests a stoic, emaciated James Dean — he’s like Dean as a troop leader of the Hitler Youth. For most of his screen time he skulks around in a policeman’s uniform, pursuing his prey as relentlessly as Arnold did in the first picture. This time, though, Cameron adds a special-effects coup. Where Arnold has a metal skeleton under his synthetic skin, the evil terminator, one of the advanced T-1000 series, is made entirely of liquid metal. He’s a kind of mutating mercury globule who can bleed through bars, pour through windows, and take on the physical characteristics of any object he touches, from a person to a floor. His arms instantly convert into three-foot-long stilettos, and when he’s shot in the head, his exploded ”flesh” simply welds itself back together. The transformation effects are spectacular, in part because there’s real magic to them, a sense of technological wonder. By the end of the movie, we feel that this shape-shifting terminator, this sinister mass of chameleonic metal, has an identity all its own.

I wish I could say the rest of the movie was as good. 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.

The first hour has a genuine emotional pull. Sarah has been confined to a mental institution because she can’t stop babbling about terminators and the nuclear holocaust she knows will occur in 1997, when the automatic defense system set up by the United States — it’s called Skynet — takes on a life of its own. Hamilton brings these scenes a raw anguish, especially when she stares down the weasely Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen), whose bureaucratic manner is a form of petty sadism.

But once she escapes and hooks up with her son and Arnold, the movie’s narrative power leaks away. Cameron introduces the fantastically hokey idea that world-destroying computer technology could all be the creation of one relatively innocent scientist (Joe Morton). He also makes the mistake of dropping the evil terminator out of the picture for nearly an hour, while Sarah has elegiac nuclear nightmares in the desert. For a while, the movie loses its pace, its kinetic thrust — even if it is fun to watch Arnold’s terminator get humanized (like a hulking Mr. Spock) by learning such catchphrases as ”Hasta la vista, baby!”

The movie becomes a glorified countdown to the big blowout between the terminators. When it’s finally King Kong vs. Godzilla time, Cameron delivers the goods. The movie preserves the underlying joke of the original Terminator — that these murderous robots aren’t at all malevolent in intent. They’re just maximally efficient, programmed to carry out a mission at any cost. And so if cars and phone booths have to get smashed, and innocent bystanders are blown away — well, that’s just so much meaningless detritus.

This reckless indifference to human life is, of course, intrinsic to the appeal of Terminator 2. The movie is a great big feast of wreckage. But that’s also what makes it a bit numbing. At one point, Sarah’s son, whom Arnold is programmed to obey, forces him to pledge that he won’t kill anyone. Arnold takes the pledge — and then, in order to stay true to it, he keeps shooting people in the kneecaps and smashing them against walls not quite forcefully enough to kill them. I kept wondering if Arnold’s pledge was such a good idea. From the looks of it, these people may live, but they’ll all end up in wheelchairs. Terminator 2 is a state-of-the-art action movie, all right: It gets you thinking that the most reasonable thing might just have been to blow everyone away. B+

Terminator 2: Judgment Day
  • Movie
  • 137 minutes