by: Matthew J.R. Kohler
Not many times do I appreciate constant action scenes in a film. The main reason being that I don’t have enough time to process one action scene, let alone anticipate the next. Ideally, plot and character development should take place during the “breathing room” between the action scenes. It’s a problem all too common in recent action movies (Winter Soldier, Mad Max: Fury Road). But, the focus of my article is not movies of today. Instead, this is about a movie from the 90s that gave us a perfect balance of abundant action, and plot and character development. That movie is Terminator 2.
T2 does an amazing job of keeping the audience engaged. The first thirty minutes set up all the characters, making the audience wait and wait for that first explosive action scene. During this build-up, it is hinted that the T-1000 is not the only villain. Within the first act, we see the arrival of the machines, their hunt for John Connor, and the big chase scene. After that, we only see the T-1000 in two small scenes before the climax.
Writer and director James Cameron knew that the more you show your emotionless villain, the less that people care. What Cameron does is establish how awesome the T-1000 is, then waits for an hour and some change to reintroduce him. And you do get to see some impressive action with the liquid-metal assassin. Not only does he smash up a semi-truck, but also he morphs into John’s foster parents—something the first terminator couldn’t do. Plus, what crippled the T-800 in the first one does not even faze this villain.
The movie was most focused on the characters connecting or reconnecting with each other, while preparing for battle. Act II is where this focus is most prominent, hence the lack of action for over an hour. During this time, John tries to reconnect with Sarah, who struggles to regain her humanity. Intertwined with those characters’ goals is John’s relationship with the T-800, to whom John tries to teach what it means to be human. He also looks up to the T-800 as his first real father figure (something that Sarah observes and points out to the audience). What results is a famously robotic character gradually humanizing its mannerisms, speech, and even emotional understanding.
Honestly, the villain of Act II is Sarah. The scene that demonstrates this best is when John wants to allow the T-800 to learn. To do so, he and Sarah need to take out his chip and switch it from read-only. Sarah, being the machine that she is, wants to destroy the chip while they have the chance, because she doesn’t trust that the T-800 is actually on their side. What ensues is her and John arguing about whether or not to trust the machine. Not only does this show how much Sarah has changed since the first film, but also how much compassion John shows, just like his mother did. In the next few scenes, we see just how emotionally distant Sarah is from John, because she is obsessed with stopping Judgment Day.
Cue the focus shift to Dyson. After learning from the T-800 that Dyson is responsible for creating Skynet, Sarah abandons the T-800 and her son to kill him. Naturally, it is up to John and the T-800 to find her and stop her. They are too late, so it is up to Sarah to stop herself from pulling the trigger.
Arnold doing what he does best
Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, this movie, like the T-1000, is relentless. Yet, it never feels rushed. Cameron takes time with developing the characters, and letting them speak. That’s why when action scenes do happen, they don’t feel rushed. Our heroes’ next mission is to take out Cyberdyne, the place that holds all of Dyson’s Skynet research, as well as the arm and broken chip of the first terminator. Instead of running from the villain, like in the first one, our heroes are going straight to the source, to take it out once and for all. Once again, the movie doesn’t focus on solely the T-1000. That doesn’t take anything from the villain, though, because every time he appears, his actions are catastrophic.
The climax perfectly pays off the build-up from the first two acts. The action continues to expand, but at a slow pace. The movie knows to ask you to focus on only one exciting moment at a time. When Arnold uses the mini-gun, that is all you are watching. When Dyson gets whacked, that is all you see. There is no intercutting with other equally crazy action scenes. And, there is no constant cutting to make the action look “good.” T2 works so well because the shots linger on the action, thereby emphasizing it to the level of amazingly awesome.
To their credit, most action films today do have some cool action, but a lot of it is very rough around the edges. I just re-watched the elevator fight from Cap 2. While I love the idea of the fight, I wish the execution of it was not rushed. It’s funny how inspirational T2 is to modern movies, yet they generally forget what made T2 such a masterful action film—its fast-moving slow-burn that allows you to see the full potential of all of its key scenes. There’s not much that beats the final grenade blasting the T-1000’s upper torso in half, or the 100% real explosion of the 100% real Cyberdyne building. By simply focusing on one spectacle at a time, said spectacle becomes a lot more iconic, because it is more memorable. It’s not drowned out by twenty other spectacles happening at the same time. What makes matters worse in modern action films is the constant cutting and the shots are too shaky and up-close to fully immerse the audience in the action. I would like to see more movies stop trying so hard to impress me, and return to the largely forgotten simplicity of less is more.