Three billion human lives ended on August 29th, 1997. The survivors of the nuclear fire called the war Judgment Day. They lived only to face a new nightmare: the war against the machines. The computer which controlled the machines, Skynet, sent two Terminators back through time. Their mission: to destroy the leader of the human resistance, John Connor, my son.
When I was in high school, I didn’t pursue the burger-flipping career track many of my peers did. I delivered two paper routes, and did yard work and other odd jobs for the people on my routes. One weekend, a couple had me housesit for them. It was perhaps the longest weekend of my life, what with locking myself out of their house (and breaking in through their basement window) and trying to keep their lonely Rottweiler from eating everything in sight, including me. The highlight of the weekend was discovering the surround sound system in their den. At the time, I didn’t have much in the way of home theater equipment myself…a couple of decent speakers hooked up to a boombox, a mono VCR, and a 13″ TV in your bedroom don’t qualify as “home theater.” So, I took my VHS copy of Terminator 2 over and cranked it up. From the opening moments, when the endoskeleton crushed the skull, I was mesmerized.
That may seem like a random story, but it was that experience that drove my desire to have a home theater setup of my own. It would be six years at least until I could afford to assemble all the pieces. When I bought my DVD player last October, one of the first titles I wanted was Terminator 2. But, the only version of the movie on DVD at that time was the theatrical cut. That wouldn’t do, I thought, because even my VHS copy had been the longer (and much superior) director’s cut. So I waited to add the defining home theater experience movie to my collection. It was worth the wait, because Artisan’s Ultimate Edition DVD of Terminator 2 is everything I could have ever wished for, and more.
Perhaps like no other year in film history, 1999 proved that first-time filmmakers could produce movies that could be both critical and commercial successes. American Beauty, The Sixth Sense, and Being John Malkovich were all the first feature films directed by their respective directors. Likewise, The Terminator was the first film directed by James Cameron, and it catapulted his career into the stratosphere. In 1984, James Cameron was a nobody. He had studied physics in college and worked as a truck driver before quitting his job to work in films. First, he worked in the art department at Roger Corman’s film studio before moving into assistant direction and design work. If you look in the Internet Movie Database, you’ll see that he directed Piranha 2: The Spawning prior to The Terminator, but he only worked on that film for a few days before being fired by the producer (over creative differences, natch). The Terminator was a film that was uniquely Cameron’s, written as well as directed by him. He envisioned an epic film about a fight for the future of humanity, fought by a lone soldier and an indomitable killing machine both sent from the future. The machine was sent to kill Sarah Connor, who would give birth to the man who would lead a revolution forty years in the future against the society of machines who rule the earth. The Terminator was made on the comparatively paltry budget of $6.5 million, and was a surprise hit. It was the number one film at the box office for four straight weeks, going head-to-head with big-budget heavy hitters like 2010 and David Lynch’s Dune. It made Cameron one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood. Cameron would direct Aliens two years later and his magnum opus in 1989, The Abyss. The Terminator would also work wonders for Schwarzenegger. He was already on the cusp of stardom, appearing in the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron and his iconic role in Conan The Barbarian. The Terminator proved that he could actually act, and that he had range beyond the sword-and-loincloth genre. He became an international action film superstar, with larger-than-life performances in Commando, Predator, and Total Recall.
Plans were made to produce a follow-up immediately after the success of The Terminator. However, the rights to the property were fractured among several parties, and it took several years for sole ownership to be secured by producer Mario Kassar. James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Linda Hamilton were all free when the mess was cleared, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day could move into production.
Terminator 2 picks up ten years after the events of The Terminator. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) gave birth to John (Eddie Furlong), and took upon herself the task of raising him to be a military leader. She hooked up with any man who could teach her the skills she thought John would need, and impressed upon him the grave nature of the future and the role he would play in it. Years passed like this, until Sarah was arrested for attempting to destroy the research headquarters of Cyberdyne Systems, the company that would invent the technology that would allow the Machines to conquer the world and enslave humanity. John was placed in a foster home, where he rebelled and became a juvenile delinquent.
This is the situation when two robots are sent from the future. One is the same model (played again by Arnold Schwarzenegger) that tried to kill Sarah ten years before, except now he is here to protect John. The other, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick) is crafted from technology far beyond that of the film’s 1994 setting: a machine made of metal that can transform itself into any shape it chooses. The two Terminators track down the ten-year-old boy and seek to fulfill their missions.
