The Terminator (1984)
Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor), Michael Biehn (Kyle Reese), Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator), Paul Winfield (Lt. Ed Traxler), Lance Henriksen (Det. Val Vukovich), Bess Motta (Ginger Ventura), Rick Rossovich (Matt Buchanan), Earl Boen (Dr. Peter Silberman), Dick Miller (Pawn Shop Clerk), Bill Paxton (Punk Leader), Brian Thompson (Punk)
“The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present. Tonight.” – opening text.
Well we’ve once again got a tent-pole doomsday franchise releasing a new installment in theaters so, once again I’ve foolishly beefed up my publishing schedule so that I can review every installment in the time between now and the film’s release. I’ll be publishing the column on Terminator 2 on Friday, Terminator 3 on Monday, and Terminator Salvation on Wednesday for the premier of Tyrmynytyr: Gynysys.
We open on a future warscape as large machines fire lasers at humans dressed in soldier regalia. We then flash to Los Angeles in the early 80s as a large naked man, the titular Terminator (Played by bodybuilder/Hercules in New York star Arnold Schwarzenegger), comes up and demands that punk-rock versions of Bill Paxton and Brian Thompson give him their clothes.
Elsewhere a ropier young man, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), appears in an alleyway and takes a bum’s crusty pants. The police show up and chase him into a store where he evades them while grabbing some more clothes and a shotgun out of a police car. Meanwhile The Terminator beats up a guy to get a phone book and looks up the name Sarah Connor in the phone book, finding three entries.
We spend some time getting to know the Sarah Connor that matters while The Terminator kills the other two. Sarah hears about the other murders and becomes nervous when she sees Kyle following her. The Terminator tracks her down and is about to kill her when Kyle swoops in to save the day. Kyle tells her that The Terminator is a T-800 sent by the murderous computer network SKYNET to kill her for the purpose of preventing the birth of the future’s human resistance leader, John Connor. John sent Kyle back in time to help protect his mother from the robotic assassin.
The Terminator, much like previous marathon column-fodder Mad Max, is more remembered for its second entry than its first. While this film did introduce certain elements (time travel, “come with me if you want to live”, “I’ll be back”) to the franchise, most of what people remember the series for came from the sequel. Also like Mad Max, The Terminator is a vastly different film from the rest of the series, though the differences are not as immediately apparent.
I had forgotten a lot more about The Terminator than I realized. I had forgotten the glimpse-of-the-future scenes, I had forgotten that the movie is essentially one long chase sequence, and that it all happened in one night (putting it in the prestigious company of other “one crazy night” movies as The Warriors, Trojan War, and License to Drive.) But mostly I had forgotten how brutal this movie is.
The T-800 is essentially a slasher. Oh, sure he uses guns and he talks, but the only major thing separating The Terminator from Jason Voorhees is a less convoluted back-story. Make no mistake, The Terminator is a slasher movie through-and-through and has a whole lot more in common with Halloween than it does with Robocop.
There are actually a lot of parallels to Halloween. Sarah Connor, portrayed as a “good girl” type and played by a woman with mannish features as the target sought by the killer, a large seemingly-unkillable assailant targeting our protagonist, an irresponsible and amorous best friend character who serves as murder fodder, a knowledgeable and capable anti-hero there to kill the villain who folds in the third act so the heroine can kill the bad guy herself, all set over the course of one long and violent night. The Terminator is just cyber-punk Halloween.
There is something cool to explore using the framework of a slasher film and a doomsday story but this movie just lets that potential hang. There’s no social commentary, there’s no deeper meaning, there’s a big scary robot man and he kills people until the survivor girl kills him. The movie doesn’t suffer for it at all, but it’s one of many missed opportunities the movie features.
Speaking of missed opportunities, have you seen the cast for this thing? Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Paul Winfield, Bill Paxton, Brian Thompson, Dick Miller; the deck is stacked with character actors and they all get barely memorable bit parts. The biggest waste by far is Winfield; his character is a police lieutenant investigating the Sarah Connor murders, and he seems to believe there’s something to Kyle Reese’s story but he gets killed unceremoniously along with his partner, Lance Henriksen’s character, in a demonstration of how unstoppable the T-800 really is.
