The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
For someone who’s been in movies for the past 50 years, Arnold Schwarzenegger has never really been an actor. Instead, he’s been a presence—a looming, smirking slab of tendon and tissue so unrealistic that it drags everything else into an otherworld. Schwarzenegger didn’t get his breaks in stage roles or bit parts, though he did a few of the latter. Instead, he captured imaginations as a bodybuilder, sculpting his own mass to be as absurd and exaggerated as possible. Even in Pumping Iron, the documentary released after he’d only racked up a few film credits, Schwarzenegger is a strangely entertaining force, in part because his outsized persona is all tied up with his even more outsized physicality.
It took Schwarzenegger years, but he figured out how to turn this presence into something resembling old-school movie-star charisma. Along the way, he made smart decisions and had good luck. Schwarzenegger’s first real box office breakout, 1982’s Conan The Barbarian, required him to flex and scream and swing a sword—all of which were entirely within his skill set. In his first truly iconic role, the implacable mechanistic killer of 1984’s The Terminator, Schwarzenegger has a built-in excuse for his stiff awkwardness and even his thick Austrian accent: He’s a futuristic robot who only barely passes as human. The T-800 isn’t especially worried about fitting in; he only has to seem vaguely convincing for as long as it takes to kill someone.
The Terminator was a surprise low-budget hit that gained steam on video, especially as its lead actor and director both became big names. When Schwarzenegger and James Cameron returned to the Terminator story seven years later, things had changed. Terminator 2: Judgment Day had a nearly unlimited budget: something on the order of $100 million, by far the most expensive movie that had ever been made. It had a grander scale, a more ambitious premise, and a small army of stunt professionals and special-effects technicians. And it had Arnold Schwarzenegger, at his peak, playing the role that he could play better than anyone else.
Schwarzenegger’s ’80s movies were almost always hits, and they established a whole iconography. This gigantic muscle-beast with the thick accent was fully comfortable with the absurdity of his hyper-violent roles. (I always loved how Schwarzenegger would be willing to play someone like the small-town sheriff of 1986’s Raw Deal, and how the movie would make no attempt to explain how this giant motherfucker with the accent ended up there.) He’d even started to make sly comments on his own stock role. Just before Terminator 2, Schwarzenegger made two Ivan Reitman family comedies, Twins and Kindergarten Cop, and one berserk Paul Verhoeven sci-fi splatterfest, Total Recall. All of them had fun with the Schwarzenegger persona. All of them were huge hits.
Terminator 2 takes every possible advantage of Schwarzenegger’s fame, using both his strengths and his deficiencies in the best possible ways. If 1984 Schwarzenegger was perfect in the role of an unstoppable murder-bot, 1991 Schwarzenegger was perfect as an unstoppable murder-bot who is nice to a little kid and sometimes tells jokes—the kind who will say, “I need a vacation,” after he’s been battered and mangled, even though robots don’t take vacations. And Cameron accomplished something huge by just making the dumbest, most obvious adjustment from the original movie: This time, Schwarzenegger was the good guy.
Schwarzenegger’s T-800 trudging naked into the biker bar at the beginning of Terminator 2 is one of the all-time great babyface turns in cinematic history. If you walk into Terminator 2 cold, knowing only the first movie, then it makes sense that this villain is beating up bikers: throwing one onto a hot stove, tossing another through a window, pinning another to a pool table with a knife. But you’d instinctively cheer for him anyway—partly because you would’ve spent years seeing Schwarzenegger as John Matrix and Alan “Dutch” Schaefer, and partly because he’s just so much fun to watch. (Anyway, nobody walked into the movie cold; anyone who’d seen one TV ad knew that Arnold was the good guy now.) The T-800 emerges from that bar as the platonic ideal of Arnold-ness: chilly, expressionless, leathered-up head to toe.
In the years before Terminator 2, big hit movies had been moving toward spectacle, away from intimate personal drama. That had been the case with Batman and Home Alone, the biggest hits of the two previous years, and it was cranked up past 100 in Terminator 2, in part because Schwarzenegger himself is such a spectacle. Around him, Cameron builds a real circus: motorcycles roaring, helicopters swooping, buildings exploding, bullet shells clinking onto pavement, blobs of shiny liquid suddenly reverting to human form. Almost nobody has ever done spectacle-first moviemaking better.
Much of the success of Terminator 2 is in the elegance of the storytelling. Cameron sets it all up beautifully, introducing all his key characters one by one, slowly pushing them all to the point where they’ll intersect. Schwarzenegger’s foe, the shape-shifting T-1000, is understated but deadly compelling. Robert Patrick’s face is all planar surfaces, he runs with a freaky sense of focus, and he projects a dispassionate authority that allows him to slip through society more easily than Schwarzenegger.
