CINEMA REMEMBERED: Terminator 2 (1991) and the Thumbs Up Moment
T2: Judgment Day is 1991 intense time travel action flick with killer robots. Oh, and Arnold Schwarzenegger at the height of his action hero movie stardom.
PREFACE: T2: JUDGEMENT DAY is one of the greatest action films ever made. James Cameron one-upped his original film by shifting Arnold Schwarzenegger from villain to hero. This time around, the Terminator is sent back in time to protect John Connor from the evil liquid metal T-1000.
While TERMINATOR 2 may be well known for its ground breaking special effects and incredibly intense action sequences, it also focused on character. That’s what makes That Moment In T2 so special.
THE SET-UP: Sarah Connor’s teenage child will grow up to lead a future resistance against the machines. In the original film, Schwarzenegger’s robot assassin was sent back to kill Sarah before she even gives birth to the leader of the human rebellion. The Terminator’s mission failed.
For the sequel, the enemy sends an upgraded shape-shifting Terminator back to the time when John was a teenager. This time period was selected because Sarah is in a mental institution, unable to protect her child. To make things even more complicated, future John sent back his own Terminator – Schwarzenegger’s T-800 – to babysit.
The ultimate mission is to stop Skynet from going online. This is the company who created the Terminators. If Skynet fails, the human resistance will thwart the apocalypse. However, if any shred of evidence is left behind Skynet could still come into existence. After all, the sequel happened because of robot parts left behind from the original film’s climactic battle.
THAT MOMENT: Over the course of T2’s story, young John and the T-800 develop a father-son relationship. Thanks to a few humourous sequences, we bond alongside these two. The audience comes to love this relationship – which is no small feat, considering Arnold had to arc from villain to hero in this sequel.
Actually, when you think of it, this scenario had several factors working against it. Here are 3 surprising barriers broken. 1: We care for a fake character in a movie. 2: We also care for a robot. 3: Furthermore, this empathetic connection relies on a performance from Arnold Schwarzenegger. Let’s just say, Ah-nuld isn’t known for his Oscar nominations.
That “Thumbs Up” Moment occurs during the film’s climax. The enemy is defeated. The T-800’s mission was successful. He protected John Connor, and in the process rescued his mother, reuniting this fractured family. However, a final cautionary measure must be taken. No future technology can remain or Skynet could still pop into existence.
So, the Terminator sacrifices himself to ensure a safe future for his adoptive son. He lowers himself into the steel plant’s lava-like smelter. We know what’s going to happen. Cameron gives us more than enough time for it to sink in. The T-800 lowers slowly to his end. The final image of our hero is a “Thumbs Up”, lowering into the lava.
THE MOMENT REMEMBERED: I’m sure I’m not the only one to shed a few tears during this moment. Sure, this is an action flick, some cynical viewers may think this is no place for emotion. However, the unexpected emotional character development helped make T2 an iconic action blockbuster. If we didn’t care, this film wouldn’t hold such a special place in our hearts.
There is another layer to this moment. Along the way, John teaches the Terminator how to blend in and act more natural. The teen teaches the machine slang and pop culture references, as well as some valuable moral lessons. One of these lessons was the “Thumbs Up.” In a way, this final goodbye lightens the mood. John will remember that the robot was cracking a joke, while also saying (in effect), “Everything will be alright.”
James Cameron consistently makes great movies. He is no stranger to the multi-dimensional character. With T2, he gave Arnold his best role ever. Cameron also instilled emotion in ALIENS. with Ripley’s storyline involving her daughter and Newt. Deny it all you want, he also made us care about his characters in TITANIC. This Canadian writer/director ranks right up there with any other working director today.
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY rattles you in your seat like an earthquake, grabbing a hold of you and shaking you about through some of the best action sequences ever caught on film. This Cameron film is essentially a chase the entire run-time. We barely get a chance to catch our breath. Unlike most action movies, when things aren’t blowing up we’re still engaged in the story. Due to the excellent character work, the seismic emotional finale resonates. The shock-waves of this climactic event still reverberate decades later.
Don’t forget about this cinematic genre masterpiece. Watch T2 again, and remind yourself what good summer blockbusters look (and feel) like.
DAVID’S ANGLE: Another good moment, Dan. T2 is a great film, one of those sequels that matches, and in some ways, surpasses the original. I like how you mention that Cameron successfully creates a literally robotic character that we identify and sympathize with. You poke a little fun at Arnold (perhaps justly) and his acting ability, yet he’s rather good at what he does in most roles. One reason why we attach so emotionally to the Terminator is certainly because of Schwarzenegger’s performance, and you point that out nicely. This “thumbs up” moment here is a great touch to an already powerful scene. It let’s us know that there is some recognition in the robot that he understands human emotions and especially to John, a child, who is facing the loss of his only real father figure. Sacrifice has always been one of those things in film that I can really get emotional about and this is an excellent example.