The year is 1995, eleven years after Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) destroyed the original Terminator that was programmed to kill her. Two men arrive in Los Angeles from the year 2029. The first is a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) identical to the one that Sarah first encountered, while the second is an unknown man (Robert Patrick) who dresses as a police officer. John Connor (Edward Furlong) is now living with foster parents. He has grown up being told by his mother that he would someday lead the remnants of the human race to victory against the machines. Sarah's experiences have significantly changed who she is, making her tougher and more vigilant, but also more desperate to warn humanity about the threat of the war of the machines. While previously attempting to destroy the headquarters of a computer company, Sarah was arrested and imprisoned at the Pescadero State Hospital- a maximum-security prison and hospital for criminally insane.
Meanwhile, the Terminator and the unknown man eventually locate John Connor. The "police officer" is revealed to be a machine trying to kill John; the Terminator protects John and reveals what is happening. He is a Cyberdyne Systems Model 101, reprogrammed by the future John Connor to act as his protector in this time. The other Terminator is a T-1000, an advanced prototype, which was sent back by Skynet to kill John while he's still a child in the event that the original T-800 failed in its mission. The T-1000 is made of "a Mimetic polyalloy", essentially liquid metal that looks like the element Mercury, allowing it to imitate almost anyone or anything of equal size. In its systematic process to locate John, the T-1000 murders John's foster parents, Todd and Janelle Voight after imitating Janelle herself. Meanwhile, as the T-800 sticks to the road with John to evade the T-1000's pursuit, John discovers that the T-800 is programmed to follow his every command. However, when John decides to use this to get payback on a verbally-abusive stranger they encounter, the T-800 almost murders the man before John stops him. This prompts John to, realising the responsibility of commanding a machine designed to terminate, handle his command over the Terminator more wisely, and to order the T-800 not to kill any humans.
When the T-800 tells John that the T-1000 will likely copy Sarah and then kill her, he and the Terminator go to rescue her. At Pescadero, Sarah has escaped from her prison cell and beats Douglas (a corrupt, patient-abusing member of Dr Silberman's staff) unconscious with a broom handle. Next, she knocks out another staff member, breaks Peter Silberman's arm and takes him hostage, holding him with a syringe full of industrial grade poison. She uses him to force the other staff to release her by opening all the security doors. However, on the opposite corridor, an Italian staff member creeps behind Sarah's back and releases Dr Silberman. She then runs down the corridor to the elevators. As she waits for an elevator, the T-800 walks out. Initially, Sarah is terrified by the sight of the same Terminator Model that had attempted to kill her and runs back, but the staff trip her up after chasing her. But just before Dr Silberman can sedate Sarah while his staff has her pinned down, the terminator comes, hoists and then knocks all the staff unconscious. Dr Silberman is left unharmed, shocked by the terminator. But the T-1000 arrives and Sarah watches the terminator fight off the T-1000 and seeing that John has accompanied it, she leaves with them. The T-1000 chases them down the highway but fails to capture and kill them.
Later, while the trio are hiding out in an auto repair garage (in a deleted scene), Sarah removes the bullets left lodged in the T-800's skin sheath during the skirmish. The T-800 also reveals that its CPU (its processing chip which holds its A.I. and controls its systems) in fact has advanced learning capabilities, but is pre-set to a 'read-only' mode due to Skynet's paranoia towards other machines' intelligence. At John's suggestion, he and Sarah remove the T-800's CPU so that it will reset to 'read and write' and improve the T-800's intellectual usefulness. Upon the chip's removal, Sarah, still mistrusting of the machine, sees an opportunity to render the terminator completely inert by destroying the chip, but John stops her at the last second, telling her they need it's help. Sarah is reluctant, but listens to John when he tells her that he'll one day be a powerful leader and that his decisions will one day be important. She agrees not to destroy the chip, and the terminator is reactivated.
As the trio flee south from the city, the Terminator tells Sarah about the future of Skynet as the sentient computer that will destroy humans. He tells her about its creator, Miles Bennett Dyson (Joe Morton), who designs a learning computer that is entrusted with command of all military force. When Skynet becomes "self-aware" and its terrified controllers attempt to shut it down, Skynet retaliates by launching nuclear missiles to destroy most of humanity, an event referred to by the survivors as "Judgment Day".
Eventually, Sarah, John, and the Terminator arrive in the desert at the camp of Enrique Salceda, who has preserved an underground weapons cache in the event that the war actually happens. Sarah plans to take John and flee over the border into Mexico. During the time at this camp, the T-800 begins to show increasingly advanced and humanised intelligence and behaviour as it learns, and John bonds more closely with the Terminator. While watching John teach the terminator a game, Sarah reflects on the fact that the terminator makes a good father-figure for John; being a machine, the terminator would never be abusive or abandon him, and would unreservedly let itself be destroyed while protecting him. In turn, John teaches the terminator to be more human. Sarah falls asleep and suffers her recurring nightmare where she sees herself playing with children on a playground. A nuclear bomb suddenly explodes in the distance and Sarah, her double and all the children die in the intense heat of the explosion of the nuclear bomb. Sarah wakes up, seeing that she's carved the words "NO FATE" into the table she fell asleep upon.
