Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

He promised he’d be back!

Terminator 2: Judgment Day had a huge impact on society in the early 90s. It was a blockbuster sequel to a popular film, but also altered the way films are made, impacting the future in a way that had not been seen for over a decade.

First Impressions

Arnold is back in the sequel to the film that made him a star. In this trailer, he returns as the Terminator, but there’s a twist. This time he’s been sent by Sarah’s future son to protect his younger self. And they’re going to need a lot of help as a new robot made out of liquid metal is pursuing them. It’s two times the action and two times the Terminator in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2: Judgment Day title card.

The Fiction of The Film

After a brief prologue in 2029 showing the remains of humanity, led by John Conner (Michael Edwards), fighting the machines of Skynet, the film shifts back to the present day (actually 1995 based on John’s age from a police computer seen later) where the T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from the first film arrives. He enters a bar and claims a man’s “clothes, boots and motorcycle” before riding away to the sounds of George Thurogood’s “Bad to the Bone.” Another time traveler (Robert Patrick) appears, assaulting a police officer and stealing his uniform and squad car. The film then introduces 10 year old John Conner (Edward Furlong), the son of Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) and Kyle Reese, conceived during the original film. He is a foster child of Todd and Janelle Voight (Xander Berkeley & Janette Goldstein) who he can’t stand.

At the Pescadero Hospital, Sarah dreams of the apocalyptic Judgment Day; August 29, 1997. She attempts to convince Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen) that she no longer believes that a robot from the future is stalking her and her son, but he doesn’t believe her. At the Los Angeles headquarters of Cyberdyne Systems, a computer and software firm that works with the military, Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) is working on a project to understand the programming of a mysterious computer chip, which along with a skeletal robot arm, are stored in a high security vault. In a local mall, the T-800 finds John Conner, but instead of shooting him, opens fire on the other time traveler, who is revealed to be a T-1000 Terminator, made of a mimetic poly alloy that behaves like liquid metal, with the ability to look like anyone.

John, who is freaked out by the encounter, runs away on his motorbike and is chased by the futuristic robots. The T-800 saves him from being killed by the T-1000 in a race through the concrete river channels of the San Fernando Valley. John discovers that the T-800 was sent back in time, by his future self, to protect the youth. Realizing his foster parents are dead, John believes that the T-1000 will target Sarah at the hospital. She is already planning an escape attempt when the T-1000 shows up. She is traumatized to see the T-800 again, but John convinces her it’s okay, and the three of them escape the liquid metal Terminator, hiding out in an abandoned gas station for the night.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

An extended future war segment tells of humanity’s war against the machines and their leader, John Conner.

Sarah takes John and “Uncle Bob” to meet Enrique (Castulo Guerra), a hispanic military contact of hers that is holding weapons in a hidden cache. After having another dream about Judgment Day, in which Los Angeles is destroyed by a nuclear blast, Sarah takes off unexpectedly. John and the T-800 follow her to Miles Dyson’s house, where she plans to murder the man responsible for Skynet coming online. Failing in her attempt to assassinate Dyson, John instructs the T-800 to show Dyson who he really is. Dyson realizes the impact of his work and agrees to help the others to destroy the chip and computer files at Cyberdyne. They break into the tech company that evening, find the pieces of the previous Terminator, and set up explosives. But a silent alarm calls the SWAT team out in force.

The T-1000, still disguised as a police officer, hears the radio chatter, steals a motorcycle and heads to Cyberdyne. In the storming of the building Dyson is critically shot. He manages to hold off detonating the makeshift bombs until he dies. Sarah, John, and the T-800 flee as the T-1000 steals a helicopter to chase them. After several close encounters on a freeway, where the T-1000 destroys their SWAT truck and forces them to grab a smaller pickup, the T-1000 runs them down with a tanker truck carrying liquid nitrogen. The T-800 protects them as they crash into the entrance of a steel mill, and shoots the 18-wheeler, causing it to flip on its side, spilling the supercooled nitrogen. The T-1000 is frozen solid by the liquid and then blown apart into thousands of pieces by the T-800’s gun.

