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DEEP FOCUS: War Against the Machines: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

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by Steven Santos
June 28, 2011 6:16 AM
7 Comments
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James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day opened on July 3, 1991. It was a sequel to his surprise hit The Terminator, which was released 7 years earlier; in the original, Cameron was clearly working with a limited budget, but "Terminator 2" was designed to be more ambitious, as he had made both Aliens and the personal but financially unsuccessful The Abyss in between. Perhaps in response to that failure, Cameron fully subscribed to the "Bigger is Better" school of filmmaking to guarantee audiences would not reject his future work. He decided to revisit his earlier hit to not only expand on that story, but to realize a vision that was limited years before by both technology and budget. Cameron was given a then-astronomical budget of $102 million. What did that money buy, you may ask? A turning point in photorealistic, computer-generated images -- or what we call today, in the post-Terminator land of films, "CGI".

The Terminator films operate on the same premise. In Cameron's future, the world has been taken over by an artificially intelligent computer system called Skynet that has revolted against its human creators, the defense firm Cyberdyne Systems. In Terminator 2, the assassin sent back in time to kill future human resistance leader John Connor is the constantly morphing T-1000. Or perhaps we should refer to it as James Cameron's machine creation.

The shapeshifting T-1000 is a more effective killing machine than the original T-800 model played by Schwarzenegger in both films, but humanity ultimately wins out when the older Terminator model outsmarts him. With both the cyborg assassin and Cyberdyne Systems' technological research destroyed, the sequel presents a definitive ending. The victorious T-800 lowers himself into burning liquid metal, ensuring the world will not be destroyed and humanity will triumph. James Cameron leaves us with amessage of hope. At least, that is what we thought when we watched the film end back in 1991. Unfortunately, the story did not end there. Not unlike Cyberdyne, Cameron had let his creation turn against him. It is easy to point out both the unnecessary sequels and television show which undid the ending to Terminator 2 to shamelessly cash in on the premise again and again. But those were not necessarily Cameron's doing. They may instead be long-term effects of building movies out of CGI blocks. This is the film's true legacy, and Cameron himself -- the director of such CGI-laden films as True Lies, Titanic and Avatar -- is not only a practitioner of this type of filmmaking, but a vocal advocate as well. We must ask: Is James Cameron Cyberdyne, building the technology that will be used against humanity?

In the 20 years since Terminator 2, our movie theaters have become inundated with one soulless CGI spectacle after one another. Filmmakers have looked to what was groundbreaking in Cameron's 1991 film and responded with a weightless cinema in which larger percentages of any shot are given over to computers and, ultimately, lack dramatic consequence; it becomes more difficult to believe in something once you realize it was created by hardware and software.

When we look more closely at Terminator 2, one can see the seeds of this planted in the contradictory ways it presents its ideas. Surprisingly, the CGI in Cameron's Terminator sequel is restrained in its use, especially compared to what subsequent movies, including Cameron's, have done since. At the time, Cameron was still using practical in-camera effects, a product of his earlier work in low-budget filmmaking. His 1980s movies often employed models, miniatures and puppets, even as he eventually moved towards digital effects in 1989's The Abyss. Cameron's vision at the time was not as disconnected from the human experience as it is now. We could differentiate between the machines and true flesh and blood. This is why Terminator 2 cannot be dismissed so easily. Yes, Cameron is playing with a bigger toy box, but he does not do so at the expense of his ideas or the genuine affection he has for his characters. The movie never forgets that it is about a mother-son relationship, though one that has the future of the world at stake. As with many Cameron films, there is a great deal of skepticism about how we employ technology in the modern age, particularly when it leads to some sort of blowback. The villains in the Terminator movies are not only the machines, but those who created them -- namely the researchers at Cyberdyne Systems, the fictional corporation in T2 that allowed the machines the opportunity to wipe out humanity. The film preaches a message that machines are not to be trusted.

But it does so by relying heavily on computer technology. And at one point, the film's heroine Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) too easily accepts the possibility that the T-800 sent to protect her son John (Edward Furlong) would be his best possible father figure. It often feels as if Cameron wants us to love the machine, especially when it has him spouting catchphrases ("Hasta la vista, baby") to make metal and steel more cuddly.

