Terminator 2: Man and Machine in the CGI Age
In an age of popular blockbusters and visionary spectacles, modern audiences expect to be wowed. New Transformers, Fast and Furious installments, and upcoming Avatar sequels will undoubtedly attract the expected demographics, but the energy is different, mainly in regards to what we’ve already seen on the silver screen and how plasticity has grown to numb a collective generation of their ability to let go of their overgrown pop-culture palettes. While Marvel Studios continues to churn out sequel after sequel after tie-in as a larger part of their MCU saga, its creative model reeks of a “we’ve seen it all” mentality, whereas its business profits ultimately do not.
Blockbuster cinema in the 2010s is a patch of gems in a sea of coal, but it was perhaps inevitable, and it is important to contextualize the present so that the past can be fully reckoned with. Discussing recent spectacles eventually leads to a conversation about the simplicity of primitive blockbusters with CGI elements, and how their methods of excitement were finetuned in the realm of character detail and sturdier narrative mechanics rather than sheer set-piece construction.
That’s where delving into the beginnings of CGI and its usage in blockbuster cinema can provide wisdom for current artisans, even in a complex, ‘conveyer-belt’ Hollywood state. Early works such as Young Sherlock Homes in 1985 and The Abyss (also a James Cameron film) provided photorealistic figures and shapes for the human characters to interact with, but they were, in essence, test footage for larger projects and grander aspirations. And who better than to build the bridge between practical effects and CGI spectacle than James Cameron, an already legendary director of The Terminator and Aliens, films which pride themselves on the tactility of their physical sights. Terminator 2: Judgment Day, released in 1991 and a commercial revamp of the low-budget original, is the very epitome of mixing two entirely different practices, one in its solid old-age and another in its infancy.
Following a young John Connor and two terminators (one good, one evil) in search for him, James Cameron fashions imaginative action set-pieces within a varied emotional spectrum, dealing with issues such as absentee fathers, the nuclear holocaust, the inevitability of our demise, and mental illness all outside of sustained moments of spectacle. Such a structure is no different than a multitude of action films created inside the Hollywood narrative system, but where Terminator 2 differs from Predator or Commando, two earlier Schwarzenegger vehicles, is the blend of practicality and more complex, at least at that time, computer-generated effects.
A prime example of such a mix comes in the famous motorcycle/semi-truck chase through a drainage canal as John Connor is being chased by the T-1000, a liquid-metal terminator and the villainous counterpoint to Schwarzenegger’s heroic cyborg. It’s a set-piece constructed via stunt doubles, actual explosions, and trickery, and its weight is heavy, allowing the audience to feel each crash and collision, building to a practical climax of the truck exploding after slamming into a barrier. Nothing is out of place from a similarly outrageous and spectacular summer blockbuster of the time, and yet, the scene ends with an immaterial figure strolling out of the fire; the T-1000, in full liquid form, having survived the cascading fire. Cameron’s audacity comes not just from the fact that he’s visualizing a flowing-metal character, but that in this early CGI stage, he has the pride to showcase such an effect in full-view and without cuts or angles constructed for hiding the seams. The look of the figure, all metallic and chrome, even slowly morphs into the human version of the T-1000 (played by Robert Patrick) all within one shot.
The moment is dazzling, but its true effectiveness resides in the fact that he strolls out of a completely real fire, contrasting tangibility with the alien nature of a man morphed out of metal. In similar fashion, the T-1000’s methods of executing a target, usually via the shift of his fingers and arms into knives and other sharp, pointed objects, are showcased as a CGI effect, but close-ups or alternate angles of the same scenes showcase a practical version of the metal weapon, allowing Cameron greater freedom in the editing room as well as, a huge obstacle at the time, saving money on production budget. While during the making, the approach seems logical, yet in hindsight and watching in a more intangible age of spectacle cinema, it’s also much more effective in terms of visualizing that very specific heft which Cameron is known for.
A similar blend of practical effects and CGI imagery also arrives in the damage which the T-1000 takes, as bullets and grenade launchers tear holes and seams into his molded liquid form. In the initial confrontation between the two terminators, with John Connor caught in the crossfire, Schwarzenegger’s cyborg pumps round after round of shotgun shell into the T-1000, and in the cause-and-effect cutting consisting of the fired gun and the chrome holes appearing in the villain’s chest, it is plainly visible that the inflicted wounds are practically constructed, with the cutting used to hide the gradual appearance of more bullet holes in his front. Once the T-1000 falls, however, the wounds begin to heal, and in a single shot, Cameron captures each of them sealing up all at once as a CGI effect.
Mixing the highest form of computer technology at the time with similarly expert old-school craftsmanship allows for a variety of sublime imagery which utilizes the right tool for the right shot, never overdosing on either. To see Robert Patrick’s T-1000 screaming in agony as a bullet is placed in his head is inherently wonderful, however its potency wouldn’t be at its height without the shot following it, an image consisting of his head wound enclosing back to a normal state. The first set-up is practical, the second is CGI, and they complement one another so that the ultimate energy and purpose of the moment can be conveyed.
Like Jurassic Park, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is an example of lessened capabilities allowing for increased creativity and execution of the filmmaker’s goals, as it provides the opportunity to build necessary narrative elements and formal elegance within the set-pieces rather than around them, culminating in a work which advances spectacle, and showcases that very evolution clearly and confidently, but still grounds itself in the mechanical, propulsive rhythms that make a Terminator film successful.