Unfortunately the heat from the steel mill causes the frozen chunks of the Terminator to reform and it continues its hunt for the trio. The T-800 stays back to draw it away, but is heavily damaged by the superior robot, eventually getting pierced by a steel beam. John is tricked into revealing himself when the T-1000 mimics Sarah, but the real Sarah shoots the Terminator repeatedly causing it to pause. The T-800, having rebooted its systems, arrives and fires a grenade into the liquid metal robot, which falls into a vat of molten metal and finally becomes terminated. John tosses the parts of the original Terminator into the pool as well before the T-800 indicates there is one further chip to destroy. Sarah lowers it into the vat, as it gives a thumbs-up signal. Sarah’s final voice over muses on the changing of the timeline and the now unknown future that she and John race towards.

It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves.” – The Terminator

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Sarah Conner attempts to convince Dr Silberman that she no longer believes the things she’s been committed for.

History in the Making

Terminator 2: Judgment Day marks James Cameron’s fourth hit film in a row, continuing his streak of sci-fi blockbusters. Unfortunately it would be his last science-fiction film for 18 years when he would return to the blockbuster formula with Avatar (2009). T2, as it is colloquially known, had a rocky start due to a number of rights issues based on the ownership of the original property The Terminator. Additionally, both Cameron and star Arnold Schwarzenegger were busy with other films, having become commodities since the 1984 film. Cameron had been busy directing the sequel to Alien, called Aliens, and his own project The Abyss, while Schwarzenegger starred in numerous action films (Commando, Raw Deal, Red Heat), sci-fi films (Predator, The Running Man, Total Recall), and even started making comedies (Twins, Kindergarten Cop) during the interim. A deal was finally reached and the principal actors were all secured, ready to create a film that would eventually cost more than 12 times what the original did, but become one of the small handful of sequels that surpasses the original in terms of quality and storyline.

Terminator 2 is bigger and better than The Terminator in almost every way imaginable. It was probably the film that Cameron wished he could have made the first time. As with many sequels, it took the elements from the first film and elevated them as a bigger event. Just as he had done with Aliens, Cameron took the familiar elements from the original film and made them bigger, while still creating something that could impress and surprise the audiences. The storyline also expanded on the themes of fate versus free will, which had become an important part of films that deal with time travel. And with the introduction of John Conner as a character, it delved into thematic elements of family as well. From a technical standpoint, T2 carved out huge swaths of new ground in the visual effects medium. It was the first film to create a character fully out of CGI, plus the first major film to feature multiple morphing effects. Its impact is still felt today, with a moderately successful Terminator franchise, consisting of six total films, a television series, and multiple novels, comics and video games.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Cyberdyne programmer Miles Dyson ponders where the mysterious tech he studies comes from, at least before he’s almost assassinated by a crazy woman.


While Terminator 2 appears to be a completely contemporary film, it’s actually set a few years in the future. According to a quick shot of a police computer screen, John Conner is 10 years old, putting the setting of the film in 1995 (assuming that Sarah gave birth in 1985, nine months after the events of the first film). Unlike most other sci-fi films this was not done to be able to show a world with slightly different technology or a “near-future” world. The choice of the timeline appears to be completely practical in creating an older boy with John Conner (since actor Furlong was 13 at the time, and writing John as a 7 year old probably seemed too far-fetched). The longer than real-life time between the two films also works in favor of Sarah’s backstory of moving around with young John, being committed to a mental hospital, and her physical transformation from damsel in distress into a strong and independent woman.

While the film didn’t just continue the state of the character’s from the end of the original, it did reintroduce a number of elements from that first film, shaking up the standard tropes. Arguably one of the best reversals was switching the role of protector to the T-800 Terminator (the Arnold model), rather than have him be the stalker again. Since the original film was probably more horror inspired than anything else, and given horror films from the 80s penchant for bringing their “monsters” back to life (Jason, Freddy and Michael to name the most popular), it would seem natural for Arnold to return as the villain. Without watching the trailer, which ruins the first act payoff of discovering that the T-800 is really here to help, the film intentionally plays off the audience’s expectations that the T-800 is back for vengeance. It goes as far as mimicking the structure of The Terminator, and the order that characters arrive to provide a great surprise (if the marketing of the film didn’t decide to spoil it). But the switch makes sense. In the intervening seven years, Arnold had become a huge and bankable star. He was no longer playing villains, but characters that the audience could root for, hence his turn as protector and a surrogate father for John.

