If I were threatened with my life to say who my two favourite working directors are, I’m almost entirely sure of my answer: James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino (in alphabetical order). Though it may seem impossible to say this with a straight face, I love Avatar for the same reasons I love Inglourious Basterds. They’re both big, luscious epics from master filmmakers. But both of these American masters had to get to the top of their game somehow, and while I’m reviewing Tarantino’s film in a certain order (oldest->newest, repeat) I figured I’d just jump into James Cameron’s movies wherever I came in. And that happened to be Terminator 2.

This is the best of the Terminator franchise. Oh, sorry, is that supposed to be a conclusion? Even watching this film in its intended aspect ratio with a cursory knowledge of the other three films and the TV series all stated to be entries into the official canon will let you see all you need to know. If there’s one thing I can’t stand these days, it’s the post-Avatar let’s-talk-crap-about-James-Cameron phase. If you could make any movie and just show it off as a pass to allow you to do whatever you wanted to do for the rest of your career, that movie would be Terminator 2. People nowadays gush about Christopher Nolan as if he invented the intelligent blockbuster. I’ll admit, he wades in the genre occasionally–most recently immersing himself with Inception, an incredible feature–but he by no means invented or popularized it. The first guy to mix explosions and complex science fiction storytelling was James Cameron, and he’s been making high quality features ever since.

Terminator 2, for those who’ve been living under a rock, is the continuation of the story of Sarah Connor from The Terminator, as well as the story of young John Connor. In the future, robots invented by a company named Skynet will go murderous and try to kill the world. I guess it’s fun when all you can see is red and all you can think in is binary. Older John Connor says he’s having none of this and sends a reprogrammed terminator back in time to protect him and his mother after the machines send a second terminator back to kill them both again. You see, they’d tried that previously in The Terminator. Complicating the mission this time is a secondary objective–shutting down Cyberdyne so that they can’t invent Skynet: a network of intelligent machines designed to kill.

Why the hell would anyone on Earth make a network of intelligent drone bombers and then not have someone steering it? Because James Cameron wanted to make a movie about that exact scenario, that’s why. James Cameron is one of the last filmmakers in a tradition started by Orson Welles of making the movie they want to see exactly how they want to see it. This is all on display on Terminator 2. There are gunfights, car chases, slick-talkin’ kids and a pair of terminators each determined to out-perform the other. There are explosions. A lot of explosions. The movie was notable at release for containing what was stated to be a scientifically accurate depiction of a nuclear holocaust. Pardon me for stating the obvious, but that’s so amazingly awesome that it’s incredible.

Sarah Connor has naturally changed from the last time we saw her in a feature film. Before, she was a young woman caught up in a conflict between warring factions from the future. This time around, she’s a hard-bitten warrior, having been thrown into a mental institution for her insistence that the story from The Terminator was the truth. To be fair, it does sound entirely crazy, but hey, I guess that’s why she doesn’t start the movie a free woman. Linda Hamilton’s performance is brilliant as the new and improved Sarah Connor, doling out smackdowns and justice with the same ferocity as the guys around every corner. She’s still the role holding up the emotional tentpoles of the ensemble for the most part and maintains a strong current of paranoia throughout the proceedings.

Edward Furlong is John Connor, and the only part of this movie I would change if I could. James, I know you can write a movie, but nobody’s ever praised you for your dialogue. Indeed John Connor’s ceaseless totally radical slang dates this movie more thoroughly than the nascent CGI. But to remove John Connor’s lame lingo and conversations about crying with the T-800 is to also take away some of the movies highest points. Hasta la vista, baby, indeed.

The assumption goes that playing a Terminator must at its core be very simple. The same is true of Vulcans from Star Trek. Everyone assumes that just because your emotions are overridden by logic that all you have to do is make like Devo and be stiff. Well, that’s simply not true. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick both have to convey characters who do not know what feelings are. This is as tough to portray as it is to really wrap your head around. Arnold Schwarzenegger has to master comic timing without betraying that he knows what he’s saying is funny. Robert Patrick does not blink once on camera in this movie. He conveys a determination in every muscle of his body yet to be attained by humans. He has the character and behaviour of a lion who has spotted a wounded gazelle and will feast on it at any cost. He is the human to the fly.

This movie is ultimately fantastic in more ways than I can count. When Tarantino was given the keys to daddy’s Porsche, he made a sprawling movie that had too many ideas to really succeed at all of them. It’s a great film for trying, but lesser than its predecessor. When James Cameron got the same offer, he upped the themes present in his first film to eleven. A chase becomes a pursuit. An excuse plot becomes a mythology. One terminator becomes two. I respect him for that, so where The Terminator earns three stars, Terminator 2 gets the full FOUR STARS