A film review by Craig J. Koban
THE TERMINATOR: ½
25th Anniversary Retrospective
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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...
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
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?).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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) 1/2
And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of THE TERMINATOR Quadrilogy:
1. TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991)
2. THE TERMINATOR (1984) 1/2
3. TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009) 1/2
4. TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003)