Conan The Humanitarian

James Cameron ("The Terminator," "Aliens") is the master of apocalyptic pulp, the blue-collar Wagner of the action movie. His thunderously visceral Terminator 2: Judgment Day has the clash-of-the-titans scale of grand opera, but with the lyricism replaced by clanking, shrieking metal. In the postnuclear world of 2029, machines have gained supremacy over man, and humanity's only hope rests on the shoulders of John Connor, the leader of the resistance. In the first movie the cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger was sent back to the 1980s to kill John Connor's mother before the warrior could be born. That failed, and now, a decade later, they've sent back a new, improved model (Robert Patrick) to try to kill the boy John (Edward Furlong). But a second cyborg is dispatched as his protector - Arnold again, rebuilt as a hero.

Can John, his fiercely protective mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton), and their metallic guardian angel survive the threat of a liquid-metal cyborg with the ability to take the form of anything it touches? It's a basic action-movie setup: the thrill - and the considerable wit - are all in the presentation. Given that this is the most expensive movie ever (box), one expects extraordinary mayhem. And this Cameron delivers with a perfectionist's zeal and some of the most special special effects in eons.

But Cameron's achievement isn't only technical. He's using all the not-so-cheap thrills of a violent genre to make a movie with an antiviolence message, and the wonder of T2 is that he pulls it off without looking silly. (The hypocrisy is built into the form: we're there, after all, for the rush of destruction.) Cameron and co-writer William Wisher play a nifty joke on Schwarzenegger's image as the Terminator: the kid makes him swear not to kill anybody, and it's funny watching him waste his enemies without terminating them. Nobody knows how to use Schwarzenegger better than Cameron: he was born to play a machine. As a human in "Total Recall" he wasn't convincing or vulnerable. Here, as an emotionless cyborg acting out the part of a foster father, he's impressive, hilarious, almost touching.

Hamilton's sinewy Sarah, a fanatical matriarchal warrior, is a wonderfully gaga heroine, as ferocious as a lioness protecting her cub, and twice as butch as Sigourney Weaver in "Aliens." Furlong, making his movie debut, is a natural. For all its state-of-the-art pyrotechnics and breathtaking thrills, this bruisingly exciting movie never loses sight of its humanity. That's its point, and its pride.

In the sober, tightfisted Hollywood of the '90s, it's not cool to throw money around. But at Carolco, the upstart independent production company that brought the world the "Rambo" movies, no one is denying that "Terminator 2" cost at least $94 million - the most expensive film ever made. The guys who run Carolco are banking that every nickel was worth it: they spent at least $12 million on Schwarzenegger because he can pack movie houses all over the world; $6 million on director James Cameron, the king of action thrillers; $17 million for special effects, including breakthrough computer-generated visuals; millions more for stunts like a motorcycle that flies through a third-story window and connects with a helicopter. Unlike such films with bloated budgets as "The Godfather Part III," Carolco execs say they planned to spend about this much money.

The company also plans to recoup. Carolco says it already has advances and guarantees of $91 million, $61 million alone from overseas theatrical and TV rights. The company sold domestic film-distribution rights to Tri-Star for $4 million, and the rest comes from video cable and other TV deals. LIcensing merchandise could bring in $20 million more. This lower-risk high dollar strategy means a lower profit margin. Still, if the film is even a modest hit, Carolco will begin to rake in percentages on top of these revenues. "The major studios think we independents should make $3 million movies about sensitive people," says Carolco executive Roger Smith. "They would love to see us go away. We have no intention of satisfying them."

Where the $$$ Went

$12 m Schwarzenegger's salary, taken in the form of a Gulfstream 111 jet $6 m James Cameron, producer/director/co-writer $10 m Rights to make the sequel $1 m Hamilton's salary $4 m Other prefilming costs including actors' salaries $17 m Special effects $34 m Other production costs, from stunts to catering $10 m Interest and overhead ----------- $94 m total