Later this week Terminator 2: Judgement Day returns to select AMC Theaters locations, a re-release to mark and celebrate a new 4K 3D restoration of the film that was supervised by director James Cameron, taking time away from working on the seven Avatar sequels he’s planning. Unlike some other filmmakers, though, he’s done very little tweaking of the original, finding it sufficient to improve the master print as a way to make the film accessible on the big screen to a whole new generation of fans.
I’m old enough to remember the first theatrical release, though, and how controversial and notable it was that the film had a production budget of over $100 million, at the time an unheard of sum. Now $100 million is table stakes for anything above a title like The Big Sick. While I wasn’t a die hard fan of the 1984 original, I still stood in line for the sequel, not wanting to miss out on what was being hyped and discussed as the most essential film the summer of 1991 had to offer.
The movie picks up several years after the events of the original. Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) is in a psychiatric ward because of her insistence that the rise of the machines was coming and that humanity’s days were numbered. Because of her incarceration her son John (Edward Furlong), now 10, has bounced around the foster system and is kind of a punk. One day a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) that’s identical to the one who hunted Sarah down 10 years prior shows up but this time its mission is to protect John from the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). That new, more advanced machine is made of a living, liquid metal that can take any form it wants and is even more unstoppable than the earlier model. Sarah and John, with the Terminator’s aid, try to find the man responsible for the creation of Skynet and get him to stop before he can build the AI that will cause nuclear annihilation on what in the future is known as Judgement Day.
At first it may not seem like there’s a lot going on with the theatrical poster. It doesn’t include any hints or copy that would allude to the story outlined above. It doesn’t feature anyone but Schwarzenegger, who sits astride a motorcycle while holding an imposing shotgun. The only copy here outside of the title, credits and release date is “It’s nothing personal,” which even with the advantage of hindsight doesn’t seem to be super-applicable to the story.
What the poster does convey, though, is the look. That cool, dark blue. The reflection of street lights off the leather jacket. The matte black of the gun. Those are all the key visual elements of the movie, particularly as the story moves toward its climax. Not only does it focus on the presence of the star, by then the biggest movie star in the world, but it also shares an essential color palate with the audience, setting up the expectation for the tone of the movie they’re being asked to see.
The trailer starts out by catching us up on what’s happening and setting the idea that the Terminator we saw from the first movie is back with a very different mission. We see the Terminator find and work to protect John Conner, the new machine the whole team is up against, the interplay between the Terminator and John and more. The narration over the action talks repeatedly about how the action is even bigger and more intense than before, promising at the end that “He’s back….for good.” which is a much better tagline than what’s on the poster.
It’s surprising how much of the story is actually shown in this trailer. You get a pretty good sense of what’s happening and why here, though the emphasis is certainly on the visual. Not just the action set pieces but the T-1000’s liquid transformations in particular. Those were the big draw, the subject of countless press stories at the time, held up as the next big leap forward in computer-aided visual effects.
That really presents a portion of the campaign that can’t adequately be captured here. Remember that this was only Cameron’s fourth major directorial outing, including the original Terminator. While his reputation was certainly well known, particularly in the sci-fi genre, he was still pretty green. So the focus was, at the time, on the special effects, which were pretty mind-blowing. This was still very much the early days of computer animation, with Toy Story still four years away and only 10 years removed from TRON and Star Trek II. So the innovations coming out of Cameron’s workshop were not only groundbreaking but also a substantial audience draw in and of themselves.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day would go on to enormous box office success, cementing Cameron’s place as a top-tier director (though he’d only helm three more movies over the years) and establishing The Terminator as a legitimate franchise, albeit one that’s had a few spotty subsequent entries without Cameron’s involvement. Still, this campaign stands as a testament to the power of selling the audience on a movie based on the presence of a familiar star and a continued story that was bigger and better than the original.