T2 also takes a number of elements from its predecessor and repeats them with minor alterations for the amusement of the audience. Like Back to the Future Part II, where time travel allows for similar scenes to be played out in different timelines, Terminator 2 takes the franchise conventions and twists them. Many of these moments are in the scenes described above; the opening moments where the two time travelers arrive and search for their quarry. Except for the fact that the T-800 does not kill the men he steals his clothes from, the introduction of the character is similar to his 1984 origin. Both films also start with a flashforward to the apocalyptic vision of the future. But instead of a few brief shots, a more detailed and frightening hellscape is described ending on a heroic shot of an older John Conner. Arnold’s line to young John, “come with me if you want to live,” is the same dialogue given to protector Kyle Reese in the original film. Cameron also plays with the time travel conventions of the film.

The original Terminator film uses time travel to set up the impetus of a horror film, with the events of the film being paradoxical (man from future impregnates woman whose child grows up to become the leader that sends man back in time). Terminator 2 takes a more mature look at the timeline, and Sarah Conner’s dreams of nuclear annihilation on August 29, 1997: Judgment Day. Nothing about the original film appears to be contradicted, but T2, much like the Back to the Future trilogy before it, changes its approach that events are predestined. Characters make the conscious effort that they will not let the future happen (Miles Dyson asks, “aren’t we changing things right now?”) and the film ends with a more positive note. Sarah realizes that the future is not set, and restates the central theme of this film, there’s no fate but what we make. This was a reference to a deleted scene from the original film, but obviously a theme that resonated with Cameron.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

The Terminator, a T-1000, is an advanced prototype made of a mimetic poly-alloy. Liquid metal.

Societal Commentary

Discussions of time travel films always seem to end up revolving around the notions of fate versus free will. Early time travel films, like The Time Machine or even Time After Time, were more about the adventure of traveling in time, but as the language of film and storytelling advanced through the 80s, so did the thematic elements of these films. The Back to the Future films were the first major films to really show the malleability of timelines and characters being able to alter the past to make their own future, whereas films like Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home deal with altering the past, but in a way that may have always happened. Terminator 2 makes a strong case that the characters believe they have a choice about the outcomes of their lives, and that their actions make a difference. The franchise, on the other hand, has a different take on the events, as Skynet continues to rise over and over again.

T2 also tackles a number of other thematic elements that elevate it over its predecessor, family being the most important. The film makes it clear on numerous occasions that the unlikely trio of sentient future cyborg, a modern-day Cassandra, and her delinquent son all form a very strange family unit. Of course Sarah and John are biologically linked, but have been estranged by Sarah’s tenure at Pescadero hospital and John’s conflicts with his foster parents (“She’s not my mother, Todd!”). The T-800 is a protector, specifically of John at this juncture, and as such becomes a pseudo-father-figure, being called out as such by Sarah in one of her voice overs. “’Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, ‘this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up.” In the end, the trio must bond together to remove the larger threat or the T-1000 and destroy the final vestiges of future technology. Who would imagine that watching a battered cyborg being lowered into a molten pit of steel could be so emotional?

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

If it freezes, we can kill it!

