"Terminator 2 was the movie James Cameron made so that he'd have enough money to make Titanic."
That quote's attributed to an ex-roommate of mine. I don't entirely believe it; James Cameron's writing and directing credits are almost exclusively sci-fi/action films, from the 1978 Xenogenesis through Aliens, The Abyss, Strange Days and of course the original The Terminator. And they're all pretty good stuff. No one can say T2 was the best thing he'd done up to that point, but it certainly was a worthy successor to his previous work.
When it came out, Terminator 2 (a.k.a. T2 and Terminator 2: Judgment Day) was pretty much just another summer blockbuster special effects sequel with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role, together with Linda Hamilton reprising the role of Sarah Connor from the first film, Edward Furlong as her son who's supposed to lead the armies of mankind to survival in the future, and Robert Patrick as the second Terminator. And make no mistake, the visual effects were and still are impressive, enough to win an Academy Award for special effects. In 1991, when the movie was released, morphing and completely computer-generated on-screen characters were pretty new, especially to the extent they were used here. Patrick's "liquid metal" T-1000 Terminator demanded a whole lot of pixel-pushing for its day, and should be recognized as being just as groundbreaking as Star Wars was in the visual effects department.
So imagine how surprised people were to find that despite everything Hollywood had led us to expect, the story was actually good. Not the plot, which (to be fair) was really not that different from the first Terminator movie: twenty-odd years in the future, mankind's enemies send a machine back in time to kill the mother of the leader of the human resistance, and that failed due to the interference of a human solder sent back to protect her. So next they send another, more advanced Terminator back to kill the leader himself as a ten-year-old boy, and the humans send a reprogrammed Terminator of their own to combat it. Lots of running, lots of shooting and fighting, and in the end the bad Terminator gets destroyed and the good one as well. (Note that since John was conceived in 1984, this movie is set about four years after it actually was released.)
No, the plot itself was standard comic book fare. But the characters -- Cameron actually took the time to develop them. John Connor begins the movie as a foster child who hates his mom for lying to him all his life, only to find out she was right all along about the future. Sarah, his mom, starts out killer-tough and ready to do absolutely anything to anyone to ensure the future she's been told about never happens, and has to learn from her own son that it's possible to change the future without being corrupted by it. Even the Terminator, which didn't have an actual character to begin with, develops from a casual program-obeying hit man to a willing participant in mankind's protection. All three characters, together with inventor Miles Dyson (played by Joe Morton), gradually develop each other throughout the film into truly three-dimensional characters to which everyone can relate. It's not something summer blockbuster audiences are really used to.
In addition, the whole story serves to underscore human nature's tendency to destroy itself, as the Terminator bluntly puts it. Little things like a game of "Missile Command" or two children fighting with toy guns takes on a new significance to John when he realizes how close humanity is to signing its own death warrant. The role of friendship and family grows more and more important as the characters move closer and closer to all-out war with the heartless computerized enemy of their future. The question of whether Sarah needs to burn the village in order to save it is, ironically, the very same one that led to the future all these time-travelers are trying to prevent. And it's an unsung virtue that all the main characters are willing to sacrifice everything they have to save a world that won't even know it's been saved -- the question they all struggle with is, how much sacrifice is actually acceptable, before they embrace the very same crimes their enemies have yet to commit?
The special edition was worth watching, for me, if only to see the deleted scenes and the commentary behind them. More than a few perfectly good, finished scenes were removed from this film not because they were bad, but because they interrupted the flow of the story and the characters' development. A lot of time was put into this story to make it work well for a thoughtful audience. It's reassuring for us cinematic cynics that such things actually happen in Hollywood from time to time.
Will this film move you to tears? Maybe, if you really get into it, and spend as much time listening to the characters as you do enjoying the eye candy. Give it a try -- but do watch The Terminator beforehand. You'll miss half the nuances otherwise.