“What day is it? The date! What year?”
October 26th, 1984.
I still remember my sister coming home raving about a movie she saw with her then-boyfriend in the fall of 1984. It was a new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and the next day she was telling me all about how truly good and scary it was.
Now, bear in mind that, at the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger was known primarily for “Conan the Barbarian” movies and bodybuilding; neither of which I gave a solid crap for then (or now), so seeing a new Arnold Schwarzenegger film wasn’t exactly a priority for me in those days.
Later, “The Terminator” came to home video (still a very new thing in those days), and my family bought it on ‘CED videodisc’ (the long obsolete needle-and-groove cousins to laserdiscs, which eventually gave way to DVDs and blu-rays). So we gathered around to watch this movie my older sister was raving about months before, and I was immediately hooked.
It reminded me of one of those primal pursuit nightmares, where you’re being chased by some unstoppable, indefinable thing, and your feet move as though they’re caught in a pool of super-glue. The movie was primal, gritty and terrifying; tap-dancing across several genres; science-fiction, horror, action and yes, even romance (granted, a very unconventional romance). “The Terminator” has a lot more going on than is readily apparent on first viewing. It’s no exaggeration to say that it is quite possibly the best action film of the 1980s.
This relatively low-budget flick was directed by a then-unknown named James Cameron (future ‘king of the world’), who cowrote the film with producer/wife Gale Ann Hurd (“ALIENS,” “The Walking Dead”), with additional dialogue by William Wisher.
The story is simplicity itself.
A “Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 Terminator” (Schwarzenegger) travels back in time from post-apocalypse 2029 into ‘present day’ Los Angeles (circa 1984) to kill a young woman named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) whose son ‘John Connor’ (J.C…Jesus Christ, get it?) will lead humanity in a massive revolt against the deadly machines who rule the future. The machines have wiped out most of world’s population in a nuclear armageddon started “a few years from now” by a sentient automated U.S. defense system called “Skynet.” A human soldier from John Connor’s resistance named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) is sent back in time as well, to stop the Terminator and protect Sarah.
Kyle finds Sarah in the nick of time, just as the Terminator is about to murder her in a bar. Kyle goes on the run with Sarah, eventually winning her trust, as they fight to survive the seemingly unstoppable homicidal machine. Sarah and Kyle fall in love over a life-changing few days together.
In a final deadly confrontation at a factory (the Cyberdyne factory itself, according to deleted scenes), the Terminator is destroyed in a hydraulic press by Sarah, who outlives Reese and finds a massive reservoir of strength in herself that she never knew existed.
Turns out… (****SPOILER ALERT****)…. Kyle is the father of John Connor, and his presence in 1984 is part of a predestination paradox. The movie ends with a pregnant Sarah, heading south to Mexico to ride out the storm of the coming nuclear war and raise her son to be the savior of the human race.
“I didn’t build the f–king thing!”
“The Terminator” is a deceptively simple film that actually packs a hell of a lot of world-building in its efficient running time of 108 minutes. Cameron and Hurd were both graduates of the Roger Corman ‘film school’ (along with Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Ron Howard). As a result, both were expert in guerilla filmmaking, meaning they learned how to get a hell of a lot of bang for very little buck. “Terminator” was made for roughly $6 million, which as Cameron jokes, was probably the cost of Schwarzenegger’s mobile trailer for the second film.
Uncompromising, textural, gritty night-for-night cinematography was accomplished by Adam Greenberg (who would return for the much higher-budgeted sequel). The film came very close to being shot in Toronto (according to the DVD bonus features), but Los Angeles provides a better alternative for Greenberg’s seedier look.
The flying robots (“hunter-killers”) and automated tanks of the 2029 future war sequences are achieved largely with in-camera miniatures courtesy of Gene Warren and his crew at Fantasy II film effects. That they still hold up on screen today, 34 years later, is a tribute to the work of Warren and his crew.
The late makeup genius Stan Winston (“ALIENS,” “Terminator 2”, “Jurassic Park” “Galaxy Quest”) not only did the fantastic partial-reveals of the Terminator’s skull from his bullet-scarred face, but he also constructed the full-size puppets of the endoskeleton that chase Sarah and Kyle through the factory in the film’s climax. The look of the Terminator endoskeleton is so perfectly iconic that it holds up even today with absolutely no need for updating. Few pieces of science fiction hardware can say that 34 years later.
“He made me memorize it.”
Despite the action/sci-fi premise, the acting in “The Terminator” is of a higher caliber than typical action movies of the decade.
Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor undergoes the greatest arc of the film; beginning the movie as a soft-spoken waitress/college student to resourceful, husky-voiced guerrilla fighter by film’s end. Her transformation from victim to hero is nicely gradual, and Hamilton is convincing in all modes. Her character truly blossoms in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991).
Michael Biehn plays Kyle Reese as wide-eyed and semi-feral, with a voice that reminds me of a young Clint Eastwood, with a bit more expressiveness. He can handle the action and acting chores with equal steadfastness. Biehn also has an authentic intensity about him. Not a wonder Cameron reused him in both “ALIENS” and “The Abyss” (another of Cameron’s best and most underrated films)
Arnold Schwarzenegger as the titular villain was simply born to play the role. His powerful-looking body of that time looks like a perfect synthesis of man and machine, even without the aid of FX makeup. Schwarzenegger’s unapologetically thick Austrian accent and minimal dialogue only enhances his feeling of ‘oddness’ as well. This was the movie that really made him a star, and understandably so. He would also never be this terrifying onscreen ever again.
The late Paul Winfield (“Sounder” “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”) plays Lt. Ed Traxler. He and Detective Hal Vukovich (Lance Henriksen) are a couple of gallows-humor cops who try to protect Sarah from both the terminator and Kyle Reese, whom they assume to be a delusional maniac.
Initially, Lance Henriksen was considered by director Cameron for the role of the Terminator. Such casting would’ve taken the movie in an equally intriguing direction. The Terminator was originally seen by Cameron as being an anonymous face in the crowd. In fact, Henriksen’s take on it was like a praying mantis; lying in wait, unnoticed, until it strikes. This approach of an average-looking assassin was later adopted in “Terminator 2” by Robert Patrick, whose liquid metal “T-1000” model Terminator was far less physically imposing than Schwarzenegger’s, though much more cunningly lethal.
Henriksen, whom I’d met earlier this year at Comic Con Revolution, is a very talented actor, and would eventually go on to play the android “Bishop” in Cameron’s “ALIENS” as well as star in the “X-Files” spinoff series, “Millennium.” I highly recommend Henriksen’s fascinating biography, “Not Bad For A Human” (as told to author Joseph Maddrey by Henriksen). It’s quite possibly the most fascinating actor biography I’ve ever read, because Henriksen’s life is so very far from a typical actor’s journey. His story would make an amazing movie in its own right, though I can’t imagine anyone else playing Henriksen. He’s as unique a character in real life as you’ll ever see in a film. Equal parts artist and rebel. I liked him right away, and he gave me the greatest compliment when he told me, “You and I are of the same tribe.”
Character actor Earl Boen plays the memorable cynical police psychiatrist Dr. Silberman, who conducts an interrogation of ‘delusional’ future soldier Kyle Reese. Silberman returns in “Terminator 2,” and later in “Terminator 3,” though his role is reduced to a little more than a walking punchline in the latter film.
Roger Corman stable actor Dick Miller (“Gremlins”) also has a memorable cameo as an ill-fated gun shop owner.
Ironically, former football star and future murder suspect O.J. Simpson was also considered for the role of the Terminator, but was considered ‘too unbelievable’ as a murderer (!).
There is also a brief but humorous moment early on with the late Bill Paxton (ALIENS) and a group of punk rockers that the terminator encounters when he arrives at Los Angeles’ famed Griffith Park sans clothing. Paxton gets two immortal lines: “Hey, this guy’s a couple cans short of a six pack” and, of course, “F–k YOU, asshole!”
Paxton’s second line would be repeated later on in the film by the imitative Terminator himself, who adds whatever he hears to his limited vocabulary. The line is used to shoo away a nosy janitor in a fleabag motel.
Paxton would also become a James Cameron favorite, with roles in “ALIENS” (as the famously panic-stricken scene-stealer, Private Hudson) and “Titanic” (as salvage ops pirate, Brock Lovett).
“Listen, and understand!”
The music by composer Brad Fiedel is a fascinating, mechanical-sounding mix of brutally repeating notes, which reinforces the diabolical nature of the unstoppable Terminator itself. The only reprieve is the gentle, piano-based love theme between Sarah and Kyle, which is the only time the music is allowed any kind of elegant phrasing. The love motif is used throughout the film with various instrumentation. Fiedel would be allowed an even greater range in the epic 1991 sequel “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”
“One possible future…”
There was some controversy over the movie’s similarities to an episode of “The Outer Limits” written by the late Harlan Ellison called “The Soldier,” but the version I saw on video already had an amended credit to reflect Ellison’s lawsuit against the studio. In fairness, there are superficial similarities. Allegations were also made that it copied Ellison’s “Demon With a Glass Hand” episode as well, but this is far less evident, in my opinion.