The Science in The Fiction

The evolution of Skynet, only mentioned obliquely in the original film, gets a much more detailed origin in this movie. Even though people like Dr Silberman claim that no elements of the original Terminator exist, that appears to be a corporate cover up. Cyberdyne Systems has found and secreted the arm and logic chip of the 1984 cyborg to study. Much like the circular logic (and grandfather paradox of The Terminator, with Kyle being father to the man that sends him back in time), T2 sets up a similar conundrum with the creation of Skynet hinging on future technology examined in the past to create that future technology. It dizzies the mind. But from an audience perspective, this is an interesting and cool conceit. Dyson mentions how complex the technology is inside the chip. Something they don’t fully understand, yet are somehow compelled to keep working on even without having a clear goal for its use. Much like the members of the Manhattan Project, the scientists here also are (unknowingly) working on the means of annihilation. As Sarah puts it (bluntly), “all you know how to create is death and destruction.” It’s both a critique on corporate avarice and the lack of foresight by science. A rage filled acknowledgment that it’s people and corporations like this that are essentially dooming the world.

In the real world, Terminator 2 led to the creation of a set of visual effects tools that would shape the next decade and beyond. Hiring Industrial Light and Magic as the main visual effects company on the film, Cameron knew that they would be able to help him create his vision of a liquid-metal antagonist. Branching from their successful water pseudopod work on Cameron’s The Abyss, Dennis Muren and the effects team at ILM took on the task of creating the T-1000. As detailed on a number of Sci-Fi Saturdays articles, the evolution of computer graphics effects work advanced rapidly throughout the 80s. From sci-fi films Looker, TRON, and The Last Starfighter and non-sci-films like Young Sherlock Holmes, Labyrinth, and Willow, each film pushed the envelope further until the technology culminated with T2. Besides creating an animated humanoid character (a precursor to dozens of other characters in 2022), ILM also used the technology to morph the CGI T-1000 to and from actor Robert Patrick. They also used computers to institute wire removal from stunt vehicles (the motorcycle jumping into the riverbed), digitally correct shots that were flipped left to right (the replacement of the street sign when the T-1000 drives the semi into the channel), and blend the physical puppet and prosthetic work of Stan Winston into the reality of the film.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

This strange family unit says ‘hasta la vista, baby’ to the T-1000.

The Final Frontier

Civilization did not fall to Skynet on August 29, 1997. In fact the only technological thing of note that seemed to take place on that Friday was the debut of Netflix, the video streaming service. Terminator 2 did change the future in several other ways. This is the first and only Terminator film to win or be nominated for an Oscar. It won four of six categories in the 64th Academy Awards, including Makeup, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, and of course Visual Effects. It also contributed, in a small way, to a pivotal point in early nineties race relations. Many people probably remember, or have heard about the beating of Rodney King by LA Police officers on March 3, 1991 and the video captured by George Holliday. The two days prior to that event, Holliday was witnessing and recording scenes of the aqueduct chase and Arnold’s entrance to the biker bar. With his camera handy from his extracurricular enjoyment of watching films shoot in his neighborhood, he was able to film the iconic and depressing footage from his balcony.

I too have a connection to the film. Attending USC film school during this time, I was invited with several other students, all burgeoning filmmakers and special effects artists, to help Lightstorm Entertainment refurbish a number of the film’s props for an upcoming Creation Convention in Los Angeles (June 1991). Besides having Cameron and Arnold, clad in his T2 costume, speak, the show featured a number of future war props including a HK Tank, a life size endoskeleton and the prop arm from Cyberdyne. We cleaned and refurbished a number of these models so they could be displayed at the show. This then led to assisting Van Ling on compiling the photos for the Terminator 2 Illustrated Screenplay book, which we were all credited in.

Terminator 2 made a huge impact for people both personally and publicly. It changed the approach that many studios took towards sequels and franchises, it propelled Cameron and Schwarzenegger even further into the star-sphere, and pushed visual effects technology into a new realm which would lead to fully realized digital scenes by the end of the decade. It spurred an additional four films in the Terminator universe, plus the spin off TV show The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008). It yielded arcade games, a Universal Studios ride (T2-3D: Battle Across Time), several novels by S. M. Stirling, tie-in comics from Now Comics, Dark Horse Comics and now IDW Comics plus a huge cultural impact. But of all the things associated with the film, the most enduring aspect is its commitment to a quality story and character development. It was not a cheap attempt to create a sequel to a popular film, but a new and exciting story with new and important things to say about our future.

Coming Next


This website uses cookies to improve your experience. Accept Privacy Policy