(Disclaimer: This feature article contains spoilers)
Believe it or not, Terminator 2: Judgment Day turns 30 this year. And yet, the 1991 sci-fi blockbuster sequel remains one of those Hollywood films that I never get bored revisiting every now and then. And of course, it still ranks as one of James Cameron’s best films to date (among his others would be 1984’s The Terminator).
Released on July 3, 1991, to overwhelmingly positive responses, the sequel broke a then-5 days’ opening-weekend record at US$52.3 million and stayed at the top spot for 4 consecutive weeks. It went on to beat other subsequent newcomers, namely Point Break and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey before a certain parody called Hot Shots! overtook Terminator 2: Judgment Day by the fifth weekend. By the end of its theatrical run, it earned over US$520 million worldwide against a US$100 million budget, which happened to be the most expensive film ever made at the time. The sequel even won 4 Oscars in the technical categories including Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup.
There were many reasons that made Terminator 2: Judgment Day such an enduring classic. A prime example of a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster that is not only entertaining but also featured memorable characters and then-groundbreaking special effects of Robert Patrick’s T-1000. What’s even more interesting is that James Cameron basically took the same storytelling beat from The Terminator and repackaged it into a bigger-budgeted, event film.
He also manages to distinguish his sequel by introducing a more advanced antagonist in the form of T-1000, a liquid-metal terminator capable of morphing into any shape of appropriately-sized objects or even turn into a different person. Then, there’s the interesting role reversal: Schwarzenegger’s antagonist T-800 previously seen in the first film becomes a protagonist in the sequel, who has been reprogrammed and sent back in time from the future to protect John Connor (Edward Furlong).
Cameron even took a cue from his own Aliens, where Sarah Connor’s (Linda Hamilton) transformation from a damsel in distress in the first film into a fearless warrior echoes the same character pattern of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley.
Among other things that I loved so much about Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the action scenes. Specifically, the two memorable chase scenes which still hold up even today, beginning with the one where T-1000 driving a semi-tow truck in pursuit of John Connor, who is trying to escape on a motorcycle through the flood channel. Speaking of the flood channel, the first chase scene itself was filmed in Los Angeles’ Bull Creek located in Hayvenhurst Avenue.
Then came T-800 to the rescue, riding on a Harley Davidson motorcycle with a shotgun in his hand. It wasn’t just any shotgun but a sawed-off, 12-gauge Winchester 1887 lever-action shotgun. And the coolest thing about it is the way he used the shotgun. Typically for any action film that involved a shotgun, a person would have normally cocking the barrel of a shotgun back and forth.
But in the case of Schwarzenegger’s T-800, he does it the other way. More like a one-of-its-kind reloading technique where he flips to reload his shotgun with just one hand. The idea of reloading in such a fancy way actually came from James Cameron himself, who reportedly inspired from some of the old Western films. Weapons master Harry Lu was in charge of customising the aforementioned shotgun, where it actually took him 1 1/2 months just to get everything right.
The scene also featured T-800’s famous motorcycle jump, where Schwarzenegger’s stunt double Peter Kent performed the dangerous scene with the help of the cable of two construction cranes. Coupled with the digitally-removed wires later in the post-production work, the result is an amazing stuntwork.
Cameron then upped the stakes during the final third act, where he concludes his film with another high-speed pursuit. Reportedly filmed on Terminal Island Freeway, the elaborate nighttime chase scene started with a helicopter and a police van and later, a trailer truck (1977 Freightliner FLC 120 64 T) carrying liquid nitrogen.
For the latter, there is an unforgettable moment where T-800 climbs over the front of the trailer truck and empty the clips of his rifle all over T-1000’s face through the windshield. He subsequently grabbed the steering wheel, which causes the truck to take a hard skid. The truck topples down on its side as it drags along the road with the liquid nitrogen tank separated after crashing through the steel mill.
At one point, we also get to see how T-1000 flies the helicopter underneath the overpass, which is undoubtedly one of the most impressive stunts ever seen in a feature film. Interestingly enough, the particular scene was actually done in a practical way, thanks to veteran stunt pilot Charles A. Tamburro. He also did several aerial stunts for other films such as First Blood (1982), Commando (1985) and Predator (1987). And here’s an interesting trivia you might not aware of: Apparently, Tamburro himself did make a cameo appearance as a helicopter pilot forced by T-1000 to “get out”.
In order to fulfil the flying-underneath-the-overpass stunt, which according to James R. Chiles’ book The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks: The Story of the Helicopter via Film School Rejects, Tamburro placed the “helicopter on wheels and rolled it under the bridge to measure the clearance”. He then flew the helicopter at 60 knots (111 km/h), with Cameron risked himself to shoot part of the scene in close-ups with the help of an insert car driver after his camera crew refused to take part in it. If that’s not enough, the helicopter stunt wasn’t a one-take shot as Tamburro ended up performing it twice so Cameron could capture the scene from two different angles.
The two aforementioned chase scenes in Terminator 2: Judgment Day has since become the hallmark of subsequent Terminator films. While the likes of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines‘ Champion Crane and Terminator: Dark Fate‘s highway chase scenes are both impressive in their own respective films, it’s hard to deny the ones seen in this 1991 sequel remains the most iconic of them all.