"We're not gonna make it, are we? People, I mean." - John Connor
"It's in your nature to destroy yourselves." - Cyberdyne Systems Model 101
"Yeah. Major drag, huh?" - John Connor
To say that Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a massive hit is a gross understatement. Sure, it was the highest grossing movie of 1991, but that barely begins to describe it's cultural staying power. Not only is it the defining role of Arnold Schwarzenegger's career, but it pioneered the use of big budget CGI in films (it came out two years before Jurassic Park) and remains the go-to metaphor for our ever increasing dependence on ever smarter machines. Whenever Google makes something easier, people make Skynet jokes.
Despite all those accolades, however, Terminator 2 is actually an underrated film. Even pretty serious movie fans tend to think of it as little more than a high quality sci-fi action movie. It's on a lot of "best of" lists, but mostly because people think of it as cool and fun rather than serious and intellectual. But doing so overlooks three of the film's most interesting aspects: 1) it's the only major Hollywood blockbuster to ever depict a nuclear detonation realistically, 2) it's very sneakily an anti-war movie, and - most importantly - 3) its real villain is the military-industrial complex. (<- seriously)
Terminator 1 depicts more of the atomically ravaged future than its sequel, but Terminator 2 shows us a detailed and *very* graphic nuclear detonation. Large American cities get destroyed on screen all the time, of course. Los Angeles alone has succumbed to everything from earthquakes to alien attacks. But none of those films are nearly as explicit as Sarah Connor's nightmare wherein we see cars, buses, and trees thrown about like toys, buildings vaporized, and women and children charred alive before they "fly apart like leaves".
It's a rough scene to watch, but that's sort of the point. When a nuclear missile inexplicably goes off near the end of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Franchises, it's little more than a brief flash. Starship Troopers uses them as infantry weapons. Even Dr. Strangelove, the ur-film of nuclear weapons in movies, sticks to stock footage of test explosions. Terminator 2 actually showed tens of millions of Americans what a nominal yield airbust nuclear detonation would do to them.
The child filled playground that gets nuked is also used for the opening credits sequence, which is one of the few other pieces of 20th century art that can be legitimately compared to Picasso's "Guernica" (again: seriously). It's play equipment entirely in flames, for well over a minute of that hauntingly mournful theme song. Swing sets, a tricycle, a merry-go-round: all turned into an inferno by the cleverness of man. The movie's relentless message is that nothing is worth more than human life.
Guess they should've ducked and covered.
To understand how exceptional that makes Terminator 2, consider that most action movies see even the good guys kill a huge number of people. Bruce Willis has variously disposed of way over a hundred henchmen in the Die Hard movies. Guys like Stallone, Vin Diesel, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson routinely rack up healthy body counts. Schwarzenegger himself has killed several hundred people on screen even if you exclude the last thirty minutes of Commando. By contrast, the good guys in Terminator 2 don't kill a single person.
The film uses this central idea for everything from jokes to its most touching moments. On the funny side of the ledger, there's Schwarzenegger's deadpan, "He'll live" after kneecapping the guard at the mental hospital, as well as the fourth wall breaking "I swear I will not kill anyone". On the emotional side, there's the scene where Linda Hamilton tries to kill Joe Morton - a man whose work will result in the deaths of billions of people - and can't do it. The movie resolutely believes that killing is always wrong, and it's hard to think of a more anti-war message than that.
Most movie heroes can't make this promise.
Finally, we come to Skynet, the super-intelligent computer that all but wipes out humanity. Since this is important, it's worth quoting in full:
Sarah Connor: I need to know how Skynet gets built. Who's responsible?
T-101: The man most directly responsible is Miles Bennett Dyson.
SC: Who is that?
T: He's the director of special projects at Cyberdyne Systems corporation.
SC: Why him?
T: In a few months he creates a revolutionary type of microprocessor.
SC: Go on. Then what?
T: In three years, Cyberdyne will become the largest supplier of military computer systems. All stealth bombers are upgraded with Cyberdyne computers becoming fully unmanned. Afterwards, they fly with a perfect operational record. The Skynet Funding Bill is passed. The system goes on-line on August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self aware at 2:14am, Eastern time, August 29th. In the panic, they tried to pull the plug.
SC: Skynet fights back.
T: Yes. It launches its missiles against the targets in Russia.
John Connor: Why attack Russia? Aren't they our friends now?
T: Because Skynet knows that the Russian counter-attack will eliminate its enemies over here.
Set aside the fact that the predicted apocalypse is now nearly twenty(!) years in the past and take a look at the detailed vocabulary of James Cameron and William Wisher's screenplay. Most movies inappropriately use the word "exponential" when they want to say "big numbers!". Cameron and Wisher employ the more mathematically plausible "geometric". August 29th wasn't just plucked from a calendar at random, it was the date the Russians tested their first bomb in 1949, so it was also the day that nuclear war became possible. There's even a hint of machine pride with the remark about a "perfect operational record".
The whole thing is made even more memorable by the fact that we now indeed have fully unmanned stealth bombers (made by a company called General Atomics, no less). But what really reveals the movie's anti-military-industrial ethos is this line:
The Skynet Funding Bill is passed.
It's only six words, but it means that Congress voted humanity out of existence in pursuit of slightly better weaponry against a country that isn't really our enemy. The entire backstory of the film is that the "defense" industry killed America and the rest of the world. That is not a message you will ever see in Pentagon approved movies like Top Gun, Zero Dark Thirty, or anything Michael Bay has ever directed.
Terminator 2 is a great movie for a lot of reasons. It's funny as hell. It's got a perfect cast. And it concludes with a breathtaking forty-five minute action sequence that includes special effects that still look good twenty-five years later as well as amazing stunts. (They flew a helicopter under a freeway overpass, for fuck's sake!) But underlying all that is a very smart and well researched plea for people to be just a bit less stupid. Nobody thinks of it as a sappy movie, but it's hard to imagine something more earnest and hopeful than its final line:
The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it for the first time with a sense of hope, because if a machine, a terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.
Maybe, indeed. For today, humanity has made it past another August 29th. But here in 2016, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has us at just 3 minutes to midnight, noting:
"Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe."
When Terminator 2 came out in 1991, we were at 17 minutes to midnight.