Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle both sides of the greatest arguments in pop culture.
In this installment, we're trying to settle a spat between hardcore Arnold Schwarzenegger fans. What's the better movie: The Terminator or Terminator 2: Judgment Day?
THE CASE FOR THE TERMINATOR
Before The Terminator, audiences were familiar with Arnold Schwarzenegger — he was the muscle-bound dude from Pumping Iron and those Conan the Barbarian flicks. But it wasn't until James Cameron's 1984 film that the world really understood the star power this Austrian bodybuilder possessed. The secret — which could also apply to everything that's so great about The Terminator — was simplicity.
Playing the malevolent android sent from the future to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), Schwarzenegger conveys a disturbing robotic stillness that makes his every action seem otherworldly and terrifying. (And when he does speak in that deadpan tone — "I'll be back" — it was iconic and also surprisingly funny.)
We forget this about Cameron now that he's the box-office king of the world thanks to Titanic and Avatar, but he used to be an ingenious low-budget filmmaker, and The Terminator was the peak of that period. There's nothing extraneous or showy about this movie: It's just about a woman trying to stay a step ahead of a robot assassin, plain and simple. The sequels would expand and reinvent the original's airtight plotting, flaunting more impressive effects and a larger scope. But they never could match The Terminator's fearsome, steely propulsion.
THE CASE FOR TERMINATOR 2
The world was so caught off-guard by the special effects of Terminator 2 — and the liquid metal bad guy played by Robert Patrick remains an incredible villain and a vital part of American popular culture 26 years later — that we sometimes forget just how sturdy and resonate the movie's story is.
The genius idea of turning the original Terminator into the hero's protector was a way to capitalize on Arnold Schwarzenegger's popularity and inherent likability, but making him John Connor's father figure, along with Linda Hamilton's badass Sarah Connor, gave the movie a driving thrust with an emotional undercurrent. (It's also cool that John Connor is wearing a Public Enemy shirt throughout the movie.) The movie is smarter and more muscular, more meaty, than almost any blockbuster today: It feels fussed over and deeply thought through, James Cameron as exacting as ever and at the absolute peak of his power.
THE CASE AGAINST THE TERMINATOR
The low-budget thrill of the original can't be duplicated, but it can be improved upon. How is the universe better if James Cameron — who has made two of the biggest blockbusters of all time in large part because he was given a near-limitless canvas on which to work — has a low budget?
Cameron's ambition and drive, his truly insane desire for scope and grandeur, is what makes him him. T2 is a much purer distillation of who he is a filmmaker, and why he has been so successful. The Terminator showed that he can floor it without a lot of money to work with — and that he learned plenty from his time with Roger Corman and company. But this is basically Walter Hill's best film. James Cameron had much bigger things in mind than becoming the next Walter Hill.
THE CASE AGAINST TERMINATOR 2
The idea of a punkish preteen John Connor — the kid who ultimately will lead humanity's fight against the machines — is a cool one. Unfortunately, when you cast Edward Furlong to play that preteen, the idea isn't nearly as strong. It can be surprisingly difficult to root for Schwarzenegger to keep this guy alive when, frankly, he's so annoying.
And then there's the fact that T2 has John Connor instruct the T-800 that killing is wrong — it's a plot point that's meant to turn this robotic enforcer into a kinder, gentler android. So what does Arnie do instead? Oh, just blast everybody in the kneecaps — which, we guess is more humane? It's inherently silly to make a blockbuster action movie and then pretend that the violence isn't a crucial component of its appeal. When the T-800 calmly informs a protesting John that "He'll live" after permanently maiming another luckless sucker who crosses his path, Cameron wants it to be funny, but it's actually sorta sadistic.
At least The Terminator didn't have any delusions that it was anything more than a down-and-dirty thriller. Also, and we cannot stress this enough, this movie stars Edward Furlong.
The Terminator is down and dirty, hard-charging, hyperintense low-budget filmmaking. But Terminator 2 is a foundational document of American popular culture and, even more so, the blueprint for every all-quadrant technological breakthrough blockbuster that would come after it. If only the rest of them were as smart and relentless as it was … and still is. Terminator 2 is the pick.