When I recently reminded my friend that Terminator 2: Judgment Day hit theaters 20 years ago this month, he didn’t take it well. “God,” he said, “we’re old.” We may have aged, but seemingly, T2 has not. It is, in my opinion, the best summer blockbuster ever.
This weekend’s Comic-Con will introduce us to several new flicks dreaming of knocking T2 off its lofty perch. Here’s why I think they don’t have a prayer.
It feels like the movie could’ve been made in 2011, not 1991. Everything about it still holds up, including the bizarrely affecting father-son bond between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Edward Furlong. I’m a sucker for the climactic scene, when the Terminator (Arnold) consoles John Connor (Furlong), before lowering himself into a vat of molten steel. “I know now why you cry,” he says. “But it is something I can never do.” (Sure the robots look in Transformers: Dark of the Moon look cool, but they lack the T-800’s emotional depth.)
Obviously, it’s not just the Furlong-Schwarzenegger relationship that made Terminator 2 a mega-hit. The plot, the characters, and probably most of all, the amazing special effects, combined to form the perfect summer blockbuster.
For me, T2 is nostalgia porn. I have to watch it every time it’s on cable. I listen to Brad Fiedel’s score, particularly the opening theme, over and over on my iPod. I quote obscure lines from the movie. If my wife hears me lapse into the Arnold voice and say “Your foster parents are dead,” one more time, I think she might stab me with a liquid metal arm. I once frantically called a former coworker to let him know that T2 was on TV and Schwarzenegger was about to utter the “I know now why you cry…” line. He said thanks, but I think he was a little weirded out.
But how could he blame me? T2 is that good. Hell, it has a 98 percent “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In the recent past, few action movies have been as adored by critics. (The Terminator has a 100 percent rating. The original was also great, but it was released in 1984, and feels a bit campier than its sequel.) It’s also still an object of the Internet’s affection. Last week, a trippy, hand-drawn musical remake of T2 hit the Web.
The genius of T2, I think, is that James Cameron was able to make an action epic feel like a much smaller, nuanced movie. There’s an intricate plot laced with time travel and shape-shifting cyborgs and the threat of nuclear war, but in the end, T2 is about a father—in this case a Terminator—protecting a boy whose best friend happens to be Bobby Budnick from the Nickelodeon’s Salute Your Shorts.
Oh, and don’t forget about the boy’s mom, too. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is a badass heroine. And then there’s the T-1000, who despite the fact that he barely speaks, is probably the scariest movie villain of all time. The stone-faced Robert Patrick is so good in the role that I can’t picture him as anyone else. (A friend recently saw him at Six Flags and thought, “Hey, there’s T-1000!”)
Sure, the T-1000 is practically indestructible and has the ability to morph into different forms, but what makes him so frightening is his placidity. There’s no anger, no emotion. If I ran into Patrick on the street now, I’d probably run the other way.
The characters, including Arnold’s—“Schwarzenegger’s genius as a movie star is to find roles that build on, rather than undermine, his physical and vocal characteristics,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review of T2—are great, but let’s be honest, ultimately the movie’s success is more about its special effects than anything else. Somehow, the Oscar-winning stuff Industrial Light and Magic came up with still looks fresh. There are few current blockbusters that feature anything as close to as stunning as the liquid-metal T-1000. (Homer Simpson as the T-1000 is cool, too.)
Sadly, I don’ t think there ever will be another summer blockbuster as good as T2. I loved The Dark Knight and Inception, but even they don’t measure up. The Transformers movies are visually appealing, but, well, they lack humanity.
“For its nearly three hours running time—nearly three hours!—there is not a single moment of recognizable human behavior,” Will Leitch wrote in his review of Dark of the Moon, “no point where you say to yourself, ‘Oh, now there’s something a human being would do, when faced with a similar situation. I have seen a human do that before.’”
So, with no suitable replacement, I’m left to repeatedly watch Terminator 2, which is fine with me. Eventually, I should move on and pick a new favorite popcorn movie. But I fear it is something I can never do.