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The complicated lore of the Terminator franchise has grown almost exponentially since its meager beginnings back in 1984, as the story has undergone a number of changes and themes with varying success (and failure). While many have found issue with the latest entries, most consider the second film the best achievement in the series, with director and writer James Cameron crafting an intelligent follow-up to his already clever premise.
The story follows Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and her ten-year-old son John (Edward Furlong), the future leader of the human resistance, working with a reprogramed T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to stop the Cyberdyne Systems military defense company from creating a revolutionary new neural net processor (reverse engineered from parts salvaged from the first Terminator destroyed in the original film) that will lead to the establishment of Skynet, an artificial intelligence that will one day gain control of the United States nuclear missile arsenal and try to end Mankind. Meanwhile, they are chased by a highly-advanced, liquid-metal Terminator T-1000 (Robert Patrick), hunting them with extreme prejudice.
The engineer at Cyberne who makes this neural network discovery is Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), a man galvanized by the technology but naive to the implications. He is fascinated by the advancements and is moving forward with the process, which he believes will be the key to electronically linking defense weapons to protect the country. Sarah knows otherwise, haunted by visions of a burning future, seeing that the invention will lead to the near annihilation of the human race and now, angered by the hubris of those with this kind of power, heads to Dyson’s house in fury with one intention. Kill him.
Spoilers Ahead: Once at the house, setting herself up with a laser-sighted machine gun in view of his glass-walled home, she fires at him from his backyard, then breaks in and threatens to murder him before John and the Terminator catch up and stop her, though she does put a bullet in Dyson’s shoulder. With his wife and child in panic at his side, all feeling this is their end, Dyson desperately questions them, asking who they are. With two words, John instructs the Terminator: “Show him.”
Lying on the floor, wounded, Dyson watches as the android removes his leather jackets and, using a switchblade given to him by John, slices into his arm and peels off the skin of his forearm, revealing the same exoskeleton that Dyson has in his laboratory, proving that the Terminator is in fact from the future.
This, and an extend discussion of what Dyson’s invention leads to, convinces him to take steps to prevent his work from continuing, though to do so properly, to ensure that no others with take up his research, they must destroy the laboratory at Cyberdyne. Using his passkey, he, Sarah, John, and the Terminator make their way up to the facility and begin to install explosives in order to explode all records and prototypes. Once set, their presence is detected and an armed security and police force make their way up to the lab. While the Terminator deals with the closing resistance, Dyson and the others work their way to the vault and secure the previous terminator’s CPU chip and rig the place to go up in a huge ball of fire.
As a full-scale battle breaks out in the building, Dyson takes hold of the detonator to be set off once clear of the facility, but is shot when police storm the laboratory. Sarah, John, and the Terminator escape, leaving Dyson mortally wounded on the floor in control of the explosive device. As cops make their way to him, they find him panting, drawing his last breaths while clinging to a shard of the processor balanced over the detonator trigger trying to hold off the explosion so the others can get out. In hope of saving the police as well, he uses his last spastic words to sputter in heartfelt sincerity: “I don’t know how much longer I can hold this.” Even as he dies, he intends to finish what they started.
What makes this moment so effective, aside from Cameron’s scalpel-like precision in creating an action sequence, is Morton himself, who creates what might arguably be his best performance to date, taking this minor supporting character and shaping one of the most defining moments of the film. Dyson is an innocent man who learns he is responsible for a holocaust of unimaginable devastation, an event yet to occur, and in so doing sacrifices himself in order to prevent it. It’s a powerful act of humanity and Morton gives Dyson great dignity but also tremendous courage.
What makes him so identifiable is his plainness, a family man who is taken by the enterprising possibilities of something that seems infinitely capable of doing good for his country. Of all the characters in the movie, who are, let’s face it, meant to be larger than life, it is Dyson whom we connect with most easily, a figure pulled into the chaos by actions yet to happen and yet, like we would all hope ourselves of having capacity for, rises to that challenge and commits to an act of unsung heroism that makes him truly the real savior of man, at least for a time. It’s a great character moment.