Sarah Connor, the previous movie’s hero, has had a rough time since we’ve seen her pregnant, driving off into an electrical storm. She’s all hair sweat and sinew and feral intensity. She’s been committed to a mental institution because she won’t stop telling everyone that the end of the world is coming, but also because she’s legitimately disturbed and unstable. Whenever Linda Hamilton goes full-tilt in T2, it’s magic: holding the Drano-filled needle to the psychiatrist’s neck, scolding her son for being dumb enough to come save her, screaming cuss words at the family of the man she’s just shot. Hamilton should’ve won the Oscar that year. She wasn’t even nominated.
John Connor, the resistance leader who hasn’t even been born yet in The Terminator, has turned into a smarmy little punk. Edward Furlong had never acted before when he was cast in T2, and he went on to a relatively short career and a long stretch of news stories about addiction and domestic-abuse arrests. Every time I watch T2, Furlong’s performance grows a little more grating. It’s not entirely his fault. The movie asks him to do a lot, and the writing does him no favors. Furlong has to carry the emotional weight and spout exposition and take part in risky espionage operations and teach a robot ’90s slang terms that nobody has actually ever said in real life. It’s rough. The character and the performance are the weakest things about the film.
Furlong’s presence underlines something about Terminator 2 that might not have been fully apparent at the time: It’s a kids’ movie. T2 is rated R, and it’s full of face stabbings and cops getting their kneecaps blown off, but it’s got an approachable sort of hyper-violent intensity. The robot says one-liners. John orders the robot not to kill. Much of the action is bloodlessly kinetic. In the end, a family comes together to defeat the bad guy. We see a lot of it through the eyes of a child who, at least theoretically, wasn’t yet old enough to go see T2 by himself. (Anecdotally, at least, little kids were a lot more likely to go see R-rated movies in the early ’90s. I burned with jealousy at all the kids I knew who saw T2 in the theater, and I finally saw it at a sleepover after it had been out for less than a year. My daughter is 11 now, and she’s never so much as asked to see anything grimier than Avengers: Infinity War.)
After the tremendous success of Home Alone, the theaters of 1991 were full of kid-centric fare: Hook, The Addams Family, family comedies like City Slickers and Father Of The Bride. Kevin Costner had one of the year’s biggest hits when he turned Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves into a not-that-grisly action epic. Disney snared an unprecedented Best Picture Oscar nomination with the fairy tale Beauty And The Beast. If you count its theatrical re-releases, Beauty And The Beast has actually slightly edged out Terminator 2 as 1991’s highest-grossing film. At the time, though, the R-rated fairy tale reigned supreme.
You got your money’s worth with Terminator 2. The early CGI got a ton of press at the time, and it remains weirdly impressive and uncanny even though the technology has been obsolete for decades. We only see little flashes of the T-1000 oozing into alien shapes or shifting into different identities, and it’s still a compellingly eerie sight. I love how all the actors who portray the T-1000 cock their heads to the side, like curious dogs, whenever they stab someone. And the sight of the killer cop-blob freezing and then being blown into splinters remains etched into my brain.
But today, the effects aren’t nearly as impressive as the wild stunt work: The motorcycle jump! The cops fleeing from exploding cars! The helicopter flying under the highway overpass! Today most of that would be CGI. In 1991, real people had to do all of it, and that, combined with Cameron’s skill for staging clean and legible action scenes, gives T2 a physical immediacy that its stylistic descendents simply don’t have. Those scenes look dangerous, at least in part, because people really were in danger.
Schwarzenegger anchors the whole spectacle with that presence. He turns his death machine into a clueless, befuddled lummox who just wants to keep a kid safe—a true dad. It remains the best, most effective performance that this non-actor has ever given. Playing an inhuman character, Schwarzenegger uses his physicality, his established screen persona, and his innate charm to provide human stakes to what might’ve been the biggest, loudest movie that anyone had ever seen. It’s quite a trick.
Terminator 2 was the absolute apex for Schwarzenegger. In the years that followed, he would only make a couple more huge hits, and his grip over the American dream-life would slowly slip away—at least until he moved into another medium and used that movie-star power to become governor of California. These days, he makes bad Terminator sequels and low-budget action flicks that might as well go straight to Redbox. Weird career. James Cameron, on the other hand, would go on to make a couple of movies that were even bigger than Terminator 2. He’ll show up in this column again.
The contender: The Silence Of The Lambs, Jonathan Demme’s grim and gut-churning serial-killer thriller, came out in February and proved to be a surprise success in every conceivable way. It swept the Oscars, becoming the last movie ever to win all four major awards. It pulled in $130 million, big enough to make it the number four film of the year. And it made a cinematic icon and franchise anchor out of an effete, cold-blooded flesh-eater.
Demme directs The Silence Of The Lambs with total confidence and precision, showing some gruesome sights but letting our imaginations do most of the work. He builds symphonies out of shifting conversational power dynamics and slight tweaks of facial expression, and then he reverts to his Roger Corman exploitation-flick roots and gets into some real nasty fun whenever the moment calls for it. The film almost immediately entered the pop culture lexicon, and it basically set the template for today’s true-crime boom.
Next time: The Disney renaissance kicks into overdrive with Aladdin, which changes the game by bringing a genuine movie star into the realm of animation.