Terminator 2: An opening sequence of legend
August 29th, 2018 marked 21 years since the disastrous ‘Judgement Day’ that saw killer cyborgs officially take domination over the earth, rendering the entire human civilisation nothing more than blazing embers and dust.
Looking back at the cinema history, it’s easy to sneer at sequels as just mediocre cash cows to successful films, however, there’s still several sophomore features that manage to equal, or even overshadow their predecessors’ excellence. James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day stands out as a vivid example. It inherits the legacy of the iconic original movie, telling a story of a catastrophic future occupied by androids eradicating the human race, but in a more fascinating and powerful delivery.
Regarding action thrillers, whereas many action filmmakers are content to let emotion and morality play second fiddle to the more commercial elements of their movies, Cameron refuses to accept such a compromise. The love story in Titanic is not an excuse to display an extravagant disaster flick; it becomes the bottom line, the picture’s raison d’être and the salient factor for global massive success. And now, Cameron’s classic sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day is not just a movie about fighting against nuclear apocalypse.
To many extents, Terminator 2: Judgement Day is a dystopian film, specifically represented via the opening sequence. While the Terminator’s introduction gave us a glimpse of the future war between man and machines, it was brief, fairly limited, and followed by a chunk of expository text. Terminator 2’s is much more engaging and well-structured. It immediately pulls you in, toss you right into the action, and urges you to see what happens next.
We start with a few establishing shots of an ordinary mid-noon summer day in early-90s downtown Los Angeles. As can be seen, many people are making their way through the endless rows of cars. Heat wave distortion causes the image to look surreal and dreamy like in a dream, accompanied by ominous, low-key music. In fact, City of Angels looks already colourless with overcrowded identical vehicles and lacks interpersonal connection among citizens crossing the street – but at least, it’s still brimming with life. This helps to boost extra impact to the horrors coming later and make those killer robots more plausible. The montages last only moments, but it’s vital to show the havoc caused by nuclear war.
Before the screen cuts to a post-apocalyptic LA, the final shot of present day is exceptionally powerful, seeing kids playing on swings and laughing happily. Then, as the footage slows, the image fades to white, signifying the nuclear blast we know is approaching. “The playground is the one place on earth where the dynamic flips and the children are in charge; adults are, at the very most, spectators” (Kail, 2016). This is where innocence reigns. In Judgment Day, the playground turns out to be a recurring visual motif throughout the first two films, linking in with the theme of lost innocence. Lost innocence becomes a bridge between the old self and the new self. For example, Sarah Connor used to be an average damsel in distress who never expected to help change the whole history of this world. But 11 years later, she grows into a toughened warrior who would go to any length to protect her son and is sometimes even on the brink of losing touch with her own humanity. Likewise, John Connor’s innocence has already been taken away since he was a young boy. Fed one story after another of him being a future messianic figure that leads the Human Resistance to defeat Skynet – a military supercomputer, this juvenile delinquent has never thought about life the same as his peers do. This loss of innocence becomes even greater when he’s forced into a run and gun game with the brutal T-1000, discovers that his foster parents have been killed, and risks his own life to rescue his mother from various dangerous situations.
“Our boyhood and girlhood selves so often lurk like shadows long after we’ve grown up; they follow us, but the moment we try too hard to touch them, to pin them down, they slip away.” (Kail, 2016)
After the shot centred on the swings fades to white, then comes an entirely different scenario that sees a pair of seared skeletons in a scorched car. Same location as the last shot, but now it is only a mangled set of severely damaged urban landscape. The cars are stripped to their most fundamental frames, still jammed bumper to bumper. The row of buildings beyond collapsed under some ineffable force, left to look like a block of sandcastles fading away. Wind strolls through the stark white ashes, blending in with the sound of millions of dead souls. In just one shot, Cameron is demonstrating a more panoramic view of the war that he envisaged from The Terminator.This graveyard is eerily silent, deprived of any of the thriving life displayed only seconds earlier. However, the sound in the background does a good job in warning us of some incoming chaos, which is the sound of feet stepping on the rubble remnants. In the context of this outdoor ossuary, it is clearly not footsteps of a human being.
