A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

THE TERMINATOR: jjj
½ 

25th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1984, R, 100 mins.

 

Arnold Schwarzenegger: The Terminator / Linda Hamilton: Sarah Connor / Michael Biehn: Kyle Reese / Paul Winfield: Lt. Traxler / Lance Henrickson: Detective Vukovich

Directed by James Cameron / Written by Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd

Hindsight is certainly a very curious thing, especially when the movies are concerned.  

Long before James “I’m the King of the World” Cameron was ushering in some of the biggest technological advancements in the movies – not to mention making a series of some of the most cherished and respected works of the medium – he was an absolute nobody.  In 1984 the director was barely a blip on Hollywood’s radar.  Beforehand he was a college student that studied physics and then worked as a truck driver (both seem highly incongruent, eh?), the latter which he eventually quit to pursue a career in the movies.  Like many of the most auspicious filmmakers of his generation, Cameron cut his teeth under the tutelage of Roger Corman’s film studio, certainly not the stuff that many lay filmgoers think would be the proper starting point for a filmmaker that went on to make some of the most expensive films of our times.    

He honed his artistic skills in Corman’s art department and his first gig was building crude models and creating matte paintings for Corman’s BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (he eventually graduated up to the status of art director). He used his experience on that production to help sharpen his filmmaking skills in an effort to make a directorial debut, which occurred somewhat inauspiciously with PIRANHA 2: THE SPAWNING, a film so beleaguered with problems that, by Cameron’s own admission, it led to his firing…on multiple occasions.   Emotionally and mentally drained from this horrible novice experience, he began to put some ideas down on paper for his concept of a post-apocalypse sci-fi actioneer that involved a high concept story involving humanoid looking robots from the future, time travel, and some grindhouse style action, but with a bit more penache, gusto and free-wheeling style.  

Hence, THE TERMINATOR was born. 

Cameron has made a career – and a bit of a troubled reputation – for being a director with a fiery ego and passion that, on a few occasions, has gone to somewhat insane lengths (financially and technically) to get his visions on screen.  Certainly, his Oscar darling, 1997’s TITANIC, represents the director’s height of bold and audacious artistic hubris.  Yet, looking back on Cameron’s career, the original THE TERMINATOR is a meager and modest film.  Considering the budgets that all but dwarfed the media headlines for the films late in his career, Cameron’s 1984 sci-fi film was decidedly low budget at only $6.5 million.  Yet, even if one considers the relative small fee that THE TERMINATOR ultimately cost, it’s one of those rare films that sort of looks more polished and expensive that it appeared.   Corman’s training, no doubt, proved to be a real asset for the fledging director, seeing as Cameron was able to make use of his small budget and stretch every dollar out of it to craft a film with fever pitched intensity, fast paced and powerfully orchestrated action stunt pieces, alongside thanklessly dynamic performances.  Yes, Cameron has gone on to make many more polished, glossy, and epic entertainments, but THE TERMINATOR has always remained, in my mind, one of his best pure films.   

The concept for the film saw the light of day in the form of some paintings Cameron rendered of a human killing machine which looked human that he showed to producer Gale Anne Hurd, who would later receive a co-writer credit on the film.  The image of the Terminator was striking, awe-inspiring, and scary: a metal endoskeleton emerging from the flames with bits and pieces of human flesh and sinew falling off.  Cameron admitted that two TV episodes in particular inspired the story of the film, both form the 1960’s series THE OUTER LIMITS.  The episodes, SOLDIER and DEMON WITH THE GLASS HAND (both written by sci-fi author Harlan Ellison) gave Cameron an influence, but Ellison thought that perhaps THE TERMINATOR's plot bore more than a fleeting resemblance to his work (in the credits of the film he is given a special “acknowledgement" salute, most likely to curb any litigation against Cameron and the studio).  The robot that looks human on the outside concept was obviously futuristic, but Cameron shrewdly understood that he had no money to helm a lavish production with futuristic detail.  A compromise would be struck, which would entail the robot coming from the future to the present, and the basis of THE TERMINATOR canon was conceived. 