Sarah now believes that by assassinating Dyson, she can change the future to prevent Skynet from being invented, derailing Judgment Day and the war with the machines. After she leaves, John and the Terminator find the message she'd left on the table and quickly figure out what she is going to do and drive after her. At Dyson's home, Sarah tries to kill Dyson with an M4 rifle and misses when Dyson's son distracts him from his computer monitor. Sarah is unable to hit her target and marches into Dyson's home. She draws a pistol, shooting him in the shoulder, but finds herself unable to kill him in front of his family for a crime he hasn't even committed yet. When John and the Terminator arrive, they inform Dyson of the consequences of his research, and prove it to be true by having the T-800 cut the flesh from his arm to reveal the cybernetic endo-arm underneath. As the team and Dyson exchange stories concerning Dyson's Skynet project, the Connors and the T-800 discover that the endo-arm and chipped CPU of the previous T-800 survived the hydraulic press Sarah had used to destroy it, and were secretly recovered by Cyberdyne and are the source of Dyson's Skynet microprocessor research - just as Kyle Reese's presence in the past brought about John Connor's existence, the original T-800's has brought about Skynet's. When Dyson says he'll discontinue his research and quit Cyberdyne the next day, Sarah and the Terminator convince him that they must destroy everything related to his chip design, including the T-800 pieces immediately, so that no-one can follow his work and take his place as Skynet's creator.
Sarah, John, the Terminator, and Dyson break into the Cyberdyne Systems building and retrieve the parts from the first Terminator. While preparing explosives to destroy all of Dyson's research, security alerts the police who show up in force. When the SWAT team enters the building, they mortally shoot Dyson, who stays behind to trigger the detonator.
Sarah, John, and the Terminator escape in a SWAT van, with the T-1000 in pursuit, first in a helicopter then a tanker truck. The truck crashes into a steel mill, causing the tank to rupture and liquid nitrogen to spill everywhere, freezing the T-1000. Even though the Terminator shatters him, the pieces thaw and reassemble. The T-1000 and T-800 begin to fight; the T-1000 brutally and heavily damages the T-800, before deactivating him by impaling a metal pole through his power cell. The T-1000, disguised as Sarah, goes to hunt John. As John is confronted by two Sarahs, he identifies the real one and lets her shoot the T-1000 Sarah. Sarah shoots at the T-1000 until she's out of shotgun shells. The T-800, who has reactivated itself using an alternate power source, finally destroys the T-1000 by shooting it with a grenade launcher which causes it to deform and lose balance, and ultimately fall into a vat of molten metal which destroys it.
After John throws the arm and processor chip from the first Terminator into the molten metal, the T-800 says that he too must be destroyed to prevent his own Terminator technology from being used to create Skynet. He tells Sarah that he cannot self-terminate, and she must lower him into the steel. John tearfully begs the Terminator not to leave, but the Terminator insists it must be done. The T-800 apologises to John and hugs him like a father, before he and Sarah proceed. As the Terminator sinks into the molten steel, he gives them a thumbs-up bidding them farewell, before he disappears under the surface and his systems shut down. With the death of the closest paternal figure he'd ever had, John breaks down in his mother's arms, while Sarah gives a mournful look of respect at the Terminator's sacrifice. The film ends with a voice-over from Sarah, in which she describes her new found optimism regarding the future.
- T-800, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger
- Sarah Connor, played by Linda Hamilton
- John Connor, played by Edward Furlong
- T-1000, played by Robert Patrick
- Dr. Silberman, played by Earl Boen
- Miles Dyson, played by Joe Morton
- Tarissa Dyson, played by S. Epatha Merkerson
- Enrique Salceda, played by Castulo Guerra
- Tim, played by Danny Cooksey
- Janelle Voight, played by Jenette Goldstein
- Todd Voight, played by Xander Berkeley
- Twin Sarah, played by Leslie Hamilton Gearren
- Douglas, played by Ken Gibbel
- Cigar Biker, played by Robert Winley
- Lloyd, played by Pete Schrum
- Daniel Dyson, played by DeVaughn Nixon
- Kyle Reese, played by Michael Biehn (deleted scene)
- Handyman in Galleria, played by Takao Komine
- Combat chassis
- Head-up display
- Living tissue
- Mimetic polyalloy
- Neural Net CPU
- Time displacement equipment
The 2008 television series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is a direct follow-up to T2, with several episodes making direct reference to events, and with several characters from the film—such as Dyson's widow and Dr. Silberman—making appearances. The producers of the film have stated in several venues that the series intentionally ignores the events of T3.
