July 2, 2009

Second thoughts about the Terminator sequel

While making and eating dinner awhile ago, I overheard most of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which my housemate and his friend were watching in the next room. I thought, "God, was it really this stupid and preachy?" I wouldn't have known when I saw it as a kid, but it was hard to ignore. I finally found the first Terminator movie and watched it tonight. It blows the sequel out of the fucking water.

The first was made in 1984, while the sequel was made in 1991, during the peak of the social hysteria -- political correctness, identity politics and Rodney King, Third Wave feminism, etc. I don't like when critics read too much into what the work says about the larger culture in which it was made, but when it was made during a cultural and social hysteria, the imprint is hard to ignore. It really crippled what could have been a great sequel, and below are a few off-hand examples of how the Generation X era movie paled in comparison to the original from the New Wave / Reagan landslide period.

- Let's just get it out of the way: in T2, the computer programming genius who invents what will become the technology that is so smart that it takes over mankind -- is black. Not Ashkenazi Jewish or South Asian -- but black. These lame attempts to "provide good role models" don't fool anyone. Even looking just at really smart blacks, they aren't very interested in applying their talent to programming computers. Being a geek is just not a black thing. You can bet that if this character were written as a mad scientist type -- rather than an unwitting creator -- he would be blonde-haired and blue-eyed.

In contrast, the only black character in the first movie is a police officer who cares after Sarah Connor and is courageous enough to lose his life trying to stop the terminator once it starts shooting the fuck out of the police station. Sounds like more of a role model to me -- but then, being a police officer wouldn't motivate young black people to get trapped in the education bubble for 4+ years, the way that programming computers would. Yale or jail.

- In the sequel, Sarah Connor has transformed from a vulnerable, feminine waitress into a muscular, hyper-disciplined warrior. Again with the positive role model bullshit. Just let girls be girls and stop twisting their arms to get them to join the army or the mechanical engineering field. Aside from how inherently irritating all feminist propaganda is, this switch ruins much of the story. After all, we are so afraid for the terminator's victims in the first movie because they're so helpless, including Sarah Connor. By making her butch, we don't feel like she's in that much danger anymore -- we're just waiting to see which evenly matched badass character will come out on top.

- That annoying wannabe Gen X-er who's supposed to be the future savior of humanity. Let's see, having to suffer his voice and attitude vs. killing him off and humanity along with him -- it's actually not an easy choice.

- Infantilizing the Arnold terminator. What they were going for here was some kind of Give Peace a Chance dipshittery -- indeed, one of the final lines is Sarah Connor saying something to the effect of, "If we can teach a machine to love, then I have hope for humanity." But they haven't really reformed or transformed him -- he starts out completely clueless and is tutored by that punk kid about what's right and wrong.

This is not at all like Frankenstein's monster, who commits horrible crimes and feels morally conflicted as a result. If they had first shown Arnold killing a bunch of innocent kids just because they got in his way, then we would believe that the Connors had truly changed him by the end. As it stands, his character is just a big robotic baby -- pathetic.

- The new evil terminator, the T-1000, isn't frightening at all. Rather, he seems like a garden variety sociopath. In the first movie, the terminator doesn't craft a stealthy plan to kill John Connor's mother -- he simply looks up "Sarah Connor" in the phone book and blasts each of them to hell in order. That's what a fucking terminator does. That you could die in such a way is a bit unnerving, not to mention the fate of the scores of policemen and innocent bystanders in the nightclub who the terminator mows through. But very few innocents get killed in T2, except for those who actively get in the T-1000's way, so there's very little sense of "it could happen to me."

- The sequel relies too much on gimmicky special effects to show how cruel the T-1000 is -- turning his arm into a long blade and stabbing John's adoptive father through the neck, or turning his finger into a spike that he shoves through a security guard's eye. It's somewhat gory, but we don't feel that he's particularly cruel. The best shot that establishes how cold-hearted the terminator is in the first movie consists only of Arnold driving his car over a small boy's toy truck, crushing it. This also calls back to the shots of human skulls being run over by the tank tracks of the hunter-killer machines of the future. And as far as gore goes, punching a street punk through his gut, lifting him up, and ripping out his heart is a lot more badass.

- In general, the sequel is too optimistic -- Hope and Change. We watch a group of heros on a mission to stop the horrible technology from being invented in the first place, and they apparently succeed. Again, it's too Si Se Puede! In the first movie, we see lots of shots of the future -- and it looks like hell. Even the present looks pretty grimy, which wasn't too difficult to do in 1984 when crime and urban decay was still on the rise. Still, 1991 was the peak year of violent crime -- they could have easily emphasized how things appeared to be going downhill already by featuring street gangs, seedy nightclubs, alcohol-blinded street urchins, and all the rest that gives the first movie its gritty feel.

