A killer moment needs a killer line. In the finale of James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) sequel - Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) - Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers exactly that. As his nemesis the T-1000 (Robert Patrick) freezes in liquid nitrogen, the T-800 (Schwarzenegger) shatters him with a single round from his Glock in what we think will be the blow that ends him (spoilers: it’s not). In the split second before he fires the bullet, he deadpans the line “hasta la vista, baby”. There is a key pause between the “hasta la vista” and the “baby”, with the delivery on the final word making it one of the most famous and cool lines in movie history. It was also ground-breaking for the way it merged the conventions of comedy with action filmmaking.
According to Terminator 2 co-writer William Wisher, he and Cameron used to say “hasta la vista” as a form of farewell to each other frequently in the years leading up to the movie. In Spanish it loosely translates as “see you later”, with the term first used in a mainstream pop cultural context decades earlier when comedian Bob Hope ad-libbed “hasta la vista, baby" to Raquel Welch on her TV special Raquel (1970). It started popping up in songs in the late eighties too - right as the Terminator 2 screenplay was being penned - including Wild Thing by rapper Tone Lōc in 1988 and Looking For A New Love by Jody Watley in 1987. Around that same time stand-up comic Jerry Seinfeld’s era-defining sitcom Seinfeld (1989–98) debuted, with much of the show’s structure and plot lines being inspired by his chosen craft of stand-up comedy. One of the common devices of the medium is a ‘callback’, which is a joke that refers to one previously told in the set (hence the name as it’s calling the audience’s attention back to a previous punchline). Seinfeld regularly featured callbacks in the show, making it one of the first televised properties to do so and when Terminator 2 arrived in cinemas just a few years later, it employed this same technique.
At the movie’s midway point while fleeing the city, a young John Connor (Edward Furlong) tries to school the robotic T-800 on his responses to make him sound more human. “No, no, no, no, you gotta listen to the way people talk,” the teen says. “You don't say ‘affirmative’ or some shit like that. You say ‘no problemo’. And if someone comes on to you with an attitude, you say ‘eat me’. And if you want to shine them on, it's ‘hasta la vista, baby’.” The T-800 immediately recites the line, but with less attitude in the delivery than his young teacher or – later – even himself when he says “hasta la vista, baby” to the T-1000. There’s almost a full hour and countless explosions, executions, and action set pieces between when the T-800 is taught the line, repeats it, and when he delivers it in context. Yet everything from the delivery to the “baby” is meant to remind the audience of the past scene, allowing them a brief reprieve as they go “a-ha” and the purpose of the callback in comedy is utilised in action. The viewer is reminded of that earlier moment they shared with the characters, with the line creating an intimate space between the characters on screen and the audience as they’re allowed to be in on the joke … baby.
– Maria Lewis