''That really looks silly!'' director James Cameron says, surprised, as he strides into the conference room at his Lightstorm Entertainment headquarters in Burbank, Calif. In the center of the room, grinning at him rather ghoulishly, is one of the six-foot metal ''endoskeletons,'' the mechanized killing machines that stalk through the bleakly futuristic opening sequence of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But this robot isn't equipped for mass destruction. It's a present from its creator, special-effects wizard Stan Winston, who has sent it over, bedecked incongruously in ribbons and bows, to mark Cameron's 37th birthday. Cameron's surprise gives way to laughter. ''The last thing you want to do,'' he says, ''is drape a Terminator with ribbons.''
With Terminator 2 already the biggest hit of the year and well on its way to earning $200 million at the U.S. box office, Cameron and his team can now afford to joke around. Three months earlier, when Cameron's crew was struggling to finish the production in time for its July 3 release date, the atmosphere in these offices was anything but silly. To a degree rare even in the hit-or-miss world of Hollywood, Cameron's reputation was on the line with Terminator 2. A string of delays and postponed release dates had tainted his last major undertaking, 1989's The Abyss; another blown opening might have been fatal to his standing. Then there was the money: At a cost of roughly $90 million, T2 was shaping up as the most expensive movie ever made. Though the risk was balanced somewhat by $91 million in distribution advances and guarantees, Carolco Pictures, the film's major backer, was betting heavily on the outcome. And TriStar Pictures, the movie's distributor, which already had one ticking bomb on its hands in the form of Hudson Hawk, couldn't afford a second summer disaster.
The results silenced the skeptics literally overnight. On the long July 4 weekend, the movie pulled in a stunning $52 million. And, for the director whose 1984 The Terminator had developed near-mythic status among sci-fi fans, the sequel was renewed proof of his ability to astonish. In two hours and 16 minutes of heavy-metal action, T2 redefined the limits of moviemaking technology, combining new breakthroughs in computerized special effects with some of the most elaborate makeup contraptions and explosive stunts ever filmed.