Bigger doesn’t always mean better, but in the case of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the spectacular sequel to the already spectacular The Terminator (1984), such an assumption may actually be suitable. Though I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s better — nothing can compare to the DIY brilliance, ingenious formations of its predecessor — the action is more explosive, the performances mightier, its heart larger, and its drama more burly. It doesn’t improve upon the original, no — it is, rather, an excellent continuation of where things left off, given more budget to fully realize its conceptual periphery and provided with enhanced direction from James Cameron, who, between the gap of the first Terminator film and its sequel, helmed such classics as Aliens and The Abyss.
The movie stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, though he isn’t the titular villain this time — he’s its hero. Judgment Day takes place in 1995, where Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has been placed in a mental institution, and where her son, John (Edward Furlong), is now ten years old and living with a disinterested foster family. Following her experiences in the first film, Sarah spent years training John for his supposed future role as a renowned military leader, her being locked up the result of bombing a computer factory. John, persnickety and rebellious, has taken to the streets, already fiercely independent and under the impression that his mother is mentally ill.
That all changes when a terminator (Robert Patrick), similar to the one Schwarzenegger played in 1984, comes onto the scene with a mission to kill John, contrasting to the previous film’s intent to off Sarah. And, in a change of fortune, Schwarzenegger is his counter, reprogrammed to protect the Connors from his malice. Now with the looming apocalypse a little under two years away, stopping the conception of the technology that caused it is just as pressing as escaping the wrath of the killer robot sent to halt the good in the process of being done.
At 153 minutes, Judgment Day is a sci-fi epic at its most iconic, as intellectually gripping as it is action-packed, as flashy as it is sincere. Sequences of conflict act as masterworks on the part of its stunt choreographers, the human drama tense and, sometimes, even sardonically funny. This is what an action blockbuster should be: analytically sizable, pulse-pounding, and with just a hint of self-mockery. It’s oily and professional — the genre doesn’t get much better than this.
And with a new and improved heroine (Hamilton transforms herself from meek damsel in distress to muscly renegade), a relentless villain, a peak Schwarzenegger, and a child performer at the front and center that matches the scrappiness of the material, just about everything in Terminator 2: Judgment Day enthralls on levels so potent that we have to remind ourselves that it isn’t an action staple simply because it’s a sequel; it’s an action staple because it is awesome, in every sense of the word. A-