Several scenes were removed prior to the theatrical release of the film, but were put back in in the Directors Cut release. The most notable removals are as follows:
- Pescadero: In the hallway of the Pescadero Mental Institution. Dr. Silberman has just finished showing Sarah Connor to some other doctors. He asks Douglas and another unnamed attendant to make sure Sarah takes her Thorazine.
- Theatrical release: Cut to T-1000 patrol car pulling up at John's foster parents' home.
- Altered release: Cut to Silberman walking away. Douglas and partner enter Connor's room. Dougie and his partner administer Sarah her medication in their own (violent) way.
- Dream sequence: John Connor relates to his friend Tim how his mom is a loser. They ride off to spend the money. Cut to Terminator pulling up on his bike.
- Theatrical Release: Cut to Dr. Silberman and Sarah watching an old videotape of Sarah describing a recurring dream of nuclear Judgment Day.
- Altered release: Cut to Sarah sitting on her bed in her cell. Sarah has a fever dream of meeting Kyle, who gives her further inspiration. She follows him down the hall and finds herself looking into a playground, the Terminator by her side. Suddenly, a nuclear explosion hits, obliterating everything, and turning the Terminator into a smoking endoskeleton. Sarah then wakes up in her cell.
- Max: At the house of John's foster parents, Janelle changes into the T-1000.
- Theatrical Release: Cut to officers showing Sarah pictures taken of Terminator at mall.
- Altered release: Cut to T-1000 leaving John's foster parents' home. Kills the dog and reads "MAX" on its collar.
- Chip flip: At the abandoned garage. John asks the Terminator whether he can be more human.
- Theatrical Release: The Terminator tells John that his CPU is a neural net processor.
- Altered release: Sarah and John "operate" on the Terminator, removing his CPU. Sarah wants to destroy it, but John asserts himself and stops her. They switch the CPU to "read-and-write" mode.
- Learning to smile: John, and "Uncle Bob" pull the station wagon into a gas station; steam is coming out of radiator.
- Theatrical Release: Cut to Sarah chewing on a burger, Terminator pouring water into the radiator.
- Altered release: John tries to teach Terminator how to smile, with mixed results. Cut to Sarah chewing on a burger.
- Dyson at home: Terminator is telling Sarah about Dyson, who developed the Skynet technology.
- Theatrical Release: Cut to station wagon pulling up at Enrique's ranch.
- Altered release: Miles tells Tarissa about his new processor; she convinces him to spend some time with their two kids to Raging Waters.
- Salceda's Ranch: Enrique shows Sarah the truck that needs a new starter.
- Theatrical Release: Cut to Arnold pulling dust cover off chain gun.
- Altered release: Sarah tells Enrique to leave his ranch after they leave. As the Terminator selects weapons, John tells him about his life growing up.
- John: John and Terminator are trying to prevent Sarah from killing Dyson.
- Theatrical Release: Cut to toy truck in Dyson's home.
- Altered release: John tells the Terminator the importance of human feelings.
- Sledgehammer: T-1000 is at Dyson's home, hears that Sarah Connor is at Cyberdyne.
- Theatrical Release: Cut to police cars pulling up at Cyberdyne.
- Altered release: Miles helps destroy everything in his lab, including smashing the neural net prototype with an axe.
- T-1000 bugs: After the T-1000 is shattered by the Terminator, we see that it's beginning to lose control of its morphing. Its hand takes on black and yellow stripes when it grabs a black and yellow striped railing, and its feet squish and morph into the steel floor pattern on each step. When it morphs into Sarah Connor, John looks down and sees that the T-1000/Connor's feet have melded into the steel floor right before the real Connor begins blasting away at it.
These scenes were cut out of the theatrical version, but were presented as a separated segment on the Special Edition, Ultimate Edition and Extreme DVD release on DVD.
- Room scan: T-1000 passes the bathroom where Janelle is lying dead in the shower. It searches John's room, touching everything gently with his fingertips. It touches a Public Enemy poster, rips it off the wall and finds a box with "Letters from Mom" written on it. It goes through a bunch of photos in the box.
- Future Coda: Alternate ending showing a brighter future, an aged Sarah Connor reflecting about Judgment Day never happened. John Connor fights in a different way now, as a senator.
Both scenes, and many others were later included in an extended version of the film released to home video and to television, although the Future-Sarah ending is contradicted by the subsequent Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines which established that she died approximately three years after the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, as well as the fact that in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Judgment Day does actually happen.
- Main article about the various home video releases.
- While a central point in Terminator 2, the phrase There is no fate but what we make for ourselves is not said in The Terminator. The phrase comes from a deleted scene.