Terminator 2 shares the same strengths Cameron brought to his other action films: action sequences that advance the story, sharply defined characters, and a firm grasp of the technological constructs of the film’s world that make science fiction look and feel like credible science. Many action films are built (or seem to be built) around their stunt sequences rather than adding such scenes to advance the story. John Woo admitted as much in interviews to promote the release of Mission: Impossible 2 (and poor Robert Towne, Oscar winner for Chinatown, had to write around the set pieces envisioned by Woo and star/producer Tom Cruise). Terminator 2‘s key action scenes (the mall shoot-out and ensuing chase through the drainage canals, the hospital escape, and the entire last hour of the film that begins at Cyberdyne and ends in the steel mill) advance the story in ways that exposition could not. We become emotionally invested in John and Sarah, and to a lesser extent the now “good” Terminator (that “lesser extent” modifier was made moot by scenes added back into the director’s cut), as we see them evade the clutches of an unstoppable killing machine.
Many action films paint the heroes and villains in the simplest of strokes. Granted, Terminator 2 isn’t My Dinner With Andre, but the protagonists are painted in many hues. Sarah is haunted by her Cassandra-like knowledge that the world will be destroyed — she even knows the exact date. No one believes her, not even her son who she is driven to prepare for his inevitable role as the savior of humanity. Ten-year-old John is confused. All his life, he was immersed in militarism, taught that the end was approaching, and that one day he would be the one to lead the resistance against the Machines. Then, his mother was locked away and declared insane. His inward turmoil was directed into rebellion against every authority in his life. The appearance of the Terminator was the validation he needed to believe his mother and set his life toward his “destiny.”
(I just realized I committed a mistake too often made by writers: presuming the audience knows the same obscure facts that I do. Cassandra was a figure from Greek mythology. She had the power of prophecy, but no one would listen to her knowledge.)
With the exceptions of True Lies and Titanic, and his script for Rambo: First Blood Part Two, Cameron has worked in the science fiction genre. Sci-fi is dominated by the fantastic and the improbable, but Cameron manages to ground his stories and keep them plausible. There are no attempts at pseudo-scientific explanations of how things work, or gadgetry that is out of the realm of the at least theoretically possible. It’s only a short stretch from current technology for a neural net processor to be viable. From there, it’s reasonable to think that a computer with sufficient access to decimate humanity with a barrage of nuclear missiles.
2000 has been an incredible year for DVD enthusiasts. The DVD studios have been trying to one-up the other studios, releasing two-disc sets that compete to have the most features crammed in the space available. It’s safe to say that the champion prior to August 29th was the Fight Club two-disc set. Terminator 2: The Ultimate Edition is the new King Of The Hill.
Nestled inside the embossed metal slipcase, you’ll find a thirty-page booklet and the DVD keep case. The booklet contains a nice summary of the making of the film, a thorough listing of the contents of the discs, and notes on the restored footage contained in the Director’s Cut (more on that in a minute). Inside the keep case, you’ll find either one dual-sided, dual-layered disc, or two standard dual-layered discs. (From my observation, if you order the set online, you’re more likely to receive the two-disc set; if you go to a brick-and-mortar retailer, you’ll find the one-disc set.) The disc contents are identical whichever configuration you receive. Disc One contains the film, cast and crew biographies, THX Optimode configuration tools, and DVD-ROM enhancements, and Disc Two contains the extras.
Thanks to the miracle of seamless branching, three versions of the film are available: two directly from the menus, one via an “Easter egg” (I’ll tell how to access it at the end of the review). The first cut is the 136-minute theatrical version; the second is the 153-minute director’s cut previously available on laserdisc and VHS. The “Easter egg” version adds three minutes of extra footage that were not included with the previous director’s cut. Cameron has a propensity toward assembling long movies, only to see them trimmed for release. It happened with Aliens and The Abyss, to the detriment of those films. “Director’s Cut” versions of those films have restored some of that lost footage, and the narratives of those movies have benefited greatly. In Terminator 2, the restored footage isn’t crucial to the plot, but it adds a degree of character development lost in the theatrical version. In particular, these scenes add character to the inhuman Terminators. Schwarzenegger’s T-800 is shown developing his “human” side, while Robert Patrick’s T-1000 becomes not quite the indomitable killing machine depicted in the theatrical version. In the steel mill sequence, several shots of the T-1000 “malfunctioning” were omitted from the theatrical version. The reasoning, I suppose, was that their inclusion would dampen the victory over him. I didn’t get that impression at all. The differences between the “special edition” director’s cut and the Easter egg version are minimal; I noticed only three scenes that were added. Two of them are just cool little additions, but the third is the film’s original “happy” ending.
