We couldn’t have known it at the time, but when James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day was released July 2, 1991, we were seeing the future of big-budget movie-making.
Plenty of fundamental elements were in place for a potential box-office smash. Cameron's original The Terminator had become a surprise success in the fall of 1984, and the cult grew even bigger on home video; Arnold Schwarzenegger had subsequently become one of the biggest movie stars in the world. The continuation of the time-traveling story—with Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) now a buffed-out survivalist raising her destined-to-save-humanity son, John (Edward Furlong)—probably would have been a hit under any circumstances.
But the headline-grabbing stuff involved Cameron’s ground-breaking use of computer-generated special effects from Industrial Light & Magic, which had been employed in a more limited capacity in his 1989 film The Abyss. The liquid metal, shape-shifting cyborg T-1000 (Robert Patrick) was now the primary antagonist out to kill John Connor, with Schwarzenegger’s T-800 shifted to the role of John’s protector. And audiences lapped up not just the chases and gunfire, but the technology that allowed the T-1000 to walk through bars, turn his hands into weapons and shatter when frozen in liquid nitrogen, only to re-congeal later on. Though the budget was reported as a then-extraordinary $100 million—kind of quaint by today’s standards—movies had suddenly taken a quantum leap forward in their ability to show us the impossible.
The next two decades would find the entire industry building its blockbuster business model around fantasy constructed with CGI. From Jurassic Park to comic-book franchises, from the Star Wars prequel trilogy to The Matrix, our cinematic adventures were now built out of bytes. Schwarzenegger's infamous "I'll be back" would literally come to pass with a third Terminator film, but in reality, a little bit of Terminator 2 has been back in nearly every major movie hit in the 20 years since.