The Terminator is perhaps one of the most-widely seen movies in the world. However, this review does include SPOILERS and in the case that you’d rather watch the movie first before reading, please go and do so.
Before we even start the movie or the review, Stan Winston every-fucking-body. Winston is one of the biggest geniuses of movie special effects, rivaled by the likes of Ray Harryhausen (only in legacy rather than skill – Winston seems to nail that), Kevin Yagher, Chris Walas and of course, Tom Savini. If you have a nostalgia-attached movie with brilliant effects that still hold up even today, it is more likely than not one of these guys and it is almost certainly to be Winston if that movie is from the 80s or 90s as a tentpole action film.
The fact that movie wastes no time showcasing Winston’s world-building effect by a cryptic yet ambient series of shots in a darkened future where robots crush isolated skulls without a single care could easily give off the wrong first impression of this movie that the movie is shooting its load. Especially since it’ll be a long while after this prologue before we see some more of Winston’s effects in this movie…
Which is when the film… right after displaying the title (attached with really brilliantly unforgettable music by Brad Fiedel in its percussive pounding that stomps like a great big metal Godzilla)… gets itself started with its point.
1984. Two naked men suddenly appear in a burst of light on the streets of midnight L.A. almost simultaneously. One of these men is significantly bigger than the other, but both men are altogether mysterious and menacing. Both men immediately dispatch of the first bystanders they encounter – the bigger man’s approach is a lot more lethal than the strategic actions of the leaner, wiry man.
They stock up on what they need and then they get to the Metro Phone Book to find a name: Sarah Connor.
I’m about a week late due to the things I was making myself do, but it has been the 30th Anniversary of The Terminator. Released in 1984, it is considered one of the most influential entries in science fiction culture and spawned a vast multimedia franchise – in the middle of it, making a household name out of the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gale Anne Hurd and James Cameron, the originator of this idea when he woke up from a nightmare he had making Piranha II: the Spawning. The nightmare in question had a man on fire, whose skin melted off to reveal a heinous machine underneath the flesh.
From there on, a script was crafted between him and his soon-to-be-wife and collaborative producer Gale Anne Hurd (until she would become one in a long line of James Cameron’s ex-wives in 1989). The story told would be that a cybernetic killing machine is sent back from the future of a war between robots and man. His mission is to kill the mother of the human rebellion’s leader before the man can even be conceived, stripping humanity of their one hope under the robot carnage. The rebellion, knowing of Skynet’s plans, send back a soldier of their own to stop the robot assassin, known as the T-800 from erasing their leader from history (Sci-Fi alpha papa Harlan Ellison would later sue Orion Pictures over the concept’s similarities to his work for The Outer Limits and a short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and despite a settlement that Cameron holds grudgingly above Orion – among other things – the similarities are very suspicious at least.)
Ideally, if we approached the movie from another timeline where everybody didn’t praise the movie, it didn’t become one of the biggest landmarks of science fiction storytelling, that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator was not an icon that you’d recognize as a baby, we don’t know this yet. The power of the movie is how the propelling of its story from the First Act is not in fact propelling its plot, how?
Well, we don’t get an explanation of what’s going on in 1984 L.A. yet after that opening I described. We get a bit of an introduction to the Sarah Connor that actually matters, played by Linda Hamilton. What’s so special about her? I dunno yet, she’s a waitress at some diner, I guess, so she knows how to make people happy. She’s just average, ordinary. In the meantime, the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the larger man, is going about stocking up on weaponry and we witness him murder in cold blood the first Sarah Connor in the phone book without saying anything more than a simple inquiry of her name. Our Sarah learns of this killing on the news
Later on, we learn of the second Sarah Connor being murdered alongside two detectives – Vukovich and Traxler, played by Lance Henriksen and Paul Winfield – and their awareness of a pattern leads them to rush on finding our Sarah. But between all four of these pursuers, it is the wiry guy from air who gets to Sarah first in one of the most 80s nightclubs I’ve ever seen put in a film – It’s called TechNoir, for Odin’s sake.
Sarah is reasonably creeped out by this creeping creep in an overcoat following her into the club, but it’s only when the larger man steps through the doors that the danger gets upped to the highest level the film has got to yet and it gets to the point that the Big man himself aims that laser pointer at Sarah’s face…
… when wiry man Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) saves the life of our Sarah and demands she comes with her if she wants to live. We’d think this is where the action begins, when the truth is that we spent most of the movie already in the middle of the action and that’s what’s exciting.
The Terminator is an action movie, before anything else. Part of the strength I find in The Terminator is how it can actually become malleable enough as a story to craft the movie into a slasher film, a dystopian science-fiction romp, a police procedural, a time travel piece and so on, but it is before anything else… an action film. No film can star Arnold Schwarzenegger in a role (or Michael Biehn in the 80s) and not be an action film (End of Days and The 6th Day tried to pretend they were more and look what happened to them).
