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(Credit: Tri-Star Pictures)

30 years of James Cameron's sci-fi epic 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day'

'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' - James Cameron
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“I sense injuries. The data could be called “pain.” – The Terminator 

The sky pings with lavender lasers of light over a desolate landscape of rubble and skulls in 2049 A.D Los Angeles, for survivors of earth’s nuclear holocaust, named Judgement Day, there’s little worth fighting for anymore. Such describes the opening of James Cameron’s classic action film Terminator 2: Judgment Day, an illustration of large-scale, big-budget filmmaking at the hands of cinema’s master of the spectacle. As Cameron had done with the sequel to Ridley Scott’s science-fiction horror film, Alien, he intended for the fabric of the second instalment of his own Terminator franchise to be altered, focusing on the action potential of the futuristic machines, as opposed to their horrific existence. 

Initially forged from the same book as slasher killers Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, the character of The Terminator was one firmly rooted in the genre of horror upon his inception in 1984. As James Cameron noted on his intention for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s iconic villain, “The character was supposed to be an infiltrator, physically nondescript and not memorable, though somewhat sinister because of his emotionally blank affect”. Continuing, the director comments: “But when I cast Arnold, the focus shifted away from the Sarah and Reese story to the Terminator, because he made such a powerful impression”. 

Such explains why Schwarzenegger’s Terminator switches allegiances in the sequel, sent back in time from 2049 to protect Sarah Connor’s son, the future leader of the human resistance, from a more advanced, powerful cyborg. With Cameron viewing the titular character as too much of a marketable asset to leave as the film’s villain, the concept was flipped on its head, making Schwarzenegger’s T-800 the protector, instead of the assassin, subsequently turning Sarah Connor from a helpless victim to one of cinema’s greatest heroines.

Suddenly, Terminator 2: Judgment Day became a different battle entirely, one which pitched machine vs machine, with human’s waiting haplessly in the middle, somewhat harmless against the new T-1000 fantastical strength. Robert Patrick, the pale-faced antagonist, was chosen to play the role of the T-1000 as his slender physique would create a contrast between his advanced model and Schwarzenegger’s older T-800, a stronger, streamlined update on the cumbersome old machine. As too an iconic villain of action cinema, Cameron manages to layer a thrilling metallic battle between two furious forces, on top of a subtext that questions the nature of humanity and the morality of killing, particularly before someone is yet to commit a crime.

Dark, serious, but also camp and ridiculous, James Cameron strikes the perfect balance that every late 20th-century action movie strived for, using his then-unprecedented budget of $102million to create one of cinema’s greatest ever characters. It certainly helped that Arnold Schwarzenegger already felt like a strange, extraterrestrial robot, towering over his co-stars in stature whilst talking with a strange, static monotone. Though much of what makes The Terminator such an icon of science fiction is in the character design and artwork that would become ubiquitous with the fear of autonomous technology. 

The Terminator came from a dream that I had while I was sick with a fever in a cheap pensione in Rome in 1981. It was the image of a chrome skeleton emerging from a fire. When I woke up, I began sketching on the hotel stationery,” director James Cameron noted. With shallow red pin-prick eyes and a metallic network of pipes and cables holding each machine together, the T-800 robots are truly shocking, with Cameron calling special effects creator Stan Winston’s final exoskeleton design a “work of art”.

The scope, ambition and apocalyptic size of James Cameron’s sci-fi sequel would have a cataclysmic effect on the future of science fiction filmmaking, putting the role of the villain front and centre, questioning whether they were even the antagonist at all. Together with revolutionary special effects to help bring the violence and chaos of the T-1000s rampage to life, Terminator 2: Judgment Day would bring a new dawn for action cinema.

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