Cyborg 2087 (1966)
A cyborg from a dystopian future travels to the past to keep that future from happening, while other cyborgs attempt to stop him. Did Cameron see this low-budget sci-fi film and steal the idea for his Terminator sequel (or maybe even the original)? That would be fine given that he’s remaking a not-so-good movie as a good one, in many ways. The only connection is the basic plot, and even there it’s slightly altered so the good cyborg is the one trying to keep the bad cyborg from changing something in their time.
Like T2, the heroic cyborg of Cyborg 2087 has to die at the end, but it’s because the altering of the future renders him nonexistent. Of course, that’s an insane paradox on a level similar to the causal loop of the Terminator movies. Still, it’s surprising that more time travel movies don’t follow the logic, confusing as it is, of having characters forget the events they just experienced as a result of rendering them no longer having happened (memory not catching up with Marty and Doc in Back to the Future, for instance).
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
Have you ever noticed the similarities between T2 and WarGames? If not, then you need to see this precursor to both. Based on the sci-fi novel “Colossus” by Dennis Feltham Jones, the longer-titled movie is about a military supercomputer in charge of America’s nukes that becomes self-aware, begins communicating with its Soviet equal, and together the two machines start World War III amongst themselves and then become a united power against mankind, to protect itself and humanity.
The movie isn’t nearly as hopeful as those it’s influenced (even with the Terminator movies confirming that the machines always take over), but the novel spawned two sequels that were never adapted for the screen. Hollywood could remake the first part and then follow through with the others, but audiences might think them too familiar next to all the Terminator movies. At least at first. The Terminator franchise never introduced aliens to the equation, like the “Colossus” books do.
Computers Are People, Too! (1982)
For its premise also involving man vs. machine and its special effects being groundbreaking computer-generated magic, Tron might have been a worthy recommendation to include on this list. But for fun, and because I like to have at least one documentary represented, here’s a related alternative. Disney produced Computers Are People, Too! as a companion to Tron (or at least to its marketing). The mid-length film showcases the latest in computer art and animation compiled from other sources, too.
Directed by two-time Oscar-winning short film director Denis Sanders, the doc begins with a question relevant to T2: will humans be replaced by machines? And the answer, given by a sentient supercomputer from the future: no, humans and machines will live together in harmony! One of the most interesting things about Computers Are People, Too! now is an interview Motherboard did with its producer, Mike Bonifer, a couple years ago when the thing hit YouTube. He acknowledges that the computer age has been much darker than they foresaw it being back in 1982. You can now also find the doc on some special edition home video releases of Tron.
Short Circuit (1986)
There are a lot of very cheesy parts of T2 with Schwarzenegger’s T-800 trying to be more human-like. But if you want a really goofy robot friend, there’s No. 5, aka Johnny 5, from Short Circuit. Like the T-800, he was originally intended to be a killing machine employed by the bad guys (here the US military) but he becomes a lovable pet-like friend instead. Johnny 5 becomes a pacifist when he’s struck by lightning and magically gains consciousness. The T-800 becomes a pacifist when a little boy tells him to be one.
Who has the better catchphrases? Probably T-800, but only because his are spoken by Schwarzenegger, and only when they’re serious. “Hasta la vista” works. Johnny 5’s “We be jamming!” does not. But there is otherwise a lot of the same effect in the characters’ comic relief and cultural appropriations. Both borrow from John Wayne, they start out with more literal and mechanical and straightforward dialogue and later loosen up, and they go over the top with laughs and smiles. The only problem with trying to watch Short Circuit these days is, unlike T2, it hasn’t aged well with its white actor in brownface (Fisher Stevens) portrayal of a stereotypical Indian. I wish I could recommend a version of the movie with him cut out.
Bonus: Aliens (1986)
I don’t always like to recommend an earlier movie by the director, especially if it’s one as big as Aliens, but for anyone familiar with Cameron’s work only on the Terminator movies, you need to go back and see how some of his previous movies directly led to T2. Obviously The Terminator is the original to which T2 is a sequel. Then there’s The Abyss, which introduces a liquid CG entity with morphing capabilities that is the precursor to the T-1000.
The most significant link, though, even more than The Terminator, is with Aliens. Both movies are big effects-driven action-oriented sequels to rather minimalist, lower-budget sci-fi thrillers. And both feature the return of a now-buffer, now more kick-ass heroine who was basically a ‘final girl” in the original movie just trying to survive and ultimately help kill a non-human slasher horror villain type (the Xenomorph and the Terminator are just Leatherface and Michael Myers in different skin). Neither Ripley in Alien nor Sarah Connor in The Terminator is an action hero, but they come back as full-on action blockbuster icons.