The only actor who really gets much to do other than the principle cast is Earl Boen as a criminal psychologist with no sense of decency who interviews Kyle Reese and tells Sarah about how crazy he is. Boen’s character, Dr. Silberman, would go on to make appearances in the next two films.
Linda Hamilton isn’t given much to do as Sarah Connor, as I said above she’s basically a “Final Girl” type so by nature she just screams and runs until the end where she gets some resolve and murders the bad guy. The next movie would beef up the character a lot, but as she appears here we don’t have much to latch onto with Sarah Connor until the very tail end of the movie.
Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese is a bit more exciting but Biehn was really young when this movie was made and hadn’t really developed much in the way of acting chops yet. He scowls a lot, he talks in a harsh voice a lot, he occasionally does both, and the one moment he’s asked to show tenderness to Sarah before they conceive themselves a revolutionary he falls flat on his face.
Surprisingly it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger who gives the best performance. Admittedly The T-800 isn’t exactly King Lear, but its harder to play convincingly robotic than it appears. Even his Teutonic accent works for the character, making his voice sound like it has some sort of electric distortion going on. He’s convincingly cold and emotionless and manages to actually be scary despite how often the character is used for weird bits of comedy relief, though I doubt that a robot would blink every time it fires a gun.
If you’re familiar with this film’s history and James Cameron’s film career in general then you’ll be well-aware of the plagiarism charges associated with this film. The famously litigious science fiction author Harlan Ellison (author of previous Doomsday Reels entry A Boy and His Dog) claimed that the movie ripped off two episodes of The Outer Limits which he wrote (Soldier and Demon With a Glass Hand.) The claim goes that Cameron bragged about doing just such a thing to a Starlog interviewer but that has never been confirmed, though given how every single film Cameron has made has been involved in plagiarism lawsuits, it seems rather plausible. It’s also worth nothing that the origin of SKYNET, the film’s malevolent self-aware defense computer system that’s responsible for the near-extinction of humanity, is remarkably similar to AM, the malevolent self-aware defense computer system that’s responsible for the near-extinction of humanity, in Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.
However much Cameron did or did not rip off, The Terminator is a fine film. It’s certainly derivative but all those elements come together to make a rather harrowing and entertaining throwback to 50s Sci-Fi with 70s-80s exploitation sensibilities. The action is memorable, the tension is thick, and you can see the influences of John Carpenter, Walter Hill, and George Miller (Cameron cited Carpenter’s work as well as Hill’s The Driver and Miller’s The Road Warrior as inspiration) on every frame.
While The Terminator lacks the polish of the later movies in the series, it never suffer for it. The world feels dirty and gritty and alive without tipping over into excessive darkness, it’s this gritty grindhouse aesthetic which makes the movie, and it’s chilling-no-matter-how-many-times-you-see-it finale, all the more effective.
Some credit definitely goes to Stan Winston and the rest of the special effects crew. The T-800 sans skin is one of the more disturbing-looking creatures to ever grace a horror film, even though its appearance in later movies never quite has the creep factor of that first showdown at the end of this movie. Some of the effects are dodgy (that shot of the fake Arnold head, showing off the cyborg’s eye sticking through the hole in the skin looked bad then and looks atrocious now) but the jerky stop-motion action of the exoskeleton just serves to make it more upsetting to watch and that definitely works in its favor.
The Terminator is the unsung hero of the franchise, I’ll talk in detail about the highs and lows of the rest of the series in subsequent columns but The Terminator is a film that is nearly perfect in its simplicity and it represents a streamlined greatness that the rest of the series couldn’t even begin to replicate. Even subsequent projects by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd never quite reached this level of greatness (well, maybe Aliens.)
The shine has really come off the series as a result of increasingly diluted sequels, but if you can ignore a few brief bad special effects and the offensive 80s-ness of the whole affair, you’ll find that The Terminator is very deserving of its place in the annuls of pop culture. Unfortunately this spells bad things for me as we can only go downhill from here.
The Terminator is stupidly easy to find. Hardwore stores, bakeries, and bait shops have excess copies of The Terminator, when you come inside you have to wipe excess copies of The Terminator off your shoes so you don’t track them into the house, when you close your eyes at night The Terminator is playing on the back of your eyelids. You can also purchase it on Blu-Ray and DVD or watch it on Instant through Amazon. There’s also a Blu-Ray of all four movies.
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