Terminator 2: Judgment Day
The Terminator is one of those action flicks that goes beyond the action. Part of the way it does this is through its resemblance to Homer's The Iliad. At one point in that great epic poem, the gods descend to Earth to help chosen mortals and end up fighting amongst themselves in sequence that, as translator Robert Fagles has pointed out, causes the gods to symbolize the unexplainable forces that affect our lives1. In The Terminator, our world becomes a battleground for two godlike military behemoths from the future. Most everybody is powerless against them except for the Terminator's target, Sarah Connor, who proves a formidable prey with some priceless help.
In modern day America, a very buff robot (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has come from the future to kill Sarah Connor, the will-be mother of a future crucial military figure, John Connor. By the year 2029, you see, America has become a wasteland in which corporate robots are fighting to destroy mankind. If they can retroactively eliminate John Connor, victory is sure to be theirs. Luckily, the second future war machine is a human, Kyle Reese, with the intention of protecting Sarah. But human, here, is the operative word, and it'll take a hell of a lot more than guns and muscle to kill the death machine they're up against.
It may sound like a stretch to compare this movie to The Iliad, but there are multiple clues that suggest precisely that comparison. At one point, while getting ready for a night out, Sarah's roommate compliments both of them as being "better than mortal man deserves." At another point, to emphasize the power of the robot and the insignificance of mankind, the camera focuses on the Terminator parking his vehicle on top of a toy truck, smashing the plastic with, of course, no regard. Later, Reese explains to Sarah that when the defense network computers graduated to a certain level of intelligence, they "decided our fate in a microsecond," just as the mythological gods could decide the fate of a human. These elements of the film all intentionally draw the Terminator, primarily, as being godlike. Therefore, it can be no accident that the film so similarly presents a world in which gods interfere with human affairs to a detrimental effect that can be only narrowly escaped, if at all.
With this mythological reference, The Terminator becomes a movie about humans dealing not exactly with the unexplainable but with the immovable forces of our lives. Sarah's day starts off badly at work even before any of the robot-mayhem occurs, so this movie can similarly be about dealing with misfortune. The way to do this, we discover, is with wit, willpower, and assistance. Sarah never gives up, and neither does Reese. It turns out that humans are capable of amazing things when they work together.
The film avoids several action film conventions in smart ways. There are, for one thing, no prolonged shootouts amongst characters we hardly know. If there is one aspect of this film that allows it to surpass other action movies, it is the fact that there are few throwaway characters. All action is confined to those we care about or are afraid of. Also, since the Terminator is quite literally an unstoppable killing machine, there are no ridiculous fistfights or acrobatics. When the Terminator terminates, it is quick, emotionless, and effortless, never exaggerated. These qualities also help to make the protagonist even more intimidating. His inexorability adds a bit of horror to the character and steers the film away from sensationalism. (In fact, Nate Yapp has argued that the movie actually exhibits the primary elements of a slasher film.2) The viewer always knows, even when the Terminator is off-screen, that the red-eyed android is on his way to Sarah, and our best hope is usually the hope of escape. James Cameron did the same thing in The Terminator that he would do so well in Aliens a couple years later: he put a massively powerful enemy on the trail of humans and watched to see if we could survive.
The film does remain unable, however, to overcome other action genre staples. For example, it contains one of the most ridiculous car chase shoot-outs that this reviewer has ever seen. It also has an ultra-mushy, cheese-drenched ending that no action or sci-fi fan would ever welcome. I guess some things not even a military android from the future can eradicate.
With a little bit of meaning beneath its muscular surface, The Terminator is a competent action movie. Whereas The Iliad has its poetic language to elevate it beyond a simple clash of armies and gods, The Terminator has special effects. Now, unlike beautiful language, special effects do have a shelf-life, and at this point in time, I would call The Terminator a well-built machine with a bit of luster. However, I think this particular luster is of the same sort that, in twenty or so years from now, we will hold a fond nostalgia for, as many currently do for things like Ray Harryhausen's special effects and "giant" creatures attacking obviously miniature cities. A lot of heart went into this, and it shows.
1 Introduction. The Iliad. By Homer. United States of America: Penguin Books, 1991.
2 "The Terminator." Classic-Horror. 11 November 2007.