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A film director committed to the efficient use of new technology.
James Cameron was certainly the right man with the right ambitions in the right place. Launched as a carpenter and model maker at Roger Corman's Venice studio, doing R-rated knock-offs of Star Wars, Cameron soon found his way into a directing capacity and stunned the industry with his 1984 The Terminator, a movie that looked several times more expensive than it was. His 1986 Aliens did the same trick on a much larger scale, firmly interlocking science fiction and violent action into a surefire genre hybrid. Aliens not only respected Sci-Fi traditions, it started the "action overkill" technique of drawing the viewer into thrilling, exhausting multiple climaxes. Critics had complained for ten years that movies were becoming roller-coaster rides, but Cameron's complex attractions left his audiences thoroughly exhilarated.
The Abyss didn't fare as well, probably because Cameron stumbled with his feel-good message and confusing mix of Sci-Fi and underwater adventure. But The Abyss also opened the door on a fantastic new development that would change movies as completely as had sound and widescreen: digitally created visual effects. Cameron was one of the first filmmakers to pull free of the limitations of what could be staged in front of a camera lens.
Cameron stepped into the league of filmmakers far ahead of the industry curve by fashioning a violent entertainment machine that could be made only by a director-producer in control of every technical detail of a vastly complicated production: Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Already a master of efficient camera storytelling, Cameron gambled with Industrial Light & Magic's new capacity for creating unique, photographically impossible digital effects. 1991 audiences watched T2 surpass normal technical standards within its first two or three shots --- and then proceed into an unbroken string of visual miracles, including the first really successful computer animated characters through CGI.
This man knows his Science Fiction.
Cameron's Sci-Fi films are dense with ideas borrowed from older movies. Aliens efficiently repurposes concepts and machines from a dozen classics. The anthropomorphic forklift machine that fights the Alien monster, for one example, is more credible than any "robot monster" yet seen; in a 50s film, it would be the whole show. T2 brings back Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cyborg assassin, this time programmed to protect Valley Boy John Connor (Edward Furlong) so he can grow up to save the world from a robot uprising. The villain is T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a new-generation bio-robot made of liquid metal that can reconfigure itself into the image of anything or anybody it can touch. It's The Blob and Invasion of the Body Snatchers combined. The T-1000 oozes through iron bars, forms its arms into steel daggers and disguises itself as a hundred square feet of linoleum tiles. It spends most of its time in the form of a polite, immaculately uniformed police officer -- on a one-track pursuit of its prey.
One admires Cameron's mastery of the building blocks of action cinema, even as his basic cynicism shows through. Imperiled heroine Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is now buffed out like a combat action toy and self-trained to be a one-woman army -- and yet she's supposed to retain our sympathy as a traumatized woman desperately trying to save the world's children from a nuclear holocaust. Cameron presents emotionally moving images of kiddies on a playground, but his real energy goes toward visualizing an atomic horror more graphic than anything yet seen. T2 is the ultimate apocalyptic survivalist fantasy: Sarah and friends save the world by embracing guns galore and riding a rising tide of don't-look-back violence.
Cameron and his co-screenwriter William Wisher confect a story overloaded with spectacular, ultra-cool mayhem, most of which is perpetrated by the relentless T-1000. The metallic cop skewers innocent victims by making its finger grow into a Pinocchio-like stiletto; shotgun blasts blow chrome "splash craters" into its body. All of these wounds very quickly "heal". When liquid nitrogen freezes T-1000 into hundreds of ice cubes, he appears to be kaput. But a good thaw allows all the pieces to flow back together like liquid mercury, and the T-1000 is back in business.
Guns, gore and sanitized sadism.
Despite the superior filmmaking, the emphasis on killing technology panders to the crowd looking for exploitative thrills: for all its bemoaning of the fate of humanity, T2 is "a little cold around the heart". Arnold Schwarzenegger reportedly agreed to repeat his Terminator role only if his character could be made into a "good guy", a task that Cameron and Wisher accomplish with ease. But the result is guilt-free "fun" violence, and jokes based on the "humanity" of a killing machine. Forbidden from actually killing anyone, The Terminator instead shoots scores of policemen in the knees, a supposedly benign alternative. The sick joke is at the expense of civilized values. I say, go volunteer your services at your local hospital and find out how much fun gunshot wounds really are.
Moral discomfort aside (do people even concern themselves with that any more?) T2 remains a marvel that can exhaust any audience. At about the three-quarter mark I tend to run out of energy, having simply OD'd on non-stop action for the evening. In the next decade or so, the mass audience may rediscover the notion that Less Can Be More, and this kind of thriller will spin off in a different direction.
The cult following for the first two Terminator movies is fascinated by its concept, which blends time travel, apocalypse-avoidance, survivalism and robot-chic into a workable narrative. T2 hasn't dated in eighteen years, which is pretty good for futuristic Sci-Fi. Frankly, I pay little attention to the time travel aspect, as the freedom engendered by time-travel capability renders normal drama inert. If the future robots failed to kill Sarah Connor in 1984, why the heck did they try again several years later in the timeline, when Sarah knows what's happening and has had time to prepare? Why not set the Wayback Machine for the week before the first attempt, and snuff her in her sleep? Ask Superman: Time Travel means that no mistake is ever final.
Lionsgate's Blu-ray of Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the second Blu-ray release of this wildly popular genre attraction. The encoding is a definite improvement on the previous disc, with a sharper picture; however, readers report that it has a DNR feel that smoothes out imperfections and grain but reduces sharpness just enough to keep the picture from really popping. The new DTS-HD audio track is also a major improvement, as the first Blu-ray simply used a previous DVD track. Lossless audio Blu-ray tracks, properly formatted, make older DVD audio seem flat and rolled-off.
This Skynet Edition contains all three versions of T2. We're given a choice of the original Theatrical Cut or the more satisfying Special Edition Cut. Typing the code numbers "82997" into the menu page prompting a version choice loads the Extended Special Edition Cut. As far as I can tell, the third cut adds only a brief optimistic future finale with Sarah Connor.
The two commentaries filed under "Sensory Controls" are from older releases. Cameron and his co-writer Wisher's is the more entertaining, but production oriented fans will want to hear the track with "26 cast and crew members". "Interactive Modes" brings up a long list of Picture-In-Picture features that play along with the movie. The disc starts with a warning that the PIP features may not function on version 1.0 Blu-ray players, and we've heard reports that they can be sluggish or non-functioning on some version 2.0 machines as well. They include featurette bits, the usual trivia, production detail, a storyboard, a quiz, and the screenplay. These PIP tracks impress with their graphic overkill, but certainly aren't the most efficient way to present information; "Interactive" seems to be interpreted as an endless "busy book" for people with time to kill.
Will Big Brother be watching what we watch?
"Ancillary Data" contains the more prosaic extras -- a raft of trailers and deleted scenes (including the optimistic "Future Coda" with Sarah Connor. More content is promised through "BD Live", which requires an Internet connection. I resist this concept on the grounds that any such "Internet access" content can be withdrawn at any time. The BD-Live setup might encourage studios to slowly morph movie discs into "access gateways" that don't actually have movies encoded on them, but instead merely allow us to download content from the web, at the studio's discretion. The content provider will be able to monitor our viewing habits, and we'll be collecting nothing -- a "purchased" title could be withdrawn at a later date and simply not be accessible.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day remains an enormously popular action show and Lionsgate's Blu-ray will more than satisfy casual fans and Terminator groupies alike. James Cameron promises to transform pop cinema yet another time with his upcoming 3-D Avatar film; we'll be curious to see if his technical and commercial genius has retained its edge.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.