What’s ultimately fascinating about the Terminator “character" is everyone’s preconceived notions of what he represents: in short – a muscle bound Austrian bodybuilder with an inanely thick accent, an emotionless line delivery, and a heavy predilection for wanton violence in mass dosages.  But long before our current Californian Governor would get the role that cemented his action hero street cred, Cameron had other interesting ideas on casting the title role.  He originally conceived the futuristic robot as a mild looking and unassuming man that would blend into the background with relative ease.  Some of his early choices for actors are compelling, if not a bit chuckle inducing: He wanted Lance Henrickson and even – yes, no bull – entertained the idea of O.J. Simpson, which was quickly (and thankfully) rescinded (Cameron jokingly revealed in a recent interview that he could not possible believe that a “nice guy could be a ruthless killer”).  The thought of an O.J. Terminator is arguably one of the cinema's more nightmarish what if casting scenarios, rivaled only by the thought of Ronald Reagan as Rick Blaine in CASABLANCA.  Michael Biehn, who would eventually go on to portray the film’s futuristic, time traveling hero, was short listed for the robot as well. 

This led to a fateful meeting between Cameron and Arnold Schwazenegger, who at the time was a very familiar face in the media (he was a world revered body builder and had also made the jump into mainstream action films with CONAN THE BARBARIAN in 1982), but he had yet to be anointed as a famous and beloved 1980’s action star.  Considering the actor’s reliably wooden performances and his now world famous Austrian enunciation, it’s somewhat odd that Cameron initially thought that he would be best suited for the role of the hero in THE TERMINATOR.  Schwazenegger also found this perplexing, which no doubt led to him vying for the chance to play the villain (which, for Pete’s sake, certainly plays up to his strengths).  Realizing how invigorating and intimidating Ah-nuld would be as the title killer, Cameron relented and cast him as the robot and placed Biehn in the role of the protagonist.   

Filming did not occur swiftly, largely because of Schwazenegger’s commitment to making CONAN THE DESTROYER, a sequel to the first Conan film.  Because of the long delay that would be seen on the production schedule of THE TERMINATOR, Cameron decided that he would not have time to write and direct another film during the interim.  To make the best use of his time, Cameron would write scripts and his efforts would result in the screenplay for future blockbusters like RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II and ALIENS, the latter (also directed by Cameron) which is largely regarded as one of the best action thrillers of the 1980, not to mention one of the finest sequels ever made.   

Perhaps what’s so memorable about THE TERMINATOR is that it’s script is so finely tuned and structured: it is one of the leanest and meanest action scripts and it never feels like it wastes time on expositional scenes, which is astounding considering that there are, in fact, many scenes that involve explanations as to the particulars.  The film’s breakneck pacing and editing greatly assist in this regard, as does Cameron’s subtle use of flashback to illuminate key points in the plot.  The story itself is simple, sparse, but effectively told.  We have a very brief prologue that takes place in the decrepit, radiated ashes of what was Los Angeles, circa 2029, where it appears that machines and artificial intelligence have all but subjugated what has remained of humanity.  The war that has occurred between man and machine has waged for decades, with humanity close to extermination.  In order to deal what would be the final death blow, Skynet (the omnipotent hub of the evil and despotic machines) sends back its most fiendish robotic creation through a time vortex into the past -1984 to be exact - so that it can kill the mother of the future’s most influential and powerful human leader, John Connor.  The logic seems sound here: kill the mom, mom does not have baby Johnny, and  John does not go on to live in the future and be a constant thorn in the machine’s side.  Buuuuut...if the machines go back in time to kill the mother of the future resistance leader...then...the man would not exist in the future, hence, there would be no need for the machines to go back in time and...

...uh...more on paradoxes later. 

The machine set back, The Terminator (Schwazenegger), is one of the great creations of the sci-fi genre.  On the outside, he looks like a normal, human being with the physique of He-Man, but on the inside he has a metal combat endoskeleton that is virtually invincible.  Bullets, fire, explosions, multiple impallings…etc…are virtually no threat to this being.  Even more calculating and frightening is that its main program imperative is to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, very good in an early role), John’s mother, and this machine will stop at absolutely nothing to kill this woman.  Moreover, he is hardwired to never give up his mission…for as long as it’s still functional.   

Humanity, alas, has an ace up its sleeve.  Using the same time displacement device, John Connor sends a human soldier named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn, never more intense, ruthlessly aggressive and charismatic) back to 1984 on a mission to protect Sarah from the onslaught of the cyborg assassin.  The task of Kyle, alas, is not as easy at is seems: First, he has to locate Sarah before the cyborg does, convince her that he’s not a raving lunatic, all while escaping capture of the police and going through the culture shock of landing smack dab in the middle of a pre-nuked L.A. (this soldier deserves the highest commendation).  The Terminator itself has a few setbacks, especially when it decides to kill all of the Sarah Connors listed in the L.A. phone book…just to make sure (funny, but this has always been the least agreeable aspect of the film: wouldn’t the most sophisticated and savvy  A.I. in the history of the planet be able access detailed records of Sarah Connor and her 1984 appearance and whereabouts?). 