I’d discuss the audio and video quality of the disc in a little more detail, but both factors are at such of level of god-like perfection that there’s nothing to write home about. Video quality: other than maybe one or two dust motes, it’s Perfect — Sharp and crisp without visible digital enhancement, impeccably rendered colors, not a hint of pixelization. There is an audio track available for any self-respecting home theater system: DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby Surround. The DTS and 5.1 tracks both include support for a matrixed rear center channel. I don’t have a DTS-capable receiver, so I had to “make do” with the 5.1 track. It too is Perfect — wide frequency ranges to all channels, an LFE channel that adds to the realism without overpowering everything else, dialogue that is always properly placed in the center channel and is always clear and distinct. Next to this disc, everything else looks like a Madacy release. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but that’s just how far this disc raises the bar.
Disc One also contains a commentary track. It is cobbled together from interviews with the cast and crew, bridged with comments by the film’s visual effects coordinator and the DVD’s producer, Van Ling. You’d think that such a track would be a mess, but Artisan did an admirable job of keeping everything straight. Van Ling introduces each cast or crew member, and an alternate subtitle track puts the name of the current speaker in the upper corner of the screen. Some of the comments sound repetitive if you watch the video segments on Disc Two, but I’m not going to be so picky that I hold that against it.
Disc Two is so feature-packed, it’s impossible to know where to begin. I feel like Roy Schneider in Jaws: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Damn. The menu divides the disc into three sections: Information Programs, Visual Campaigns, and Data Hub.
Information Programs contains three documentaries. “The Making Of Terminator 2: Judgment Day” clocks in at 30 minutes, and is a detailed look at the making of the film. Some of it smacks of studio promotion, but overall it’s a very informative look at the production. “T2: More Than Meets The Eye” chronicles the war between the Autobots and the Decepticons. Kidding, kidding. It is a 22-minute look at the footage that was cut from the film, and why it was left out and subsequently added back to the director’s cut. “The Making Of Terminator 2 3D: Breaking The Screen Barrier” examines the making of the Universal Studios spectacle. Cameron describes it as a bridge between Terminator 2 and a forthcoming third theatrical film. There have been rumblings that a third film is in the works, but it is doubtful that James Cameron will be the director.
(Another cryptic, obscure in-joke. “The Transformers” was a cartoon series in the 1980s about a war between two robotic races, the Autobots and Decepticons. They could transform from robots to other forms. The tagline for the show was “More than meets the eyes.”)
Visual Campaigns is the repository for the film’s trailers. It contains three U.S. theatrical trailers, a trailer for the laserdisc and VHS Special Edition, and five Japanese theatrical trailers.
Data Hub is the meat of the disc. If you spend less than two hours here, you either got bored or you’re a very fast reader. There are over 4000 screens of text for your reading enjoyment. The Data Hub is subdivided into Source Code, Tactical Diagrams, Interrogation Surveillance Archives, and Data Core. Source Code contains the complete shooting script of the film. Tactical Diagrams contains all the storyboards for the film, divided into 17 sections. Interrogation Surveillance Archives contains 60 video segments detailing the project from pre-production to after its release. Data Core takes all of the information from the Data Hub and ties it together with even more text. You can choose either the Full Implementation or the Core Data Sampling. The Full Implementation is supposed to play everything sequentially, but I could not get it to work. It’s best just to go through everything in the Core Data Sampling, which is a listing of the section’s 50 chapters.
The bottom line: if there’s anything, ANYTHING, you ever wanted to know about the making of Terminator 2, it’s on this disc.
Let’s see, what can I find to say to the disc’s discredit? Arnold Schwarzenegger was paid $15 million to star. He says 700 words. That’s $21,429 per word. But then, he only said 65 words in The Terminator, so that’s over 1000% more dialogue in this film.
I can’t think of a single reason why you wouldn’t want the Terminator 2 Ultimate Edition set in your collection.
There are over 60 “goofs” listed for Terminator 2 at the Internet Movie Database. It’s pretty easy to spot most of them, so have fun. I don’t agree with their listings for “plot holes,” because if we’ve learned anything from “Star Trek,” there is no accounting for temporal paradoxes.
If you want to discover the “Easter Egg” version of the film yourself, skip the next paragraph.
There’s two ways you can access the “Easter egg” version of the film: the hard way and the easy way. From the first disc’s menus, select the Special Edition version of the film. Enter 82997 on your remote, pressing Enter after each digit. The symbols along the right-hand side of the menu should change to “The future is not set.” Start the film, and there you go. If that doesn’t work for you, and if you have a player that will let you directly access titles on the disc, start up either version of the film and select Title 3.