Terminator 2: A Film Class Analysis
What follows is an analysis I wrote tonight for my American Cinema class regarding Terminator 2 as it relates to science fiction genre conventions. Participation in this class could generously be referred to as “woeful”, and rather than launch my work pointlessly into the ether, I thought it might be fun to share it with readers here. This is by no means a complete synopsis of the film, I could talk for days about this one. Rather it focuses on two or three genre conventions, and approaches the story from that standpoint. My cap for this assignment was also three double-spaced pages, or about 800 words. I came in just under the line. Imagine, struggling to edit DOWN to a cap for a college paper rather than arbitrarily ballooning out sentences to meet some ridiculous minimum requirement. It was a pleasure to write. Quoted and page-referenced lines are taken from the textbook American Cinema, American Culture, by John Belton. It’s a good read, I recommend picking it up if you get a chance.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day is James Cameron’s 1991 follow-up to his sci-fi/horror hit of the previous decade, The Terminator (1984). In that film, a cyborg (Terminator) was sent back through time to kill Sarah Connor in an attempt to prevent her future son John from being born and growing up to lead the human resistance against the machines. This time around, the same model of Terminator is sent to protect her now-teenaged son from an even greater threat against his life. The result is a film that perfectly exemplifies the theme of what it means to be human, and acts as a turning point for the genre by melding the old threats of the nuclear era with the more current fears brought on by the information age.
Terminator 2 makes use of both extrapolative science fiction, which “extends contemporary science and technology into the future…to posit a possible course of change”; as well as the speculative, which “involve(s) great leaps forward into a future that is more or less improbable” (p280). Skynet, the artificial intelligence (AI) being developed from future tech recovered after the events of the original film, will gain sentience and grow to perceive humans as a threat after being put in control of America’s nuclear defenses. This extrapolation ties into the atomic threat omnipresent in classic 1950’s sci-fi: Skynet’s first act of aggression is to launch a nuclear strike against the Russians, confident that their counterattack will wipe out America in return. In addition, the film uses the growth in robotics tech in the 80’s, as well as the dawn of the Internet, to play on society’s fears regarding job loss due to increased automation as well as the privacy concerns of the new information age.
While Skynet itself is extrapolative, much of the dystopian future it brings about is pure speculation. The robotic beings it spawns to carry out its bidding are either metal parts covered in living tissue, as is the case with the Terminator from the first film and the hero of this one, or the even more fantastic shape-shifting liquid metal of the new villain, the T-1000. Although both of these machines are wholly improbable, they become real and relatable through the ways they interact with mankind, exploring the common sci-fi question of what it means to be human.
“Science fiction narratives explore the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman” (p272), and in this regard Terminator 2 truly excels. The T-1000 is mankind’s robotic replacement fears brought to life: a being that can not only imitate anyone with terrifying accuracy, as John Connor experiences during a phone conversation with what he believes to be his foster mother, but which also has the tendency to kill anyone it decides to mimic. In contrast to the T-1000’s violent and forced infiltration of humankind, the Terminator that serves as John Connor’s protector seeks to understand humanity through participation and observation.
Rather than following a straight path, the Terminator’s pursuit of humanity ebbs and flows throughout the movie. At the beginning, he is again an efficient robotic killing machine; the narrative doesn’t even clarify him as the hero of the story until about a quarter of the way through. As he travels with John and Sarah Connor, we see him becoming ever more human. His “brain”, a neural-net processor, allows him to learn through contact with humans. This is at first played to comedic effect as John teaches him an array of human insults, but later takes a touching turn as he asks the brief but exceedingly complex question, “Why do you cry?”. It is at this moment when Sarah, observing the Terminator and her son from afar, realizes that this machine (that she has every logical reason to fear), might be a better and more loving father figure for her son than any human man she’s likely to find.
After this close brush with genuine humanity, the Terminator must necessarily embrace his mechanical nature once more. He peels the organic skin from his forearm in an effort to persuade the eventual creator of Skynet to destroy his research, and withstands a hail of gunfire during this mission that strips half the flesh from his face. The climactic battle ensues, and as the film reaches its finale he is more clearly mechanical than ever before: limbs are missing, the exposed metal surpasses the visible flesh, and he has sustained more damage than any human being is capable of. But in the final moments, he realizes that the future of Skynet can only be stopped if all the related technology is destroyed in the present, himself included. He allows himself to be lowered into a vat of molten steel, and with this one final act he has achieved perhaps the noblest of human actions: self-sacrifice. As the film closes, Sarah Connor summarizes this act in one powerful line: “If a machine-a Terminator-can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too”.