Sarah does finally meet up with Kyle, and it take very little coaxing on his part to convince her that the Terminator is, indeed, not a flesh and blood man.  Although she is understandably incredulous at first to the notion that Reese is from the future, the more details that are revealed to her, the more of a believer she becomes, especially when it’s finally unveiled that her unborn son will inevitably become the leader of a world-wide resistance against the machines decades into the future (talk about pressure for a single mom!).  The rest of the film plays off on a basic - but widely satisfying – cat ‘n mouse chase thriller against time, as the Terminator pulls out all the stops to find Sarah and eliminate her once and for all.   

If the film were to have a narrative flaw then it would certainly be in the arena of its own logic.  THE TERMINATOR – and its future films – have a foundation in time travel, which also regrettably precludes the notion of time paradoxes.  If Sarah is John’s mother and John sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect her and – S-P-O-I-L-E-R  W-A-R-N-I-N-G for those who have not see the film – eventually impregnate her with John…then...well...if he never sends Reese back, how could he have been born?  The only way future John is able to exist is to send back his father back in time to have sex with his mother in the past and…er…yikes…my head is spinning.  Another thing: why wouldn’t the machines go back further in time and kill Sarah’s mother’s mother….just to be absolutely sure?  Lastly, why bother going to the risky trouble of time travel at all?  Skynet in the future is intangibly powerful...why not just locate Connor and kill him in the future?  Yes, paradoxes are the name of the game with all time travel films, and despite the fact that THE TERMINATOR does create some respectable bewilderment in its own temporal conundrums, it thankfully never dwells on them to the point where it distracts us from the rest of the film. 

What is exceptional in the film is how much pulsating thrills it generates via Cameron's ingenuity with his bargain bin budget.  Much like its namesake title character, THE TERMINATOR is borderline relentless and unwavering in terms of its intensity and suspense (just look at one key scene in a disco nightclub which has the machine come face to face with Sarah: Cameron builds the scene to a crescendo in a manner that Hitchcock would approve of).  Cameron’s cocky bravado and risk taking demeanor can be felt at every pore of the film: Certainly, THE TERMINATOR is an example of a film where the inventiveness and stylistic flourishes of the man behind the camera make up for its other deficiencies.  With the film's cheap cost, Cameron got top dollar out of every action set piece, and he did this through some very judicious editing and fast paced cuts – but none that border on epilepsy-inducing overkill that later filmmakers like Michael Bay have made annoyingly predominant.  

What’s so refreshing about the film - especially upon a recent viewing - is how well crafted and orchestrated the visuals and set pieces are.  The film is a small scale treasure in the way it creates an ethereal intensity to its action scenes without scraping away a strong sense of what’s happening within them.  Watch the opening moments, for example, of QUANTUM OF SOLACE –with its hyperactive and eye punishing editorial style, which drains out our engagement of the action – and compare them with most of the action sequences of Cameron's film, which is clean, uncluttered, and unfussy.  More young filmmakers could take a page out of Cameron's playbook for how to construct and conceive high octane sequences with a straightforward, no-nonsense style.  I think this is why the film holds up so well under repeated viewers and why so many modern action thrillers get tiresome after the first.  Clarity in action is always better than a hyper-stylized approach.

Yes, the film exists to be experienced as a sci-fi thriller, but I think that many have overlooked how decent the individual performances are here.  Arnold, as stated, has never been more perfectly cast as a remorseless and emotionless killing machine: he speaks exceptionally little in the film (perhaps under a dozen or so lines), but he makes up for it, big time, in playing parts that throw caution to wind and fully utilize all of his physical assets (no matter how many forays the actor would later make into comedy, people still clamored for what he did best: blowing shit and people up with his biceps blazing).  Linda Hamilton is surprisingly solid as a twenty-something waitress without a care in the world that has to effectively modulate between being frightened, pensive, completely flabbergasted, and ultimately towards being an inwardly strong and resolute action hero on her own.  She is certainly the emotional glue that keeps the film within dramatic reach for audience members.  Michael Biehn also finds a nice humanity as a tough marine with a hint of vulnerability and melancholy.  He has great chemistry with Hamilton and their love story is neither ham-infested nor does it tacked on.  They plausibly feel like two wounded people that find a connection – albeit dangerously brief – in the face of an impossibly bad situation.  When Reese reveals to Sarah - in one of the film's quieter, more inflective and sincere moments - that he has never "been" with a woman in the future, THE TERMINATOR approaches a level of understated tenderness with its heroes that so many other films fail to muster.

