There are a handful of movies that are great based on the prowess of their visual effects. Sin City, Life Of Pi, and The Matrix pop into my head first. There are more, of course. They just need a little more thought to identify. Terminator 2: Judgement Day is another such movie. It has all the ingredients of the first Terminator, but the one thing it has that its predecessor doesn’t is silky smooth computer graphics. Almost literally.
The first Terminator was a good movie. It had all the right stuff: Menacing villain; engaging actors playing engaging characters; thrilling chases that seemed to go on forever, whether it was on foot or in smashed up vehicles; scary imagery, etc. But it was still made in the ’80s, which meant that its special effects were never going to hold up for decades to come. This is something James Cameron must have realised for himself, because he waited a good seven years before making its sequel, which meant that he had time to hone his skills and let the rapidly evolving technology work its magic.
The technology is provided by Industrial Light & Magic, the same team that made the early Star Wars movies such visual extravaganzas. It’s a good team on its own, but when you pair it up with someone like Cameron, who spends every waking moment devising new ways of pushing the movie boundaries into areas nobody knew existed, you get something quite remarkable. With Judgement Day, new methods of motion tracking and superimpositions had to be created in order to make the villain’s liquid metal forms believable. Layer upon layer of mattes and textures, different angles, digital and practical props. Everything had to work together, and they worked in very complex ways. Obviously, I’m not familiar with them, but I admire the results. Consider the movie’s climax. The good Terminator and the bad Terminator are fighting to the death. The good Terminator punches the bad one in the face, but instead of knocking him out, his hand goes right through. The bad Terminator can transform into liquid metal, and his head swallows the punch. Then watch the way another head grows out of his shoulder, and how his “old” head morphs into his hands. It sounds very complicated, and I’m sure it must have been a pain to execute, but it is about as beautifully crafted as an antique mahogany cabinet.
And Judgement Day is filled with such treats. The bad Terminator gets shot repeatedly, only to have all his bullet holes close back up in a matter of seconds. He gets burnt, split in two, shot in the face, frozen, amputated, and still he keeps on coming, always refreshed and good as new. I am sure you remember Arnold’s Terminator clawing and scratching his way towards his target; Robert Patrick’s Terminator does pretty much the same thing, but because his liquid metal form is self-regenerating, he never needs to claw and scratch. He can always run and punch.
He is the T-1000, a far superior robot that’s still only a prototype, but even this prototype is lightyears ahead of Arnold’s model, the T-800. He is slimmer, which means he’s faster. He’s liquid metal, which means he’s lighter and can form solid shapes — knives, hooks, clamps, etc — from his limbs, and grow them back should they be cut off. He can run faster than most men can, and he can take the appearance of anyone he meets. Or kills. He is an efficient machine. He is sent back in time to terminate John Connor, who is now a teenage boy, played by Edward Furlong in his first feature role. Furlong is a natural. He is young, brash, foul mouthed, he treats his foster parents as if they forgot to buy him a car for his sweet sixteenth, but he’s a smart kid, and you need to be smart when you’ve got two unstoppable robots crashing and burning around you.
But back to the T-1000. What a machine, and what a villain. Many movies tend to be hurt by their villains, but not this one. It takes a good villain to make the hero look good, and if the hero looks good, and the two can battle it out with enough chemistry, then you’ve got yourself a movie. The American Film Institute released a list of its top fifty heroes and villains of all time. This was some time in 2003. I found it rather surprising that Arnold made both lists as the Terminator, but Robert Patrick’s didn’t qualify as a villain. He is a better villain than Arnold; sleeker, more expressionless, and more deadly, and certainly more cool. He tricks us when we first see him. Sure, he kills that cop in order to steal his appearance, but the image of the cop is significant. He is the image of safety and justice. And so we are led naturally to think that he has admirable intentions. Only when he comes face to face with John and the T-800 in that mall corridor do we see his true colours — and his true nature.
And then when he melts into liquid form, he is made even more fascinating by the magic of ILM’s innovative technological mastery. He is the highlight of the movie, and in many ways, he makes the movie. Just as many hardcore fans will say that Heath Ledger made The Dark Knight. I’m not sure I agree with that, but I can appreciate the sentiment. Ledger made a wonderful villain. Worthy of high praise and a ranking among the top. But to say that he outplays Batman in a Batman movie might be stretching it a bit far. Does the T-1000 outplay the T-800? No. Arnold is still able to hold his own, and hold it well. He is just given the lower rung of the ladder, and encouraged to make the most of it.
Judgement Day is directed by James Cameron, and it’s a very Cameron-esque movie. It’s got all the explosions and firepower of Aliens, the profound message of The Abyss and Avatar, and the sheer absurdity of True Lies. Still, it stands apart, and it’s because of its visual effects. They are in the same league as the effects of Avatar; groundbreaking in terms of technique. They have created a shift in the world of cinema graphics without becoming distracting. They are there to enhance the story and give it life. Even if you think Judgement Day is lacking in plot and characterization, you will succumb to the thrill of its effects. At the end of the day, I suspect that that’s Cameron’s goal. The sequel is not to take us elsewhere, but to leave us in the same spot and move the world around us.