The whole point of the movie is that we thoughtlessly got ourselves into a big mess and may or may not get out of it. At the end of the first movie, a boy tells Sarah Connor that there's a storm coming, and she merely says, "I know," and rides toward it. Who knows what will happen? Rather than having a clear sense that the good guys are going to prevail, and that blacks and whites will all just get along after we teach terminators to cry, we're left feeling no more certain about humanity's fate than before. The first movie didn't offer the audience any of that schmaltz.

While the sequel did much better at the box office, only the first one is listed in the National Film Registry. The third one I saw on DVD awhile back, but I can't remember enough of it to comment on it. I just remember that it was forgettable. I haven't seen the new one either, but based on the reviews and word-of-mouth I've gotten, I'll wait till DVD (if then). A really good terminator movie needs a bleak cultural milieu to make it work. With things having been so great for awhile now, it's unlikely that we'll get another good movie in the series again.


  1. I saw T-2 in the theater when it came out and loved it. But yes, I too wanted to hurl when they made the programming genius black, and even took pains to have a dweeby (actually sucking on a lollipop) white guy sucking up to him when he (Miles Dyson) is introduced in the film.

    I thought the T-1000 was menacing as hell, brilliantly conceived, and the transformation of Sarah Conner from wide-eyed student-waiting-on-tables to a tough, gun-running broad is what I would have expected. The path fate set her on simply didn't allow her to remain a girly girl.

    I thought T-3 was poor, just a money-milker, and the one in theaters now...well, fortunately I saw a pirate DIVX file from camcorder so I didn't spend money seeing it in the theatre. Slow-moving, dark...I won't even bother on DVD.

    I agree that the original film was a classic. I've seen it probably ten times now and still enjoy watching it.

  2. the sequel was made in 1991, during the peak of the social hysteria -- political correctness, identity politics and Rodney King, Third Wave feminism, etc.

    Perhaps not political correctness, as that didn't peak until Mark Fuhrmann's testimony at the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995.


  3. Perfect review of the first and second terminator movies. I totally agree that T2 was irritatingly PC, so much so that I do not like to see it at all. The first one, despite its limited budget, was far superior. Perhaps the limited budget forced the director and screen writers to be more creative in the scenes that they depicted.

    The scene where Kyle Reese is in the bunker that the terminator manages to infiltrate and kill everyone is quite poignant.

    The third terminator movie was even worse than T2.

  4. Linda Hamilton may have been ultra fit and muscular in T2, but today at age 52 she looks hideous.

    Some people age well and some don't. She's a don't.


  5. I was only a young teenager when I saw T2, and even in my youthful ignorance, I despised that movie.

    It was as bad as T1 was great.

    Just watching the little douchebag kid crying and sobbing "Terminnnaaaator!" as he was immolated in molten steal...as if he was watching his own father die was disgusting. I have seen T1 3 times...T2 only once. And I'll never waste my time watching it again...ever.

  6. Holy shit, she looks like a mummie! In her 70s at least!

    On a hunch, I figured it had to do with her diet -- if she had to get buff in 1991, you know it was on a no fat diet.

    Sure enough, googling "Linda Hamilton diet" returns a 1991 Entertainment Weekly article that says she ate a no-fat diet: cereal with skim milk, chicken (presumably with no fat or skin), and dry salads.

    She is getting basically no vitamins, and with no fat intake, she definitely isn't absorbing the fat-soluble ones. In studies where people eat salads with non-fat dressing, they absorb far less vitamin A than if they use full-fat dressing or add a fatty avocado.

    Vitamin A is really important for skin health -- it's central to the proper functioning of epithelial cells. These are the ones on the "surface" of your body (including the inner surface like the lining of the digestive tract, lungs, etc.).

    Plus high-protein diets and muscle-building deplete vitamin A stores, since it's used up in packing amino acids into your muscle. All that no-fat chicken and no cheese or liver to give her vitamin A, and she must've had very low levels for awhile.

    And that's not to speak of all the sugar in her blood -- due mostly to the cereal and skim milk, but also to the huge amount of protein. The liver converts some of this into glucose by gluconeogenesis. Usually not a problem unless you're one of those muscle freaks who eats a lot more protein than your body was designed to.

    At my low carb blog, I just posted on how high blood sugar destroys the elasticity of your skin.

