Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is James Cameron's attempt at realigning the collective male psyche after the excesses of the 1980s muscle killers. Maybe he was motivated by guilt? After all, this is a model of masculinity that Cameron himself had a hand in pioneering. His Terminator acted like a slasher villain and inadvertently became the gold standard for the remote action heroes of the Reagan period. Likewise, Cameron's screenplay for Rambo: First Blood Part II, as interpreted by Sylvester Stallone and George P Cosmatos, took a damaged Vietnam veteran and allowed him to 'win', transforming him into a poster boy for popped veins and steely, supplemented sinew. These men were isolated, emotionally distant and obsessed with automatic weaponry. Relationships, if they even registered, were usually just revenge prompts.

T2 wasn't the first time Cameron tried to steer movie manliness in a healthier direction. Michael Biehn's characters in The Terminator and Aliens were both professional soldiers able to comfortably co-operate with women. Sarah Connor and Ripley weren't considered prizes, they were partners in a capable, multi-disciplined collective. Crucially, their strength wasn't shown to undermine Reese or Hicks' masculinity, it informed it. In Cameron's films the heroes and heroines aren't islands, they're components in a greater whole. The group survives, the individual dies. Unfortunately, Biehn's lithe intensity never stuck. His confident, secure characters were either upstaged by monolithic co-stars or de-emphasised by plot machinations. To push the ideal further, Cameron needed Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For this sequel, Cameron and co-screenwriter William Wisher Jr gradually deconstruct the idea of the Terminator. After a rock and roll introduction the character is slowly shorn of the accoutrements associated with the first film's mechanical assassin. First he loses his sunglasses, smashed by an institute orderly's bandaged forearm. With his Persol Rattis junked, Schwarzenegger's key colour also changes. After the Pescadero chase the Terminator is no longer lit to be a waxy blue, now flesh tones are emphasised to match his emerging, artificial humanity. Next, Terminator gives up his motorbike, the two-seater an impractical way to transport two adults and a child. Terminator ends up driving a string of shitty trucks and estate cars, most notably a wood panelled Ford station wagon.

This mundanity stresses Cameron and Wisher's core idea - fatherhood as a high ideal, positioned in opposition to shallow nonchalance. Schwarzenegger is no longer an impassive leather murderer, he's someone's dorky Dad, regurgitating slang he doesn't understand. He's an incredulous focal point for the child to bounce his personality off. This isn't commodity cool, Cameron isn't trying to sell a particular product. He's taking the constituent parts of the 1980s action hero and reorganising them into something mythic and immovable. If we agree that action movies are able to provide instructive behavioural models for little boys, then T2 is explicitly saying that emotional distance is a sham. Much better to engage, and allow yourself to be considered weak or compromised. Being a man isn't about expensive toys or mistreating women, it's about the ability to be a stable, invested presence in someone else's life.

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