For an eleven-year-old movie geek like me, the experience of watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day upon its release in 1991 was like a lightning bolt that showed me with absolute clarity that nothing in mainstream cinema was going to be the same again. The groundbreaking use of CGI, the next-level spectacular stunts and action set pieces, the immaculate pacing, the bold dive into some bleak yet important themes regarding the future of humankind in the Nuclear Age, the tender father-son narrative that deftly explored what makes us human in the first place … all of those elements turned James Cameron’s sequel to his 1984 underdog sci-fi-/horror hit into the mainstream genre classic it became.
Considering the film’s expansive set pieces, dense plot and complex thematic arc, it’s a tribute to the film’s tight narrative that the theatrical release’s two hours and 17 minutes pass so quickly. Still, to achieve this, Cameron had to get rid of multiple sequences that might not have been entirely integral to the progression of the plot, but gave us insight into the film’s characters, arcsand themes. Cameron got his chance to restore these scenes when the Special Edition was released on VHS and Laserdisc on November of 1993.
There’s a long line of Cameron films that were released as Special Editions on home video. In fact, the only ones that haven’t received an extended release so far are The Terminator and True Lies (well, and Piranha 2). Cameron calls these “Special Editions” instead of “Director’s Cuts” because he’s already satisfied with the theatrical versions. Any studio executive trying to tell the notoriously stubborn Cameron how his final cut should look has my deepest sympathies, so not being able to execute his initial vision in a way that would require a director’s cut has never been a problem for him. As a result, Cameron wants his fans to treat his Special Editions as supplements, expanding on his characters and themes, and the extended cut of Terminator 2 is no exception. Apart from some small changes and cuts, there are a handful of added scenes. In chronological order:
• A minute-long scene where the abusive hospital workers beat Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). (The brief sight of one of them sexually abusing her in the theatrical cut sufficiently explains her anger.)
• A four-minute sequence has Sarah dreaming about Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) visiting her in the hospital, telling her to stay strong. The dream turns into a nightmare, through a brilliant transition that takes us from the dull hospital corridor to a bright green park in one take, as Sarah has to once again face the inevitability of nuclear holocaust. In the theatrical cut, Sarah’s determination to escape the hospital to protect her son John (Edward Furlong) works as sufficient motivation, though it’s nice to see Biehn again.
• A 30-second scene shows T-1000 (Robert Patrick) finding out that John lied about the name of his dog. The scene provides an essential reminder: you can destroy millions of people, just as long as you don’t kill a dog.
• After the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Sarah, and John escape the morphing clutches of the T-1000, and we get some breathing space for the characters, John decides that the T-800 should be able to learn from him and other humans. In the theatrical version, a quick ADR line has the T-800 state that he already has this capability. In the Special Edition, John and Sarah have to deactivate the T-800 in order to remove a chip that inhibits his ability to learn. During a tense moment, Sarah tries to destroy the machine that’s responsible for so many of her nightmares, while John makes a case for its importance. This is the one scene I truly wish wasn’t removed from the theatrical cut: it sows the seeds of John becoming a leader, disobeying his mother in favor of a plan he believes will succeed; and it creates a clearer character arc for Sarah, as she goes from understandably hating the T-800 to appreciating its potential humanity. (In the theatrical cut, she’s pretty much onboard after she witnesses the T-800 protecting John. This scene gives her doubts and fears more development.)
• While the family takes a break at a gas station, there’s a brief scene where John teaches T-800 how to smile, resulting in the Terminator copying a creepy grin.
• We get a two-minute scene that introduces Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) and his family. This scene is fairly unnecessary, as the brief moment in the theatrical version that shows Dyson with his family serves the same purpose.
• A minute-long scene where John and T-800 discuss whether T-800 is afraid of dying.
• Another minute-long scene shows Dyson and T-800 destroying other essential components of the Skynet.
Verdict: As much as these scenes add to the Terminator lore, I think the perfectly paced theatrical version is still the way to go for newcomers. With The Abyss as a clear exception, where its Special Edition is essential in getting the full picture, the Cameron Special Editions are really there for fans who have seen the theatrical cuts at least once and want a slightly expanded take on the story. In that sense, the Special Edition of Terminator 2 deserves at least a single watch. But for first or casual repeat watches, the theatrical cut still works better. Thankfully, the theatrical version is still the one that’s widely available for streaming. If you’d like to watch the Special Edition in HD, you’ll have to either buy or rent the Skynet Edition on Blu-ray, or rent what’s erroneously called the Director’s Cut on Amazon streaming.
One last thing for any “version completionists” out there—there’s also an Ultimate Cut that adds a brief scene of T-1000 scanning John’s room. Most importantly, it shows an alternate ending with Sarah in bad old-age make-up watching the thirty-something John push his child on a swing, showing us that Judgment Day never happened. As much as I love the idea of this move negating the sequels that came after T2, which are all trash, this is a silly and atonal scene that should never be considered canon. A DVD release could access this cut through an easter egg, but it’s thankfully been removed from further home video cuts.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.