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WTF Moments: Terminator 2's phone booth scene still makes us choke on our milk

By Noah Berlatsky
Terminator 2 phone booth

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of the greatest action/horror films ever, and it is filled with WTF set pieces. There's the moment where the evil liquid metal T-1000 (Robert Patrick) is slammed into a wall and then gets back into the fight not by turning around, but by simply rearranging his molecules so the back of his body becomes the front. There's the scene where you find out that even being frozen and blasted into a thousand bits can't stop the T-1000. And there's the infamous nuclear holocaust dream sequence, in which Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) watches a playground of children get reduced to nuclear ash.

I think the best WTF sequence in the film, though, is a somewhat quieter moment, when John Connor (Edward Furlong) tries to call his foster parents to warn them that the T-1000 may be coming for them.

John, who's still a kid, is the hope for the future; he's supposed to grow up into a soldier who will lead humanity against the evil computer intelligence of Skynet. To prevent John from winning the war, Skynet develops time travel and sends back a robot made of liquid metal — the T-1000 — to kill him. Soldier John counters by sending a reprogrammed, less advanced cyborg — the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) — to help kid John.

Back then, John was in foster care because his mom, Sarah, has been committed to an asylum. Kid John doesn't much like his foster parents, Janelle and Todd Voight (Jenette Goldstein and Xander Berkeley), but he still doesn't want them murdered by robots from the future. So after the T-800 warns him that he's in danger, he heads to a phone booth (quaint period touch!) and tries to give them a heads-up.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the T-1000 has already murdered his foster mom and taken her place. The T-800 figures out what's going on and tells John, "Your foster parents are dead," in that great Arnold accent. The Terminator hangs up, and the plot moves on.

It's a short scene, less than two minutes, but the filmmaking is brilliant. The first shot is of Janelle cutting vegetables — a close-up on the knife. Then the camera pulls back to Janelle talking on the phone, with Todd wandering around in the background, getting milk, and drinking straight from the carton because he's kind of gross. Janelle says she's been worried about John and that she's "making beef stew." But she sounds a little off, like she's playing a mom in a '50s sitcom whose brain has been scooped out with a melon baller.

Sure enough, John tells the T-800 back at the phone booth, "Something's wrong. She's never this nice." John's dog starts barking in the background at the foster family home, and Todd shouts at it. "Shut up, you worthless piece of sh**!" Janelle looks understandably annoyed with her bellowing husband. She shifts the phone to her other hand, then reaches out of camera range with her other. There's a thunk sound, like she's just slammed a door in his face — a domestic sitcom punch line that made me laugh the first time I saw it.

The T-800 takes the phone, imitates John's voice, and tricks John's mom into revealing that she doesn't know the dog's name. The T-800 concludes that John's parents are dead and hangs up the phone.

That's when we go back to Janelle's house. Her expression goes from a creepy smile to a blank look, and she stares offscreen, following the line of her arm. The camera pulls back, and we see that her hand has turned into a long metal blade, stabbing through that milk carton, and through Todd's head.

Terminator 2 milk

There is so much that is great about this sequence. The sound design, as well as the careful framing of what you can and can't see, get you to actually cheer when Janelle shuts Todd up; it's only at the end of the scene that you realize that that funny thunk sound was a brutal murder. The reveal itself is bizarre and disturbing — there's something particularly visceral about the knife going through the carton first and then through his mouth, and the blood and milk mingling on the floor. And there's the perfect symmetry of Janelle holding a knife when we first see her, a foreshadowing of cutting to come.

The thing I love most about the scene is the way that director James Cameron orchestrates all his available resources so cannily. Terminator 2 is about a battle between shiny new evil technologies and clunky retro gears and motors. But in this scene, newfangled and old-fashioned slide together like one smooth, cobbled-together machine. Jenette Goldstein's brilliantly not-quite-right performance; the simple sleight-of-hand special effect of having John's voice come out of the T-800's mouth; the sound design combined with the careful framing of shots, so you don't know what that marvelous snikt is until later. And finally the up-to-date early-'90s digital effect of the liquid metal arm that morphs back into Jenette's hand as she looks at it with an odd look that mirrors the audience's wonder.

Today action films rely on much more elaborate digital effects, including entirely computer-generated characters, spaceships, force bolts, and who knows what else. But T2 shows that that old film tech, soldered together with rust and spit and ingenuity, can still crush your slick future. The phone call is a WTF moment not just because that blade through the mouth is so unexpected. It's a WTF moment because the scene reminds you how shocking, funny, weird, and exhilarating movies can be.