Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a rare breed of film. As the extremely anticipated sequel to James Cameron’s 1984 sci-fi blockbuster The Terminator, expectations were high to say the least. Larger in nearly every way imaginable, a lot was riding on this expansive new venture in the Terminator universe. Financially, huge investments were made into the film as it had a budget nearly 17 times the original. Narratively, the story was bigger with characters both new and old developing in exciting and unique ways. Arriving nearly 7 years after the original installation, the expectation to deliver was as real as the fans eagerly standing by with bated breath. In the end, not only did T2 rise to this challenge, it absolutely crushed it under its triple-armored hyper-alloy robotic foot.
Although now known as one of the highest grossing directors of all time, Terminator 2 was truly James Cameron’s unequivocal ticket into the upper echelon of filmmakers. Riding high off the success of the original Terminator, Aliens (1986) and The Abyss (1989), Cameron had certainly shown he was capable of handling large scale projects. A director with vision, Cameron’s ability to manifest his complex cinematic ideas has always been one of his strengths. However, one could argue that this genuine skill would never be truly useful without his ability to recognize and utilize the talent of others. Along with re-hiring Stan Winston Studios, casting Robert Patrick as the menacing T-1000 and hiring a killer group of sound designers, perhaps one of Cameron’s best personnel decisions for T2 was bringing Brad Fiedel (The Terminator, The Serpent and the Rainbow) back to compose the film’s now classic score.
Despite sharing common threads and sound choices with the original Terminator score (including the iconic cast iron pan clang and 5 note rhythmic pulses), the tone of Terminator 2 required something notably different. Taking place 10 years after Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) first encountered the T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), T2 introduces drastic character evolutions, higher stakes and a whole new face of terror. With Kyle Reese now out of the picture and John Connor (Edward Furlong) now very much in it, Sarah is no longer the damsel in distress who also happens to mother a great resistance leader. Sarah is now focused, militant and has been committed for her vocal (and valid) warnings about what is coming. Along with being a notable narrative shift, this lack of underlying love story and character evolution for Sarah allowed Fiedel to distill and amplify the existing Terminator soundscape while using it in an intimate and unprecedented way.
As an example of this idea, let’s take a look at the track ‘Escape From The Hospital.’ Mid-escape and immediately preceding the track, Sarah unexpectedly reunites with her son and the T-800. Momentarily and understandably confused by the machine’s ‘Come with me if you want to live‘ offer, things kick up a notch as Sarah sets eyes on the T-1000 for the first time. Introducing this new threat to the scene, Fiedel places low, falling Shepard-like Tones punctuated by intense and persistent percussion that rapidly builds in volume and anxiety. Ominous and fluid, these bleeding tones of sound function as the sonic embodiment of the T-1000. Just like the anvil-like clangs return as the T-800‘s sonic moniker, these falls mirror the ease with which the T-1000 can mold itself into nearly anything or anybody. Dripping with the danger of his singular mission and drive, Fiedel further emphasizes the T-1000‘s determination with persistent and layered percussion.
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Closely tied to the action unfolding onscreen, this persevering onslaught of percussive beats and pulsing drones conveys the immediate danger facing our main trio of characters while simultaneously signifying their mindsets. Reacting logically and decisively, both the T-800 and Sarah take actions that further their collective safety regardless of any underlying personal issues. Carefully placed doses of synth chords, piercing electronic shrieks and short non-melodic note progressions respond to the action. Functioning more as a non-leading, unbiased storytelling device than an emotionally manipulative conveying device, Fiedel’s score connects to both story and audience in a new unique way. Working in tandem with the story throughout the film, this slightly different sonic support approach gives Terminator 2 an extra heavy injection of intensity and suspense.
“[The film] allowed [Brad] Fiedel to distill and amplify the existing Terminator soundscape while using it in an intimate and unprecedented way.”
Not only does this approach benefit the many incredible large action scenes throughout T2, it also proves beneficial to the ‘smaller’ moments. Subtly utilizing literal sonic cues, Fiedel cleverly drops auditory hints towards character mindsets while establishing an interconnectedness between all the players in a scene. Perhaps the best example of this idea comes through in the track ‘Attack On Dyson.’ Taking the ‘No Fate’ idea to heart, Sarah sets out to destroy the soon-to-be Skynet creator, Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) at his home. As Sarah lines up her shot from outside the house, loud decisive thuds are punctuated by sharp snare drum rolls and icy synth chords. Determined and militaristic in her approach, the score mirrors her resolve while remaining unbiased towards the validity of her approach. After the first shot misses, rapid rhythmic patterns of high pitched synths convey the anxiety for all parties involved in the rapidly escalating situation.