THE TERMINATOR, contrary to popular belief, was not a runaway, TITANIC-sized blockbuster when Orion Pictures released it theatrically in 1984.  Because the studio saw the film as a small, niche market exploitation film, they never fiercely marketed it to the masses.  By the standards of smash hits of its time, THE TERMINATOR’s box office receipts were low, but in terms of return on investment, its near $40 million box office made it one of the best sci-fi gambles at the time.  It went on to finish number one at the box office for four straight weeks, a feat that just about no modern sci-fi action picture seems capable of achieving.  If anything, the legacy of the film as a cult classic emerged largely because of the then flourishing VHS video format, which made the film a must-see rental and consequently made Schwazenegger a meteoric, overnight sensation. 

It could be easily said that home video made Schwazenegger's career.  Certainly, the Austrian was a movie star before THE TERMINATOR, to a degree, but the ultimate success of Cameron’s film fully cemented his icon status as titular action legend.  Films like the PUMPING IRON and the first two CONAN films introduced us to his brand of muscle bound derring-do, but THE TERMINATOR made him a household name and box office titan.  His appearance in the film totally legitimatized his whole involvement and career in the movies.  Without him, like him or not, the whole landscape of populist, escapist action cinema would have been irrecoverably different in the 1980's.  Not only that, but the Terminator remains the only defining villain that he has played (sorry, but his teeth-grating work as Mr. Freeze in the abortive BATMAN AND ROBIN does not count). 

THE TERMINATOR, even with its low budget roots, is now revered as a landmark entertainment for the sci-fi genre.  Most certainly, its underlining story of A.I. and machines gone horribly amok in the future certainly has seen the light of day in so many other future sci-f films (like the MATRIX TRILOGY, the most recent example), but as an action film itself it has long been considered a quintessential work, one that seems so pure and unencumbered by the flash and spectacle and excessive high budgets that dominates too many modern genre films.  AFI recently voted the film 42nd on a list of their 100 most thrilling films and, even more notably, the United States’ National Film Registry selected the film last year for preservation as a work "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” which is not bad for a low-costing, cult sci-fi adventure flick.  Lastly, there is certainly no one doubting how ingrained into the cultural lexicon that the line  “I’ll be back” was and is after the film’s release.  Few actions films are lucky enough to be a part of the cinematic zeitgeist for so long. 

Perhaps THE TERMINATOR’s most long-standing legacy – 25 long years after its theatrical release – is that it unveiled a new filmmaking voice to the world that used his new found legitimacy as a director to forge into more creative waters.  Cameron’s post TERMINATOR track record is resoundingly solid (1986’s ALIENS, 1989’s THE ABYSS, and, yes, 1991’s TERMINATOR sequel, JUDGEMENT DAY).  The creative freedom the director received post TERMINATOR also allowed for him to slowly develop into one of the unsung watershed technical pioneers in the industry (Cameron’s ABYSS and T2 unequivocally revolutionized visual effects with their then unheard of use of CGI technology, which, for better or worse, changed the movies).  Now, after more than a ten year absence from making films, Cameron is set to return to his sci-fi roots with his hotly anticipated sci-fi/space fantasy AVATAR, which he has been ballyhooing as containing new fangled 3D visual effects technology that will be as transformative to the industry as the pioneering effects in STAR WARS were for the business decades ago.  

Yet, all of this is important to keep in hindsight, because Cameron was allowed to fundamentally alter the filmmaker’s magic box largely because of a relatively miniscule and inexpensive sci-fi film from 1984 that acted as a catalyst for his career.  THE TERMINATOR is an aggressively violent, robustly thrilling, and wholeheartedly entertaining film, but it certainly should be considered as an important work for its maker and for the industry as a whole.

 

CrAiGeR's other reviews from

Q U A D R I L O G Y:

 

TERMINATOR SALVATION  (2009)  jjj1/2

 

And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's  ranking of THE TERMINATOR Quadrilogy:

1. TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991) jjjj

2. THE TERMINATOR (1984) jjj1/2

3. TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009)  jjj1/2

4. TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003) jjj

 

 

 

 

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