As expected, Sarah’s voiceover is followed by a tilt-up shot of one T-800 endoskeleton crushing a human skull beneath its heel. It is holding a plasma rifle, surveying the landscape with its eyes glowing in the dark. This shot is quite similar to the famous tilt-up revealing shot of Arnold’s character (also a T-800 model) later in this film when he walks out of The Corral Bar. This shot underlines a statement that: For the time being, machines are establishing superiority over human in the war over the control of planet Earth. In fact, this shot also reminds me of the tilt-up dinosaur revealing shot in Jurassic Park (1993), which shares similar purpose of indicating that human is more inferior compared to the surrounding forces.
Then, the action kicks off, and we realise this desolate, deserted location was actually a battlefield. Explosions light up the sky beyond the T-800. Bursts of purple plasma beams pass over the skeleton’s head. Skynet’s weapons include Ground HKs (tank-like robot gun-platforms), flying Aerial HKs, Centurions gun-pods and humanoid terminators in diverse forms. Deep industrial droning and continuously repetitive war horn sound replace the silence, signalling an approaching swarm of deadly machines hunting their prey.
We see dozens of heavily-armed soldiers moving in formation across the city ruins. These are the same men and women who used to live ordinary lives in Los Angeles but are now trained in a tightly organised military force so as to fight against a common enemy. And thanks to Cameron’s masterstroke of directing, the action is visualised beautifully: the figures are highlighted only by the flashes of their violet plasma firearms and the glow of nearby explosions. Confronting manifold HK tanks and aerial HK drones, these human beings appear to be overpowered, several of them easily knocked down by the ruthless war machines. The cuts then come faster, showing just how chaotic and horrific this world is. Meanwhile, discordant music helps to reinforce the sense of panic and uncertainty. Sarah’s voiceover tells us Judgment Day occurred on August 29th, 1997, and this sequence is taking place in 2029. We’re witnessing only a thin slice of a decades-long bloodshed warfare.
At this point, Brad Fiedel’s score becomes more invigorating and anthemic. In a blasted stronghold, John Connor is observing the combat with night-vision binoculars. Camera is slowly pushing in at him as the battle wages on. The military general lowers the binoculars, revealing his left-side face which is heavily scarred. John appears to be a man in his 40s, forged in the furnace of a lifetime war. Camera pushes in until his extra-attentive eyes fill the frame, then cut to a blazing flame as Sarah’s narration concludes: “As before, the resistance was able to send a lone warrior, a protector for John. It was just a question of which one of them would reach him first.”(Terminator 2: Judgement Day, 1991). John Conor’s eyes expression during this shot is more than just battle-hardened. His look shares some resemblance to that of T-800 cyborg at the end of the title sequence, and also that of his own mother after she has been through various vicissitudes of life, relentless and emotionless. This makes the audience wonder whether he is aware of what he is fighting for, or he is now nothing more than just a fighting humanoid machine as his enemies.
Like its predecessor, Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a huge hit at box office in the fall of 1991, astonishing audiences and critics with its combination of sci-fi, action thriller and bittersweet moments of humanity. Obviously, this sequel succeeded in taking advantage of fantastic technological enhancement to deliver an emotional story containing themes of family, fate, hope, destiny, and despair. At its core, the film is tightly and simply plotted, which helps to make the story flow works well: a highly advanced killer cyborg is sent back to the past to kill a young future military leader, whereas another robotic humanoid machine also travels back in time to wreck that plan. All in all, James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day incorporates signature characteristics of spectacle cinema to generate a visually mesmerising dystopian world, thus making this film “that rare genre classic that is every bit as good as its reputation.” (Abrams, 2017)
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Spielberg, S., 1993. Jurassic Park [Film]. Universal City: Amblin Entertainment.
Kail, E., 2016. The Mysterious, Innocent Complexity of the Playground. [online] Feature Shoot. Available at: https://www.featureshoot.com/2016/08/the-mysterious-innocent-complexity-of-the-playground/
Abrams, S., 2017. Terminator 2: Judgment Day 3D Movie Review (2017). [online] Rogerebert.com. Available at: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/terminator-2-judgment-day-3d-2017