So unsurprisingly, most of the information I have relayed in this review, save for Sarah’s predicament because well, she’s our main protagonist, is only relayed in the movie well after we’ve had a full-on run of action. Like a significant chunk of the movie, certainly the first third, maybe the first overall half of the movie, is dedicated to kickstarting the movie’s action, knowing that the momentum is only running as far as the characters of the T-800, Sarah, and Reese will be running. We get the cold slaughter of a gang, a police chase, two on-screen assassinations, and then a really pumping (but also really 80s) gunfight turned chase through the streets by the time Reese is able to stop for a moment and explain to Sarah the premise of the tale.
That’s how you get an audience into a story as ludicrous as The Terminator, you don’t let them wade into the water a little bit, you shove them in and force them to swim. And due to the direness of the situation, the severity of the Terminator’s indestructability and tract, we can take the story seriously as that is exactly what James Cameron wants us to do with this film (I mean, when you dismiss OJ Simpson from being cast as the killer because you didn’t think he could be taken seriously as one – it’s not a giant leap of believing you really really want the audience to care what’s going on).
And that also happens to hinder onto the performances of the actors. Linda Hamilton is, by this day and age, more associated with no-nonsense frighteningly violent badasses (something Cameron’s films seem to have a striking resemblance towards each other is their handling of female archetypes being the actual hands-on dirty work people in the plot), is more or less a naïve everywoman being just as thrust into this danger in her life as everyone else. Don’t worry, she gets her shot to being that scary lady with the gun later in the Terminator franchise, but for now: she is not just believable, she’s relatable. Don’t get me wrong, the character is not at all detailed – she’s all broad strokes, but those broad strokes are points of layman working-class lifestyle that most anyone can identify with and Hamilton takes these parts of the character, inserts a down-to-earth personality, and ends up being a person we as an audience could very much associate with and feel sympathy towards, even before we find out the future relies on what she brings to the world.
Michael Biehn is just as well the real urgent presence in the film. He’s jittered, he’s quick, he’s never calm, he’s always watching his back with wide-eyed paranoia, twitching like a prey getting ready to escape from his cybernetic predator. The uptightness of the performance sometimes breaks apart the tone of the story into melodrama (particularly when our heroes are stuck being questioned by the detectives – probably the closest the movie has to a weak link without really making the overall film seem flawed save for some special effects that are immediately dated – but it may just be me, but I feel a nightmare effect when I see the very obviously fake image of the T-800’s torn face with the red eye behind it) and once we hear what he has to say he goes to the Inception-character School of Talking Exposition and Little Else, but Biehn’s racing pounding presence in the film adds so much more than it takes away that we really can’t wait for the climax.
And my, when the climax of the film comes, without explaining it, it comes hard and fast. I think the entire last third of the film is just nonstop action with little dialogue and no more exposition. I even stop giving a damn about the future and just want to see what happens when the chase gets to Schwarzenegger right behind Sarah and Reese’s tale.
It also lends the film overall to both Cameron’s very sensible understanding of how to layer an action sequence so that it is always escalating and never decreasing in momentum or screeching to a stop and to brilliant eye of Adam Greenberg as the cinematographer. I know most films with the dingy metallic feel to L.A. in the 80s seem like they’re usually trying to be Blade Runner, but Greenberg gives the film not a bootleg neo-noir feel, but something akin to being inside the belly of the beast with its subtle steel blues and hard blacks while Reese and Sarah evade their pursuer.
But holy shit, if the imagery during the final third act of the film doesn’t make you jump and say “The Indestructability!”, I don’t know what will.
Before I close this, there’s one thing I evaded mentioning… Not only did this movie make James Cameron a household name of a visionary (even despite Orion Picutre subduing the advertising for the picture and trying to force their hold onto Cameron’s work), it made a certain superstar make another entry into one of his many career interests – Real estate businessman, bodybuilder, philanthropist, psychology hobbyist and now-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger had already entered the Hollywood scene with the dubiously remembered but still iconic Conan films and a really really shitty piece of shit called Hercules in New York. Schwarzenegger got himself finally really known as the Terminator – Cyberdyne Systems Model T-800. And it’s not faint praise to say, he’s a real fucking machine when he plays the part… His frozen stare isn’t from laughable lack of acting, but from an intense scowl that only serves to provide the most unnerving beings to be stalked by. The man moves without grace, but with purpose, with only deliberate intention and enough momentum to make the Terminator seem swift and robotic without leaving him just slugging around like a mummy or zombie.
And well, that’s a big guy, something that could only be invented to rival the Xenomorph as a perfect creature.
So, of course, I wasn’t born when The Terminator came out, but I feel it should have been called the moment Schwarzenegger drove that damned car into the police station after insisting he’d be back that he was going to be a star and nothing was going to stop him.
But this was Cameron’s film and, if anyone deserved to reap the benefits of all of these great pieces coming together to give us one of the most full-throttled action packed films of all time and a hell of a new beginning for science fiction cinema, it was James Cameron. And while I’m sure the man was not from the future, I like to think after the movie’s success, he was able to see exactly what the future had in store for him.
Fast forward 30 years later, Schwarzenegger’s a monument in American culture, Cameron’s responsible for great motion-pictures both breaking effects boundaries and for breaking box office records, and here I am, sitting talking about just how goddamned perfect The Terminator is as a movie.
Can’t stop me, Skynet.