The Terminator (1984) is a better film than Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). The three other movies in the franchise are utter garbage and will not be discussed further. And, if you’ll lower your pitchforks for long enough, this piece will provide several arguments asserting the superiority of The Terminator. I’ll compare three aspects of the films and explain how The Terminator bests Terminator 2 in each: 1.) The overall plot-theme of the story, 2.) The structure, pacing, and the effectiveness of the storytelling, and 3.) The characters and their respective arcs. I will show that the first film showcases a stronger and more original plot, streamlined structure, and more interesting characters. After remarking on the sequel’s deserved accolades, the stark verdict will follow: Terminator 2 is exemplary, but The Terminator is the greater film.
Let’s get this out of the way: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (T2 from now on) is a great film. This piece is not meant to deride it for its failures, but to celebrate the oft-overlooked original for its myriad successes. My interpretation of T2 as inferior is best kept in the proper context: it is inferior to an absolute masterpiece. This is not D+ vs. A, it’s A vs. A+. Like Alien/Aliens or The Godfather/The Godfather Part II, these two films offer an embarrassment of riches. I’m simply going to bat for The Terminator.
Part I: The Plot-Theme
The Terminator boasts a fascinating science fiction plot that was entirely novel at the time of its inception. Its genius is the combination of two ideas: Dominant Artificial Intelligence, and Time Travel. Separately, these ideas date back to the 1920s and the 1880s, respectively. Artificial intelligence and robot rebellions first appeared in fiction in Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), and early time travel is represented by stories like “The Clock That Went Backward” by Edward Page Mitchell and soon thereafter by writers like Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) and H.G. Wells (The Chronic Argonaut and The Time Machine). From my cursory research, The Terminator is the first instance of an A.I. using time travel to prevent its own destruction in the future. A 1957 science fiction short story by Harlan Ellison called Soldier From Tomorrow is close, though. In this story a soldier from the future travels back through time in an attempt to prevent an apocalypse, but the warring factions are both human – not humans vs. an A.I.
The plot itself is ingenious, a classic reluctant hero story where the protagonist assumes sovereignty over an extraordinary situation. The Terminator chooses a female lead for this story, and keeps the construction simple. Machines from the future send a killing machine to assassinate Sarah Connor before she can give birth to the savior of humanity. In response, the humans send back Kyle Reese, a protector to foil this Terminator. The resulting story is essentially a monster movie, with a seemingly invincible evil in pursuit of the protagonists who are under-equipped, constantly in danger, and have the odds stacked against them.
T2 is the same thing, only a second time and less interesting. Observe:
The Terminator opens in a dystopian future where human skulls litter the ground, gigantic Hunter-Killers fire pink lasers at rag-tag group of soldiers, and the premise is introduced via text card. In the present, there’s a shot of a garbage truck, swirling papers, and electricity before the T-800 arrives naked and beats up folk for clothes. Kyle Reese arrives, equips himself after a run-in with the police, and begins the search for Sarah Connor. Sarah is introduced as a sad-sack. The Terminator, Kyle, and Sarah cross paths at the crowded Tech Noir nightclub, where Reese prevents the T-800 from killing Sarah in a firefight that ends when the T-800 flies through a glass window. Reese and Sarah escape from the T-800, Reese delivers exposition during a car chase, and the two hide in a parking garage while more exposition happens. They are pursued again, run, and are taken into police custody. There, the T-800 breaks into the jail and attempts to kill Sarah, but they escape. The two hole up in a hotel, make some bombs, and grow closer together. The T-800 finds them, and a final chase scene ends in the “complete destruction” of the T-800 via the crashing of a semi truck, except not. The wounded protagonists lead the T-800 through an industrial factory that shares a quality with the Terminator (mechanical metal) and eventually destroy it, though Kyle Reese dies. Sarah prepares for the future, pregnant with John by Kyle, and the film ends with her driving off into the distance, wary of the oncoming storm.