    And that's not even to mention all the stress she must've put on her body by doing long sessions of endurance-type activities, which the EW article describes.

    God, she looked pretty good in the first movie (there's a nude scene which shows she was already slim, but just feminine and with the right amount of fat). After killing herself to look like G.I. Jane, she now looks like fucking hell.

  7. The first Terminator movie was before my time so I didn't see it until after the second one, when I was already an adult. I was surprised to find out it was the same actress (Linda Hamilton) in both movies since she looks so different.

    I agree with everything you say except for the T-1000 not being scary. When I look at the stop-motion terminator from the end of the first movie, he just looks comical. The T-1000 is way scarier than that.

  8. The first movie is definitely superior. In the sequel the T-1000 is played well, he comes across as robotic and emotionless as Arnold did in the first movie.
    Linda Hamilton turning into a butch bitch was the only logical outcome after the first movie. As Reese said, she was supposed to be the person who taught John Connor how to fight. Linda Hamilton is a prawn in the first movie and is not attractive at all during the sequel.
    T3 was a waste of space. You can forgive John Connor for being a fuckhead in T2 because he's a kid. The guy in T3 is a whiny little bitch who has less balls then he did when he was 12.

    However, if you are going to compare T1 and T2 then you have to remember that the former was more of a horror film while the latter was a pure action film. As such the tightness of the original movie, the director's skill, the atmosphere all take a backseat to the gunfights and explosions.

    You should also compare the original Alien movie with the sequel Aliens. The former is a horror movie. It is like a teen slasher flick in a space ship, except with an alien reptile doing the slashing. The alien is not seen for most of the film and instead the terror is built through the director's skill and the atmosphere.
    The sequel was more action than horror, just the same as T2.

    I liked this movie analysis, please provide more.

  9. Interesting that both sequels were directed by James Cameron (T1 was his baby, whereas Alien was not).

    He married Linda Hamilton, too...and of course they were divorced long before she got to the point in the above linked photo. Dang, but Hollywood is a brutal place for the pretty girls.

  10. "On a hunch, I figured it had to do with her diet -- if she had to get buff in 1991, you know it was on a no fat diet."

    Linda Hamilton has an identical twin, who shows up in T2 playing the feminine Sarah Conner.

    So if we could get a recent picture of her that might lend a clue.

  11. If you're this hard on T2, you should rewatch T3. It was so bad, the recent Terminator TV series just acted like it was never made.

    I don't recall loads of PC nonsense (other than the new Terminator being a female and being much stronger than Arnold), but it was a crock of shit. Tedious chase and action scenes, wrote off Sarah Connor, horrible ending, and the worst part: they began mocking the previous two films. Arnold's Terminator becomes a cheeky caricature of himself, devolving the badass T1 character into a robot BFF in T3.

  12. "I finally found the first Terminator movie and watched it tonight. It blows the sequel out of the fucking water."

    a-fucking-men. the first was superior in almost every way, especially the atmosphere of dread. movies have gotten too cartoonish on the whole.

    i've found that you can neatly group people by who liked the first terminator and who liked the second. you can do the same with alien and aliens. people who liked the first of those series are just cooler than people who preferred the sequels.

  13. In agreement about most of your analysis there, but I actually always thought the T2 Linda Hamilton was a very realistic take. Sure, she was a super-butch badass...but realistically, she had given up all of her feminity to become so. Real Amazons look like that.

    It's a hell of a lot better than the current "I'm all soft and feminine and sexy but I can stand toe-to-toe with a man in a fight" action gurl. Realism, eh?

  14. I always thought that John Connor grows up to be a military leader because he inherited Kyle Reese's genes.

    The T2 transformation of Sarah Connor stresses "raising your kids right." That wasn't restricted to PC, but still ignores human nature.

  15. Leslie Hamilton (Linda's twin)didn't age that well, either.

    I've never found blond hair\blue eyes as attractive as dark hair and eyes. Mediterranean types who take care of themselves can be OK at fifty, and non-repulsive well past sixty. The Heather Locklears morph into monsters, regardless of weight.

  16. That picture is Linda Hamilton, not her sister (see imdb).

  17. agnostic I think you are getting too caught up in the nature v nurture debate and thinking of them as a false dichotomy.

    John Connor may have all Kyle Reese's kick arse genes, but genes don't teach you how to shoot guns or make explosives.
    Genes give you your potential, but its your up bringing, education and choices that determine whether or not that potential is reached.

  18. To my mind, the primary difference between the two movies was that Terminator was a horror movie, whereas T2 was a fairly typical late eighties/early nineties action movie.


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