While we can all acknowledge that we have seen CGI employed to realize some filmmakers' artistic visions, those films have been rare amid the visual noise that we have had to endure. Cameron himself has not been immune to film's greatest indulgence of the last two decades; his movies have become more bloated, not merely in budget, but in spectacle. The runaway box office successes of both Titanic and Avatar may suggest that his finger is on the pulse of America, but it is also representative of the collective short-sightedness of both the filmmaker and his audience. The fighting cyborgs of Cameron's Terminator films have evolved -- or more appropriately, devolved -- into the Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robot creations that today's filmmakers insist we love. While we cannot quite blame Cameron for the lesser filmmakers who imitate his films poorly, we can certainly point an accusing finger in his direction for the current 3D trend, which Cameron has repeatedly declared the future of cinema.

So now, it is a battle between the resistance and the machines, not unlike the future world presented in Terminator 2: Judgment Day -- a world in whiich 3D has been given a purpose, thanks mainly to CGI-reliant movies. The questions to ask are: Did James Cameron and his audience forget the message of Terminator 2? While we remember T2 as an effective science fiction action film that had some heart, do we also remember how Cyberdyne did its research with the best of intentions, not realizing what its creations would one day become? This is not to advocate sending a Terminator to deal with the James Cameron of 1991, but to wonder if the director would have done things differently if he could have known where his innovations would lead -- or if his message to those in the resistance who seek more of a human touch in films was always: "Hasta la vista, baby."

Steven Santos is a freelance TV editor/filmmaker based in New York. His work can be found at StevenEdits.com. He writes about films at his blog The Fine Cut. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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7 Comments

  • Mark | July 4, 2011 4:40 AMReply

    "Surprisingly, the CGI in Cameron’s Terminator sequel is restrained in its use, especially compared to what subsequent movies, including Cameron’s, have done since."

    Not surprising really, it was a matter of cost. Each CG shot was horrendously expensive at the time.

  • Matthew Seitz | June 30, 2011 8:55 AMReply

    I'm more in Steven's camp. Overreliance on CGI has further hastened a decline in basic filmmaking skills (and at the Hollywood studio level, incredibly enough, a place where one used to be able to at least count on sound technical & aesthetic judgment). Yes, digital effects can be used with imagination and panache, but too often the effects seem of-a-piece with a burgeoning trend in coverage as opposed to direction -- a really expensive version of the production cop-out "don't worry, we'll fix it in post." The great thing about the old-school analog effects is that they forced a filmmaker to plan, make some judgments, be selective, because once you were locked into a particular frame or camera move or panorama, you had to stick with it, because all the elements in the shot had to be done in layers and you couldn't really change anything. There's is a solidity to old school effects -- miniatures, models, puppets, opticals -- that one rarely gets from post-"T2" movies. There's a sense of weight to the imagery, and a sense that what you are seeing has a life to it, because was literally handmade.

  • Steven Boone | June 29, 2011 11:51 AMReply

    Ian sez: "I just really think that digital is a huge win for filmmakers. It adds like 10mil of virtual production value to pretty much anything."

    So what? Huge win? What do they win? More money? Bragging rights?

    We have traveled so far away from what it's all about that I fear even the smartest of critics and cineastes out there look at an overloaded Bob Ross painting like Avatar and perceive no meaningful difference between it and a sleek, skillfully told action-thriller like Aliens. It's really Bodysnatchers time in the culture today. Who's next to lose any feel for the way films really work?

    I think the Santos video answers its own questions mercilessly well. Clearly, Cameron, Lucas, Jackson, Spielberg-- all those stylish cats-- are losing their craft to wealth and technology. And audiences have been taught to think of these things as fireworks displays, nothing more. You go wow and clap and then go get a bucket of chicken. Burp.

  • Ian Grey | June 29, 2011 3:09 AMReply

    Hey Steven. I was talking the overall take-away I got from your piece. There was plenty more nuance, but the gist of it is what I was reacting to.

    But then again I'm also aware that I'm a minority opinion on James Cameron's career arc. Aside from Aliens being perfect, which it is, I don't much see how his other films, which steal left and right using horrifically bad dialogue are any worse than what's going on in Avatar.