T2 opens in a dystopian future where human skulls litter the ground, gigantic Hunter-Killers fire pink lasers and T800 chassis attack a rag-tag group of soldiers, and the premise is introduced via voice-over. In the present, there’s a shot of a garbage truck, swirling papers, and electricity before the T-800 arrives naked and beats up some folks for clothes. The T-1000 arrives, equips himself after a run-in with the police, and begins the search for John Connor. John and Sarah are introduced as assholes. The robots and John cross paths at the crowded galleria, where the T-800 prevents the T-1000 from killing John in a firefight that ends when the T-800 flies through a glass window. John and the T-800 escape from the T-1000, the T-800 exposits after John demands they park, and the two hide in a parking lot while more exposition happens. They travel to find Sarah in the hospital. There, the T-1000 infiltrates the hospital and attempts to kill Sarah, but they escape. The three hole up at a weapons cache, collect some weapons, and grow closer together. Sarah attempts to murder Myles Dyson, then the group decides that destroying Cyberdyne could prevent Judgment Day. They destroy the data and the building, but the T-1000 finds them, and a final chase scene ends in the “complete destruction” of the T-1000 via the crashing of a semi truck, except not. The wounded protagonists lead the T-1000 through an industrial factory that shares a quality with the Terminator (liquid metal) and eventually destroy it, though the T-800 is badly damaged and chooses to die. Sarah prepares for the future, delivers voice over musings about Judgment Day, machines learning to be human, and hope.
Is this a little reductive? And how! But the general plot points detailed above are merely the major events of each story. There are perhaps a dozen more smaller similarities between the two films: Terminators pretending to be humans over the phone, persons with knowledge of the future screaming at Dr. Silberman while being recorded, Terminators pursuing on motorcycles, Sarah’s thigh catching a bullet/shrapnel, and various phrases from “Get Out” to “I’ll be Back”. James Cameron wrote a brilliant, taut science fiction horror film in The Terminator, and made the film for $6.4 million, struggling all the way. Then, he took the same ideas and made a bombastic action movie in T2 for $102 million. It’s not complicated – once he had the street cred and the money, he did his old idea, but bigger.
“Simpsons Did It” is not an airtight argument for the superiority of The Terminator; a re-tread can end up being better. But two central changes actually make the plot worse: replacing the human Kyle Reese with a reprogrammed T-800 (rT-800, for clarity’s sake because there’s also an evil T-800), and providing a focused purpose for the protagonists beyond simply running (destroying Cyberdyne and thus preventing Skynet/Judgment Day). Both choices make T2 weaker, the first by reducing the stakes and revoking the depth of the character, and the second by losing the focus of the story and drawing far too much attention to the elephant in the room: time-travel paradoxes.
We’ll get much more into this in Part III, but Kyle Reese’s humanity makes him a fundamentally more interesting character than the rT-800. Reese vs. the T-800 is an uphill battle. After Sarah bites Reese, he immediately conveys his vulnerability and the Terminator’s invulnerability: “Machines don’t feel pain; I do”. Sarah’s question confirms the technological superiority of the T-800: “Can you stop it?” “Maybe. With these weapons . . . I don’t know.” Taken together, these lines of dialogue establish the stakes beautifully: Kyle and Sarah are fragile, and their hunter is formidable.
In comparison, the rT-800 vs the T-1000 conflict is boring. Consider the opening salvo, which consists of the rT-800 protecting John from a volley of bullets, fist-fighting with the T-1000, and then rescuing John from the semi-truck in the canals. Thought the pacing is astounding, the actual stakes flat-line immediately. The rT-800 takes bullets without consequence, and the T-1000 does the same. The fight in the department store does little to either. An exploding semi-truck inflicts zero damage! Though the machines accumulate some wear over the course of the film, there is a nagging feeling that T2 boils down to two bumper cars banging into each other until one falls into a pool of molten steel.
The assault on Miles Dyson and Cyberdyne is interesting, but damages the simplicity of the story. The choice to include these plot points in the story irrevocably draws attention to the paradox inherent with time travel. You know exactly what I mean: if they prevent Skynet from existing, then it won’t send a Terminator back in time in the first place so they will have no reason to interfere with Skynet so it will exist and send a Terminator back in time and etc, etc. The best time travel stories pull this off either by embracing the absurdity or not drawing needless attention to it. The original film takes it at face value and only allows the protagonists to defend against Skynet’s attempted alterations. The sequel allows Sarah and the gang to mess with everything, befuddling the causality.
Oh, and this entire plot element was stolen from The Terminator anyway.
That’s right – deleted scenes from The Terminator include: 1.) Sarah Connor looking up Cyberdyne and planning on destroying it back in 1984, and 2.) A revelation that the factory at the end of the first film is Cyberdyne! Obviously, these are deleted scenes and so are not actually canon to the story, but pointing out that the one innovative plot idea in T2 originated from The Terminator further cements the novelty of the original.
Thematically, the films are similar, but this is where T2 deserves a praise for being different in an interesting way. Each film deals with the science fiction ideas we’ve discussed before. But, by choosing to make the rT-800 a protagonist, the sequel also delves into ideas about a machine learning to become more human (and, as a reverse-parallel, Sarah learning to become more machine-like). These are fascinating ideas, but they aren’t worth the unintended consequences of replacing Kyle Reese with a machine, and they aren’t handled too well in T2 anyway. The increased stakes, tension, and humanity that buds from Kyle and Sarah’s romance is preferable to philosophizing over a more-human Terminator (more on this in Part III).
