How to End a Sequel — Terminator 2: Judgment Day

In the past few months my views on the current state of Hollywood, and movies in general, have gone through some refining. A cursory glance at the Hollywood landscape reveals an aversion to risk-taking and a dearth of artistic integrity. In other words, Hollywood’s cash cow is the sequel — in particular, the sequel to a blockbuster, ensuring a sizable returning audience. Anyone with an ax to grind about Hollywood could make a case that things are worse than they’ve ever been, seeing that the Hollywood studios produced more sequels last year than any year before it. But I used the word “cursory” for a reason. Yes, the movies that most inundate the popular consciousness through marketing tend to be the least imaginative and are often sequels. But if that’s all the culture critic can see, he isn’t looking very hard. Despite all the sequels, it has been argued that 2011 was actually a terrific year for movies. So I try to keep an open mind. The most encouraging thing about this is that Hollywood doesn’t get the last word.

But in any case, it’s also important to admit that not all sequels are soulless moneymakers that ruin any sense of closure that the original produced. Often they are, and it can be argued that the worst movie endings usually belong to sequels — after all, from its beginning a sequel destroys the illusion that the story “ended” in any sense with the first movie, so by the time the sequel reaches its conclusion, the audience is usually treated to a halfhearted ending that leaves the door even more widely open for another film; with each iteration, it only gets more depressing, until the universal cry is for the “franchise” to just end already. But there are exceptions. A sequel is not inherently bad; in fact, the continuation of a story may very well be warranted, depending on the quality of the original and the scope of its fictional universe. It is also important, though not always essential, for the same artists to return and lend continuity, motivated by a love for the story and characters more than a desire to cash in a second time on an earlier success.

Road to the future

Which finally leads me to my example, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (T2). This sequel, along with The Dark Knight and Spider-Man 2 and only a few others, claims more of my affection than the original film. As I watched it again last week, I thought about why this is. It’s not just because of the vastly improved special effects, although they certainly make it easier to suspend disbelief. Ultimately, I love the movie because of how much bigger it is than the original. The Terminator is essentially a horror film. There’s nothing wrong with horror films, but their limited emotional palette keeps them from the top of my list. As with most of them, The Terminator pares its story down to one goal: survival. Sarah Connor is an appealing character, and we certainly want her to come out all right, but getting away from the killer robot is all she wants to do. The sequel, by expanding on the original, exercises a right that comes from the audience’s familiarity and also fulfills an obligation to keep the audience guessing. Halfway through the film, the protagonists get a new goal, beyond mere survival: they attempt to disrupt the events that will lead to the nuclear apocalypse (“Judgment Day”) and the war against the machines. Suddenly, after a movie and a half on the defensive, these puny humans go on the offensive against the terrifying cyborgs. Thematically, the film also touches on the nature of humanity, fatherhood, and the ethics of time travel, but it’s this overarching goal that leads directly to the film’s conclusion. (SPOILERS AHEAD)

My interpretation of that conclusion has changed over the years. T2 and I go back a ways. Back when I was, admittedly, too young to handle it, I’d sneak in glimpses of it on TV. Eventually, I saw enough to piece together the story. At some point (mid to late 90s), I considered the ending and said to myself, “That’s that.” The movie didn’t seem to leave any room for another sequel. We, the humans, had won. This made the film’s ending beautiful and comforting, and although I certainly wasn’t against the whole idea of sequels back then, I remember clearly that in this case, I didn’t want to see another one. Somehow I knew the people in Hollywood would try to cook up some reason to bring the Terminators back, but this felt especially faithless to the closure of T2. When more than ten years went by without a Terminator 3, I felt I could rest assured there wouldn’t be one.

Of course, I’d never feel that way today, after the belated Toy Story 3, Scream 4, and the upcoming Men in Black III. A decade is absolutely not too long to wait for a sequel. And now the Terminator series consists of four movies. Although the quality of numbers three and four (not at all in the same league with the first two) does nothing to defend their existence, they have still caused me to reevaluate my position on the ending of number two. I find, to my great joy, that the sense of closure is not ruined. In fact, these further sequels lend new meaning to the second film that I would have missed without them, and that I am very grateful to apprehend. Most miraculous of all, though, is the fact that T2 remains intact. Even the original Star Wars trilogy, arguably, loses some coherence with all the new information in the prequels. But not this film.