    About which I can only shrug and say--OK, silly fake Art Nouveau yoga class design but *really good* fake Art Nouveau yoga class design. That's already bringing down software costs for what I hope will be better films. As for the movie I'd be aiming for fake attitude if I said I didn't enjoy it a great deal.

    Michael Bay could be perfectly horrible if CG didn't exist.

    You make a good point that digital is a territic budget-explosion enabler.

    As for Monsters--I'd just come back from Nicaragua when I saw it and I felt it beautifully caught the slow groove of that sort of life. And that entire last section with the abandoned town and the rutting Lovecraftian whatevers--that was just so lovely and strange.

    But going back to CG-as-huge-budget-bad-film enabler. It's worth keeping in mind the very analog budget bloat of 1941 or the expensive agita of One from the Heart.

  • Steven Santos | June 29, 2011 1:06 AMReply

    No offense taken, Ian. But I do think your reading of the essay is more than a bit simplistic. First of all, my line of work owes a great deal to the switch from analog to digital, so the indie rock idea does not reflect my feelings towards digital accurately. And, as I mentioned in the piece, I don't dismiss all filmmakers who use it. There are directors who employ it successfully to tell their stories. I would name Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men' as one of the best examples in recent years. That said, for every one of those films, we have about 20 other movies where filmmakers use CGI as a crutch. Basically, the tail wagging the dog, where the spectacle is presented not to enhance the story but as the only reason for the film to exist.

    I would certainly disagree that digital saves money. In some cases, yes. But from just seeing the budgets of movies over the years, aren't they generally growing mostly due to the special effects budgets? In fact, the middle budget movies are being squeezed out by the blockbusters because the studios only see benefit from making the CGI spectacles, whose budgets are routinely hitting $200 Million.

    It's funny you bring up "Monsters". Yes, I was impressed that it was made for half a million. That said, all I kept thinking through the movie was that it was a calling card (the director is slated to reboot "Godzilla"). Beyond that, I felt the film's ideas about immigration were rather trite. I wish that had been a little more scrutinized by critics, who seemed more eager to give the thing a pass because it was made on the cheap while I did not find much of a compelling reason for it to be made beyond that accomplishment.

    A key phrase in the essay is "restrained in its use'. I do not believe most filmmakers use CGI wisely. The more they use it in their movies, the less I believe in the stories they tell. I'm always aware of when CGI effects are being used, even in good films. They tend to miss a realistic depth and movement that practical effects had. And it always takes me out because I often feel it tends to be unnecessary and, dare I say, a bit unimaginative. And, in the specific case of Cameron, the subject of the essay, I think it may be eroding his filmmaking skills. One can easily see in the essay how the well-composed images of his earlier films gave way to the cluttered mess of "Avatar", where it seems as if he's trying to fill the screen with as much as his computers can create or, as I call it in the piece, visual noise.

  • Jason Bellamy | June 29, 2011 1:02 AMReply

    Terrific as usual, Steven. Wonderful think piece.

    The only part I take strong exception to is the link to Titanic, which is dominated by human heart (whether you find it touching or grating) and features an incredible amount of (quite incredible) bricks-and-mortar set-based "effects." So I think that film is actually more in line with T-2.

    Of course, the question remains: If not would Cameron do something differently, does he at least understand the underlying thematic hypocrisy of T-2's message vs. his all-techno-progress-makes-us-stronger mantra of today.

  • Ian Grey | June 28, 2011 12:12 PMReply

    Hey Steven

    I just need to say I, um, disagree with almost everything here, no offense.

    I mean, it flirts with the indie rock idea that things are just better with analog technology. And just dismissing The Sarah Conner Chronicles...it was a frequently inspired (and lousy) show.

    And you wouldn't have Game of Thrones or True Blood or any number of art projects without CG. You just could never afford it. (So many 'ands' !)

    I mean, a null-budgeted movie like Monsters, which I just loved--you can't even *imagine* that without digital everything.

    And we'd never have Firefly without, ironically, Michael Bay's accidental R&D work.

    I just really think that digital is a huge win for filmmakers. It adds like 10mil of virtual production value to pretty much anything.

    .

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