Therefore, from the perspective of the plot-theme, The Terminator is more innovative, more imaginative, and more focused. T2 re-visits many of the same points, and most of its novelties are also cribbed from The Terminator in some way. Thematically, the films are similar, with a few tweaks in the precise emotional resonance. At the end of the day, the plot of T2 is a re-tread of the best elements of The Terminator, but done worse. This will be further developed once we delve into the actual organization and execution of each story.
Part II: Story Structure, Pacing, and Execution
T2 not only recycles the basic story of its predecessor, but does so with worse execution. The original sports a stronger story structure, focus, and pacing than the sequel, and does so through more robust cinematic techniques. As in Part I, I’ll detail the strengths of the original and then compare them to the missteps made by T2, most of which are the result of bogging down the story with unneeded complexity and hackneyed exposition delivered through voice-over. Again, the conclusion is apparent: the taut, science fiction/horror of The Terminator outperforms the unfocused sprawl of T2, this time from the standpoint of story structure and cinematic technique.
Structurally, these are both chase films in a science fiction mold, though the original is more horror and the sequel is more action. This slight genre distinction reveals what’s going on under the hood of these movies, and allows us to make sense of some of the choices that James Cameron made on each. We’ll see that the streamlined focus of The Terminator is a consequence of its desire to express horror elements with laconic precision, and the bombastic bloat of T2 is the result of hitting action beats at regular intervals.
In order to keep the horror forward in the story, The Terminator demanded focus. Cameron himself attests to this in interviews and the audio commentary. Notice that only one of the three Sarah Connors is killed by the T-800 on screen. There is a scene where the second one is killed, but Cameron felt this delayed the confrontation between Reese, Sarah, and the T-800 for too long. Cameron also never lets too much time elapse without showing the T-800. This keeps the T-800 firmly in our mind, as though Reese and Sarah are only a step ahead of him. Entire subplots (like the trip to Cyberdyne) are excised in order to keep this frenetic chase flowing, and the film is much stronger for it.
By contrast, T2 has no such qualms about diverting its focus, because there will always be the next gigantic action set piece to snap everyone back to attention. Compared to the break-neck pace of the original, T2 positively drags for a few stretches, most notably after the escape from the hospital but before Sarah goes to assassinate Dyson. There’s also less focus on the antagonist – the T1000 disappears from the movie for 33 minutes, and isn’t actively interacting with the protagonists for a full 40 minutes (from falling off the car after the hospital escape, to the commandeering of the helicopter). The action scenes are some of the best ever put to film, but it feels like we’re waiting around for something meaningful to happen, especially since so much of the Terminator gunplay is inconsequential. It feels less unified, and is propped up by exemplary action sequences and visual effects.
And though T2 can stand up to The Terminator in the context of an action film, it is completely eclipsed by the original when it comes to storytelling. Some of these gripes may feel nitpicky, but many of them are indicative of the larger problem that we’ve detailed above. The very first shot of each movie typifies my major complaint: The Terminator uses a text screen to introduce the world; T2 uses a Sarah Connor voice-over. The Terminator never requires such blatant and lazy exposition again, and since it is the opening of the film, it is forgiven. Whenever it has to deliver exposition, Cameron stages it during a car chase, or when hiding from the T-800. The exposition flows with the pace of the story; it almost passes by without you noticing.
By contrast, T2 goes back to the Sarah Connor voice-over ad nauseam, and it’s an infuriating stylistic and tonal departure from the rest of the film. In the desert, she drones that “this machine” may be the best father John has ever had, which is just as easily conveyed by her gaze at them playing. She later explains how Miles Dyson is feeling about the Skynet future, though that’s obvious from Dyson’s affect. On the way to Cyberdyne, she talks about how they are re-writing the future and taking initiative – all things we’ve just watched the characters discuss. At the end of the film, over the visual metaphor of a dark highway road, she narrates the major themes of the film in a more hackneyed and rote delivery than even a foolish critic could accomplish in a piece like this (see above). It is absolutely terrible. It’s Harrison Ford in Blade Runner bad, the only difference is that it happens less often. It would not surprise me if its inclusion was a studio note; you could excise it entirely and the film would be better.