Now, to the actual substance of that ending. What made me think, years ago, that the story was ended with no loopholes left, was the utter destruction of everything to do with Terminators and Skynet as they existed in the 1991 of the story’s chronology. Both the machines sent from the future are destroyed with the arm and CPU of the “original” Terminator. All of Miles Dyson’s research is burned or blown up, and Dyson himself dies. Sarah and John Connor do literally everything they can to wipe out the machines in the present and future. We get a tearful farewell for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s good robot, and the film ends with a tracking shot of a road at night and Sarah’s narration. I don’t remember paying very close attention to that final monologue before T3 was made. I’m not even sure I thought about it until I saw T2 again last week, but it occurred to me that Sarah’s words, though hopeful, are not quite exuberant enough for my original interpretation. To all appearances, apocalypse has been prevented, but she doesn’t say, “Hooray! We’ve saved three billion lives! No more Terminators! Now I can raise my son through his adolescence in a (relatively) normal home!” There’s really no reason to expect her to start behaving any differently than she had before being confined to a psychiatric hospital, where we find her at the beginning of the film. Sarah has been through too much — obviously, she has seen the machines’ resiliency more than enough — to grow complacent, even when total victory is achieved.

The key to Skynet?

The key to Skynet?

The events of T3 certainly justify that mindset. It’s a film I need to see again in order to remember exactly how the new history of Skynet is explained, but regardless, the point of that film is that Judgment Day is essentially inevitable. The whole series, by bringing up philosophical questions about time travel, deals with the paradox of determinism and free will. T3 would seem to fall heavily into the camp of determinism, but T2, with its tempered hope, strikes a more balanced view that I find closer to the truth and hence more satisfying. The film’s theme is expressed in its motto, “No fate but what we make.” The Connors, having heard about the future, seek to change it. The problem with this plan is that it’s impossible to change things that haven’t happened yet. The Terminator series takes a much different view of time travel than, say, the Back to the Future films, in which the protagonists are always changing history, ultimately for the better. The Terminator movies, by contrast, play with paradoxes: John’s father is a man sent back in time by John himself to protect his mother before John is born; Dyson, according to Schwarzenegger in T2, is the driving force behind the creation of Skynet, but his inspiration is the technology recovered from the Terminator sent from the future in the first film. Perhaps the time travel affects how these events unfold, but it doesn’t, apparently, alter the fact of those events. They would happen anyway. T3 spells this out for us, but it’s implied well enough in the first two films.

What makes T2 the best of the series is the fact that it questions the theme, “no fate but what we make,” without contradicting it. The Connors and their cyborg protector truly do become proactive in the second half of the film, and they absolutely accomplish everything they need to accomplish. The final destruction of the T-1000 remains one of the most satisfying villain deaths in the movies. But again, Sarah doesn’t even suggest that the war might be over for good. And she’s absolutely right. I’ve heard it said that technology, although it seems to require visionaries to take imaginative leaps, is often inevitable, meaning that if you eliminate one inventor, another will come up with the same thing. Some inventions, in fact, were developed by more than one person at around the same time, independently of each other. So of course the death of one scientist wouldn’t mean the end of the development of artificial intelligence altogether.

Sarah’s hope doesn’t come from the delusion that Skynet is now only a bad dream: it comes from the fact that Schwarzenegger’s cyborg has been used for good. Specifically, she says that if that machine can recognize “the value of human life, maybe we can too.” Two things: first, the machines are not entirely out of the humans’ control. Schwarzenegger’s programming is altered both in the future and the present to make him a tool/ally (another philosophical question: is the cyborg a person?) rather than the enemy. Technology is intended to benefit humanity, and the ending of T2 offers the hope that those benefits won’t be completely lost. Second, Sarah knows that the events of the first film were successfully covered up. The world did not become aware (or chose to ignore the fact) that apocalypse and deadly cyborgs will be the result of innovations in A.I. Perhaps, though, the events of this second film will open people’s eyes, Sarah hopes. That sentiment may be implied, but all she actually says is that she hopes people can turn from the self-destructive path before them, if even a machine can recognize how foolish it is. The biting irony of this is what makes it sing for me. It sums up so much about Sarah, the film we just saw, and how the story may proceed from that point. Sarah had almost been prepared to give up her own humanity and become a creature of destruction, like the Terminators. When she couldn’t go through with killing Dyson herself, she got her humanity back. The simple message from her son, which both she and Schwarzenegger finally understand, is “you can’t just go around killing people.” Love conquers evil; I’m not even kidding.

T2 is a great film with a great ending, sequel or not. But what makes it a great ending for a sequel is how open-ended yet conclusive it is. The story is ended: the protagonists have accomplished their goals and defeated their enemy. But the future is still not set, and all that the protagonists can do, ultimately, is choose not to be victims. This sequel doesn’t weasel out of a resounding finale, but it doesn’t set itself up to look foolish either. It would work whether or not T3 existed, and whether or not any future sequel is as good. Furthermore, the ending adds depth to an already tense and exciting film, engaging the viewer’s mind and soul. That, I think, is quite a good template for anyone trying to keep a “franchise” going today.

No fate

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