’90s Action Movies, Part I: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991)

If this movie had been made a decade or two later, it would have inspired a fan backlash.

Do you doubt me? This is the film that transforms Sarah Connor from the ordinary young waitress of the original movie into a hardboiled commando, athletic and capable of handling firearms with ease. You can’t tell me that people wouldn’t complain about the change. As if that weren’t enough, now the T-800 is a good guy, fighting to protect the young John Connor. “But how did that even work?” the Comic Book Guys of the world may ask. “How does it fit with the established lore?”

But T2‘s biggest crime against the franchise is the subversion of The Terminator‘s original theme. The first film is fatalistic, with the coming nuclear war caused by Skynet understood as an inevitable outcome.

T2 says otherwise; that “there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” It totally undercuts the original’s theme. Not to mention opening a whole new can of worms about multiple timelines, in addition to the paradoxes that are implicit in every time travel story.

All these are valid criticisms. But it doesn’t change the fact that Terminator 2 is still a really great action movie. Yes, it replaces The Terminator‘s grittiness with some pretty over-the-top and cartoonish action sequences, most notably the use of an M134 minigun as a precision non-lethal weapon to avoid casualties. Just… no. Or rather, only in the movies. Though I am come to sing T2‘s praises, I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s believable.

But look: this was the ’90s, and the ’90s were pretty optimistic. The Cold War was over! It had been won not with guns and bombs, but with blue jeans! It was The End of History!

This might sound silly nowadays, and yet, I think, it was the attitude that made ’90s pop culture so damn infectious. Terminator 2 is lighter than both The Terminator and Terminator 3. And that, I submit, is because it was made after the renewed US-Soviet tensions of the ’80s and before the post-9/11 2000s. It captures the mood of the era, by willing to be a fun Arnold Schwarzenegger movie where the killer robot says things like “Hasta la vista, baby.”

Is The Terminator a “better” movie? I dunno, depends what you mean by “better.” In some ways, sure. But in terms of being a fun action movie that you can just enjoy and walk out of feeling like the good guys won and the bad guys lost, Terminator 2 is better.

This is why I contend that Terminator 2 is the perfect movie to encapsulate what I mean when I speak of ’90s action movies. It kicked off a style of film that would rule the decade. And moreover, it was the last decade that films like Terminator 2 could rule, exactly because fandoms had not yet organized to talk about them.

All the films I’m going to talk about in this series could not be made now, for one reason or another. And that’s partially why I want to write about them, because (you may laugh) I think these films say something about their time, and, perhaps, by way of reflection, our time as well.

But that’s only secondary. The main reason is that ’90s action movies are freaking fun, and that’s why I like watching them. James Cameron, for all his faults, sure knows how to make a good action picture. Even when he goes and makes something that’s nothing but a rip-off of Ferngully meets Dances With Wolves, the action sequences are still good. And here was Cameron at his peak, making a film with one high-speed action scene after another. I think the canal chase is my favorite part. You’ve got to love the way Arnold flips that shotgun around.

That said, let’s not forget the prelude to that sequence, when the T-1000 and the T-800 hunt John Connor through the mall. Watching it now, of course, I’m highly nostalgic. Malls are a feature of the ’90s that has since been devoured by the internet. In reality, it turned out that “Skynet” needed no nuclear missiles to take over the world; it just needed a ton of server space.

Sorry; I’m getting philosophical again. I do that sometimes when I write about movies. You’re still here, so maybe you like it, or at least are willing to tolerate it. Philosophy is a wonderful thing, and it’s delightful to find it sprinkled around the edges of our favorite movies.

But it can never be the main thing. Ultimately, movies are at their best when they show us a world we can get lost in, give us characters we can love and hate, and above all else, tell us a good story. The films I’m going to discuss all do that, and that’s why I’m revisiting them now. Come join me, won’t you? Or should I say, “Come with me if you want to live… the ’90s over again.”

16 Comments

  1. Oooh trigger Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’, I’ll try and be brief. How could anyone who is supposed to be educated to experienced to a high degree ever come out with such an inane work…and still have books accepted for publication…. Right that’s done.
    T2…One of my favourites. Stellar performances all round… Robert Patrick and Linda Hamilton could own a scene by expressions alone, and that finger wag towards the end…..Does it get any better.
    Sarah’s transformation given John’s age allows enough time for her to become the obsessed Terminator she is.
    There is one glaring hole in the plot, though…given the usual way film narratives work. As Dr Silberman had met this circumstance in T1 by T2 he should have had one of those ‘hmmmm’ interludes (they used to smoke pipes in the 1950s films) and investigated ‘things’ thus have become the true hero of T2 by arranging for Sarah to escape at the ruination of his career and not lollygagging around until T3.
    That said you have highlighted why this film will be a timeless classic.

    PS: I frequently tell other ‘Skynet’ actually moved onto Apps and Microsoft’s Word as a cunning plan to reduce us all the gibbering, raving wrecks mired in frustration.

  2. I remember watching the first Terminator movie … it was a good movie. Years later, I learned that my dad regularly rented it for a re-watch. I had no idea a movie like that would appeal to him. I have no idea if he ever got into T2 in the same way.

    But, of course, none of these movies could be made now. The Terminator is not a part of either the Marvel or DC universe. By the way, if you ever start a feature of renewing superhero movies, I’m boycotting!

  3. The F/X at the time were top notch, not so much now. I liked how the young John Connor took charge of the T1 and made him more believable. Never liked T3 or the tv series, even though it was filmed in Albuquerque, and they blew up the high school where I taught in the first episode.

    1. T3 was a real step down in quality. I haven’t seen any of the movies or shows after that. That is a neat bit of trivia about your school, though!

  4. KA-bloody-CHING! T2 is my favourite and I’m thrilled that you chose it. To be honest, I never noticed the discrepancy between T1 and T2. I just loved the fact that Sara Connor was a wimp no longer. I don’t want to pre-empt you but to me, the 90’s were the era of the woman action hero, or at least that of the competent woman who doesn’t just stand around waiting to be rescued. Ok, I’ll shut up now. 😀

    1. That is an *excellent* point about women in ’90s action movies. You are right on! One of the things I’m hoping to do with this series is get a discussion going that will generate observations like that one. So, thank you! 🙂

      1. Very welcome, Berthold. I’ve got my fingers crossed for the rest of the movies on your list. 😀
        Btw, Sigourney Weaver and Alien started it. 😀

  5. As much as I enjoyed – if that’s the right word – the original Terminator film, in which I found the Terminator a teensy bit scary, I thorougly enjoyed T2! It was so fun.

    Looking forward to what other films you’re going to include, as I did see quite a few of those ’90s films 😁

    1. The original Terminator is much more of a horror film, whereas T2 definitely leans on the action/adventure side.

      And I look forward to hearing what you think of my choices! 🙂

  6. I, too, enjoyed the heck out of T2. My thoughts on whether T2 or T1 are better revolve around the fact that I think they’re entirely different genres. T1 is horror while T2 is action. Both movies are, imo, at the tops of their genres.

    I think, however, horror may have been an easier market entry point (at least in the 80s). I bet Cameron would have gone for T2, but T1 was forced by investment concerns. Just a thought.

    Lastly… I like pretty much all the Terminator movies, haha. I even liked Genesys, and I have no clue why I haven’t seen Dark Fate yet.

    1. You’re exactly right about the different genres. Few people seem to recognize T1 as a horror film.

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