You can disagree with my contention that T2 lifts the majority of its plot (if not the whole thing) from The Terminator, especially if you’re a detail-oriented person that interprets all of this “borrowing” as a subversion of the some of the tropes of the original. You can enjoy the pacing of T2, claiming that the movie needs a bit of a slowdown in the middle to catch its breath (though I’d argue it is bad policy to disappear your main villain for 1/3 of your film’s running time). What you can’t argue against (at least not on sure footing) is that some of the storytelling methods in T2 are embarrassing when compared to the streamlined cinematic simplicity of the original. The Terminator triumphs in both story and structure, so we’ll move on to the aspect in which it is most-superior to T2: the characters and their story arcs.
Part III: Characters and Arcs
In both The Terminator and T2, there are four main characters: Sarah, John (or the idea of him), the “good” time traveler, and the Skynet time traveler. In Part III, we’ll compare these characters between films: Sarah vs. Sarah, zygote John Connor vs. ten-year-old John Connor, Kyle Reese vs. the rT-800, and the T-800 vs. the T-1000. Analyzing these four characters in pairs and comparing them across films suggests that the characters in The Terminator are more complex, more interesting, and have more satisfying arcs than their T2 counterparts.
The character of Sarah Connor is one of the greatest science fiction protagonists in the history of the genre. In The Terminator, she begins her story as a sad-sack waitress in Los Angeles, completely unprepared for the horrors that are about to confront her. She’s something of an everywoman, a girl-next-door with a vulnerability that masks her strength. Once confronted by the Kyle Reese and the T-800, the trials transform her from a wide-eyed damsel into an efficacious fighter, culminating with her destruction of the T-800 in the hydraulic press. This arc isn’t particularly novel, but since Sarah is the audience proxy in the story, it guarantees that we will empathize with her and celebrate her journey. Along the way, she is also a tender companion to Reese, saddened by the bleakness of his world and falling in love with him for his heroism and innocence. Their romance pulls a lot of dramatic weight in the film. It is perfectly developed, earned, and paid off when Reese is killed and Sarah discovers she is pregnant with John by Reese and the first event of the future is revealed in the picture that Reese uses to memorize her face.
In T2, Sarah Connor begins the story at the logical endpoint of the transformation that began in The Terminator. She has embraced her charge to train John into a future general, but lost most of her humanity in the process. As a result, she is hard, harsh, and flat. The most interesting aspect to her arc is her flirtation with becoming the very monster she is attempting to destroy. In the sequence where she attacks Dyson, she is dressed in all-black, emotionless, and machine-like. She pulls back before actually killing him, but then her emotional journey stops. T2 Sarah is capable and awesome; some of the coolest stuff in the film is Sarah escaping from the hospital. But because of this, there isn’t much room for her character to grow. T1 Sarah rose from normalcy into a bona fide hero; T2 Sarah starts as a morose badass and ends as a slightly less morose badass. It’s just less interesting.
One could expect that the hero’s journey of T2 would pass on to John Connor, but that is not the case. John is a frustrating asshole in this movie, and the performance by Edward Furlong is the most glaring weakness of the entire film. It does not help that T2 was Furlong’s debut, or that he is obviously in the middle of puberty. His voice changes throughout the film, despite being altered in post-production in an attempt at consistency. John Connor was better in The Terminator when he was nothing more than a twinkle in Sarah’s eye. I understand that Furlong was a child, but we’re not grading on a curve here.
It doesn’t help that John Connor is boring. Every talent that he has at the beginning of the film suits the challenges he will face. He can steal money (and later keys – I’m sure the ATM and the key vault at a tech company have the exact same platform), drive, load weapons, fix engines, and even field-dress injuries. The closest thing to an “arc” he has is his relationship with the rT-800, which barely counts because after all the exposition, he is 100% on board. The prickly relationship he has with his mother is more interesting, but this is cast by the wayside in favor of an emotional payoff with the T-800 thumbs-up at the end.
As cool as that is, The Terminator’s Kyle Reese is infinitely more interesting as a protagonist than T2’s rT-800. Reese’s vulnerability and humanity when compared to the rT-800 was mentioned previously, but this single attribute permeates each character and drastically favors Reese. He arrives in 1985 naked, lands awkwardly, and writhes in pain. This immediately casts him as the underdog, especially since the T-800 has already murdered people for clothes. Then, as Reese begins collecting himself, we see that he is a practiced soldier. The way he crawls quickly through the department store to avoid the police reveals his almost preternatural feel for navigating combat situations, and his acquisition and preparation of the policeman’s shotgun shows that he is resourceful. As the story develops, it is easy to empathize with Reese’s harsh experiences and admire his courage and heroism for taking this one-way trip through time. Kyle Reese’s humanity resonates throughout his character. His life has been a constant struggle for survival, which imparts a great strength on the character and garners respect from the audience.