Once Sarah begins to head inside the home, low resonant bell tones alternate with the militaristic snare. As cool blue light envelops the scene, Sarah is cold, focused and resolute. In this moment, she is perhaps more like the Terminators than she would ever readily admit and Fiedel beautifully draws that connection through sound. However, an immediate tonal shift takes place as Dyson‘s young son throws himself on top of Dyson in an effort to save him. Working in parallel with the cinematography, a simple synth keyboard melody overlays the low, bell tones and percussive hits. Still unquestionably capable although noticeably more emotional, the discernable change in color temperature and sonic undercurrent gives us an intimate glimpse towards Sarah‘s thought process. A mother herself, Sarah becomes conflicted and even disturbed at what she almost became. A highly emotional and extremely intense scene, Fiedel’s score provides a stunningly effective partner on both narrative and visual levels.
Outside of the main theme and brief select moments, melody doesn’t really come into play in the T2 score until the final act of the film. In the track ‘It’s Over‘ everything that the film has been building to finally comes to its ultimate resolution. Dyson‘s work has been destroyed, Skynet has been eliminated and the T-1000 has finally been well, terminated. However, this ultimately leaves one large loose end in need of tying up. As John throws the original T-800 arm and CPU chip into the giant vat of molten metal, a simple swell of melodic keyboard synths conveys the emotional weight of this moment. For years, Sarah has been planning, strategizing and hoping for this moment. Though beautiful, the melody is melancholic in its progression. This bittersweet tone coupled with the weight of the moment also draws a low-key emotional gaze towards the hulking, robotic elephant in the room. Despite having proven himself a robot of his word and capable of forming even the slightest relationship bonds, this special breed of Terminator is the final connection to a Skynet-run future.
As Sarah presses the button to lower the Terminator into the molten metal a slower, smaller scale version of the ‘Main Title‘ theme begins to play. Modestly heroic and with an undercurrent of metallic percussion hits, the minor scale intervals take on new emotional weight as the true cost of heroic acts becomes evident. By giving the theme the space and platform to breathe, the beauty and true power of Fiedel’s melody becomes showcased to dramatic effect. Despite the melody being undeniably bold and bad-ass when executed in its full glory as the ‘Main Title,’ here those same progressions and core components become the emotional embodiment of what the two Terminator films together have been working towards. By beautifully bookending the film with the theme, despite being slightly different each time, the end result becomes supremely satisfying on both emotional and narrative levels.
Upon the film’s initial release in the summer of 1991, Terminator 2 not only smashed box office’s around the world, it obliterated them. Despite having a 100+ million price tag attached to it, the film ended up grossing more than $520 million. A critical and commercial success, T2 would even go on to win 4 Oscars for the film’s stunning sound, sound effects editing, visual effects and makeup. Truly ambitious on so many different levels, it was crucial that each and every component of the film carried its weight in order to maximize the overall impact. And when it comes to the score, Brad Fiedel had no trouble delivering the goods. For millions of fans the world over, that distinctive 5 note rhythm and initial melody holds a special power and lasting sentiment that most composers can only dream of.
Although Fiedel would eventually step back from film composing to pursue other personal interests, his work with Cameron did not stop when the T-800 CPU shut down. Along with notable 90s films like Johnny Mnemonic, Dolly Parton’s Straight Talk and Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel, Fiedel would return to the Cameron camp to score 1994’s True Lies. Prolific and innovative, Fiedel’s special blend of orchestral and electronic sound would come to help redefine an entire segment of large budget film scoring. Just like Terminator 2 itself, Fiedel is a rare breed of composer whose talent and enduring legacy will forever hold a special place in the hallowed halls of cinema history.
What are your thoughts on Terminator 2: Judgment Day? Does Fiedel’s T2 score hold a special place in your heart? Talk all things Terminator with us over on Twitter or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! For more score talk, check out our previous installments of Terror on the Turntable, where I dissect an iconic horror score each month!