Arnold Schwarzenegger started working on his Hollywood aspirations as early as 1970 with Hercules in New York. While he focused on bodybuilding for the next five years, Arnie returned to acting through the sport. Arnie won a Golden Globe for portraying a pro bodybuilder in Stay Hungry (1976). Pumping Iron (1977) was another massive hit documentary that garnered the Austrian Oak more attention. The bodybuilding icon’s breakout role came in 1982 with Conan the Barbarian. However, Schwarzenegger became a household name in 1984 with The Terminator. Working with fellow newcomer James Cameron, the actor-director duo created a film that fascinated audiences and showed incredible potential.
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Schwarzenegger and James Cameron’s first collaboration left audiences begging for a sequel. However, the sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, took a while to arrive. However, when it did, the second film surpassed all expectations. It cemented itself as the best entry in the six-film franchise. However, you might be wondering, what makes T2 the best Terminator film? While there are several factors, let’s begin with an argument that nearly resulted in a massive shift in the film’s tone.
Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t get the license to kill
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James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger sat for a conversation before filming started on the long-awaited sequel. Since Arnie’s T-800 had become the star of the franchise, Cameron wanted to explain his vision. However, the seven-time Mr. Olympia couldn’t believe what the Titanic director told him. James Bond might have had the license to kill, but Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 in the second Terminator film did not. The T-800 Schwarzenegger portrayed in Judgment Day was repurposed by John Connor’s future self. He instructed the machine to protect his past self at all costs.
However, the young John Connor, played by Edward Furlong, instructed his protector to not kill anyone other than the killer T-1000 sent by Skynet, the A.I. antagonist. Schwarzenegger, looking to out-kill Sylvester Stallone in every film, fumed at the suggestion. “I said what do you mean a good Terminator?… I was killing 68 people in the first one. In the second one, I have to kill 150,” Arnie charged Cameron. “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard… We gotta outdo Stallone…” continued the five-time Mr. Universe. However, the Avatar director didn’t falter. Staying true to his vision, he refused to compromise. Later, Schwarzenegger realized it was the right decision. It was also one of the reasons Terminator 2 is the best film in the franchise.
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Why Terminator 2: Judgment Day is superior
If The Terminator (1984) became a benchmark in the sub-genre of sci-fi films with the time-traveling trope at its center, Terminator 2 is one of the movies that defined the genre. The first installment told the story of an emotionless robot sent to kill Sarah Connor from the future to prevent her from giving birth to John Connor. Skynet tried to get rid of Connor’s mother, rewriting history to prevent its destruction. However, John Connor sent Kyle Reese to protect his mother. The film ended with Reese turning out to be John Connor’s father. So Judgment Day not only had to continue the story but also cohesively integrate the past events. Cameron succeeded in doing both and pushed the stakes higher by introducing the upgraded T-1000, menacingly portrayed by Robert Patrick.
Terminator 2 also presented moviegoers with bigger action set pieces. While the later films in the franchise used improved special effects, T2’s impressive mix of computer-generated and practical effects even works with the audience of today. In some cases, like the scene where Schwarzenegger’s T-800 sliced open his arm to reveal the metal skeleton underneath, the practical effects gave unmatched visceral quality. While Terminator 3 tried to one-up Judgment Day with even bigger action and further upgraded T-X, it ultimately felt too derivative. By taking away the T-800’s ability to kill, Cameron turned the killer robot trope on its head.
Despite being a sequel, the 1991 film had originality as the antagonist from the previous film became one of the protagonists. The film also refined the lore that the 1984 prequel built. Cameron did some crucial world-building, showing us more of the dystopian future of the Terminator universe. Meanwhile, later films often seemed like a mix and match of the first two films. After T2, Schwarzenegger’s T-800 remained the same. Every new director tried to retcon various aspects of the previous films. While 2015’s Terminator: Genisys was a commercial hit, it didn’t live up to fans’ expectations. The audience’s increasing disillusionment was evident when Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) performed worse than expected despite having three Terminators in the film. On the other side, box office numbers also contribute to strengthening the belief that T2 was in fact the best among all six films.
Box office numbers don’t lie
Produced on a budget of $6.4 million, The Terminator (1984) earned $78 million. After the first film’s success, Terminator 2: Judgment Day’s budget was bumped to around $102 million. However, the second installment still remains the highest-grossing film in the series, earning $515 million. No other installment came close to matching Judgment Day’s earnings. Terminator 3: Rise of The Machines (2003), earned nearly $100 million less, grossing $433 million. The three films that followed, fared worse.
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Terminator: Salvation (2009) is currently the only film in the franchise that Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t star in. The Hollywood icon was busy with his second term as the Governor of California. However, even Oscar-winner Christian Bale couldn’t save Terminator: Salvation. It earned a dismal $365 million. Arnie’s return in 2015’s Genisys boosted earnings to $432 million, but Dark Fate became the worst performer, with a box office gross of only $250 million. With Arnie’s departure, the future looks uncertain.
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Will it ever be the same without Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Arnold Schwarzenegger recently announced that in 2019, he understood what fans want. “I’m done,” said Schwarzenegger in an interview. The icon’s presence in the Terminator franchise has kept it alive for decades. This was definitely visible in the 76-year-old’s absence making Terminator: Salvation the least talked about Terminator film. Hence, keeping in mind the various factors and the box office numbers that reflect a large part of the fan sentiment, it’s safe to say that Terminator 2: Judgment Day is indeed the best entry in the franchise. As things stand, T2 will keep its throne for the foreseeable future.
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