By contrast, the rT-800 is an unstoppable killing machine turned buddy.
Snooze. The rT-800 is programmed from the onset with everything he needs to succeed in his mission, including his motivation to care about John Connor. His arrival is the opposite of Reese’s. He’s almost stoic, feels no pain, and effortlessly acquires clothes, weapons, and vehicles through dominant force. His back story is a one-line throwaway. He only learns how to get keys and what crying means – not what I would call an impressive arc. You can argue that the rT-800 “learning to be more human” is interesting, but does he really? It’s entirely superficial. He’s programmed to protect John. He agrees not to kill people because John orders him not to. He sacrifices himself in deference to the mission of destroying evidence of Skynet. So, where’s the humanity? Where is the volition? I like the concept of a machine becoming human, but T2 is no Ex Machina. As an intriguing protagonist, the rT-800 pales in comparison to Kyle Reese.
Finally, we can compare the emissaries of Skynet: the T-800 and the T-1000. This comparison is the least illuminating, because these characters are the same. Both have fewer than a dozen lines of dialogue, doggedly pursue the protagonists, and are nigh unkillable. The T-800 is more bulky and physically imposing, whereas the T-1000 is more stealthy, like an everyman who blends into any crowd. Regardless, they are both solid villains, if a little shallow as actual characters. That’s to be expected, though: they’re machines. They should have a rigid, mechanical feel to them. The villains are probably the one aspect that is most uniform between the two films, and one of the comparisons that doesn’t favor The Terminator outright.
Part IV: T2 Accolades and Conclusion
I can hear the T2 fans already: “but you’re ignoring all the stuff that T2 does so well: the special effects, the action, and its commercial and critical success/influence!” My counter-argument: The Terminator does all of these things admirably, and sometimes better than T2.
The special effects in T2 are impressive. I absolutely love them. They were eye-popping upon inception, and stand up to this day. This is not always true for The Terminator, especially for specific effects like the animatronic Arnold head and some of the stop-motion endoskeleton. Still, The Terminator is a cornucopia of practical effects. On a shoe-string budget, Cameron and crew use every trick in the book. The future sequences with the Hunter-Killers are all miniatures with matte painting backgrounds, sometimes with forced perspective! The endoskeleton is also a grab-bag of effects: stop-motion, puppetry, and animatronics. The final shot of the T-800, with his crushed red eye dimming out amid a curl of smoke is some next-level guerilla practical effects, conceived the day of and on-set: it’s a red light, Styrofoam spray-painted silver, aluminum foil, and a stage-hand blowing cigarette smoke through it. The truck explosion? One-sixth miniature, all in-camera and real, practical explosions.
It’s certain that the special effects of T2 look better than the special effects of The Terminator. It’s also certain that 1991 came after 1984, and that $102 million is more than $6.4 million. T2 impresses me with its innovation and cutting-edge application of nascent CGI technology; The Terminator impresses me with its flawless execution of practical effects and shoestring style. T2 obviously looks better, but practical wizardry of The Terminator should not be discounted.
As for the commercial and critical reception, T2 doesn’t have a leg to stand on unless you only focus on the raw cumes.
|The Terminator||Terminator 2: Judgment Day|
|Budget||$6.4 Million||$102 Million|
|Worldwide Box Office||$78.3 Million||$519.8 Million|
|Return on Investment||12.2x||5.1x|
|Rotten Tomatoes Score||100% (56 reviews)||93% (68 reviews)|
Other than overall net profits (roughly $418 million vs. $72 million), T2 actually under-performed The Terminator in all of these metrics. The Terminator enjoyed a higher return on the investment and better responses from critics on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Plus I like it more, which should be all you need to know.
I’ve focused my sight on the failures of T2,but the film obviously deserves accolades and recognition. It’s one of the greatest action flicks ever. But, the only aspects of the film that are legitimately greater than The Terminator are the visual effects and the action, though I think it is reasonable to prefer the practical effects and horror story more than the CGI and the action story. Also, given a budget that was about 17x greater than the original and a much-improved technological landscape, improved visuals should be expected. Elsewhere, Terminator 2: Judgment Day simply recycles plot with less focus, neuters great characters, and tries to make up for it with great action set pieces.
Every other cinematic quality is executed more effectively in The Terminator. The plot-theme is innovative, focused, and fascinating. The structure and pacing are entirely in service of the genre and how Cameron wants to tell his story. The characters are complex, nuanced, and fragile, making their successes more resounding and their failures more resonant. And even the oft-maligned visual effects compare favorably to the sequel, especially in the context of a minuscule budget. The conclusion is resounding: The Terminator is the superior film.