Both “Terminator” and “Soldier” begin in a post-apocalyptic future with laser beams criss-crossing the landscape (the opening scenes of both are startlingly similar, in fact). Ellison’s story also involves two soldiers (Michael Ansara‘s memorable “Qarlo,” and his “enemy”), who were bred for combat, and who continue their battle in our present. Both stories see present-day humans (Lloyd Nolan’s Dr. Kagan, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor) who reach out to the battle hardened warriors, and both end with the warrior seemingly sacrificing himself for those he’s connected with (Sarah, Dr. Kagan’s family). Both stories even have time travel preceded by flashes of bright light and lightning.
While those may seem like substantial and numerable similarities, they are still superficial.
The dissimilarities in “Terminator” differentiate it substantially from Ellison’s “Soldier”; enough to make Ellison’s suit seem almost meritless.
“The Terminator” is primarily a love story, “The Soldier” is most decidedly not. “Terminator” has a strong female lead, an artificial intelligence run rampant, a predestination paradox of the ending. Cameron’s movie is also recursive loop; a temporal paradox. In “Soldier”, time travel is merely a device to put Qarlo in our time with no greater meaning or consequence. Dr. Kagan and his family are only in momentary jeopardy from Quarlo’s ‘enemy.’ Sarah Connor will spend the rest of her life outrunning her cybernetic enemies from the future, with or without the aid of Kyle Reese.
Ellison’s suit reminds me of George Lucas‘ suit against Universal Studios over Glen Larson’s “Battlestar Galactica” in 1978 (that suit was eventually decided in Universal’s favor). If one thinks how many similarities there are in westerns, for example, the idea of suing over the concept of time-traveling soldiers seems a bit like trying to nail jello to a wall; the science fiction genre is full of shared ideas.
Cameron gave the infamously litigious Ellison a screen credit to buy his silence. It worked, and “The Terminator” continued unabated.
“The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire…”
After “The Terminator,” there were countless low-budget time-traveling soldier movies littering video store shelves (the “Cyborg” series, “Lady Terminator,” “Solo,” “Shadowchaser” and a slew of others). Neither Cameron nor Ellison bothered to stop any of these. Perhaps because there was little to gain, since most of these films were just harmless, zero-budget knockoffs. “The Terminator” inadvertently ushered in an entire cinematic sub-genre (action-cyberpunk), much as 1977’s “Star Wars” ushered in a new era of grandiose space opera movies.
The line between blatant ripoff and loving homage can be a blurry one.
“I’ll be back…”
…for the sequels.
There were also the many Terminator sequels, beginning with the epic “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” It would be an injustice to this film to shoehorn an analysis of it into this entry.
T2 is one of the best sequels ever made (right up there with “The Empire Strikes Back”, “Godfather 2” and “The Bride of Frankenstein”), and I promise to delve much deeper into it at some future point. T2 is a classic in its own right.
“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003) has its moments, as well as an uncompromisingly dark ending that I very much appreciated. The biggest downside to T3 is that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s returning Terminator officially crosses the line into Freddy Krueger territory with this film; going from the intimidating cyborg of the first two movies into a one-man punchline generating machine-turned-guidance counselor. Nick Stahl is the new John Connor, with Claire Danes is his love interest Kate (who essentially repeats Sarah Connor’s arc from the first film).
Kristanna Loken plays a shapeshifting T-X model Terminator who is more glamorous and somehow less frightening than Robert Patrick’s T-1000 of T2. And despite an overdose of funny bits throughout the film, the ending of T3 is no joke; it’s brutally nihilistic, almost like something out of early 1970s science fiction.
Less successful was “Terminator: Salvation” (2009), an inconsequential waste of time set in the year 2018 (hehe) that is more “Mad Max meets Transformers” than a Terminator movie, wasting the talents of “Avatar”‘s Sam Worthington, “Dark Knight” Christian Bale (John Connor, recast yet again) and “Jurassic World”‘s Bryce Dallas Howard (as Kate). It also manages to remake the once perpetually overcast nuclear winter of the previous Terminator movies into nothing more threatening than a hazy day in the Australian outback.
There was also the most recent entry, “Terminator Genisys” (2015) which is an ambitious mess. “Genisys” attempts a “Star Trek 2009”-style reboot of the franchise, but it fails largely due to poor casting (particularly Jai Courtney‘s unforgivably bland Kyle Reese) and incoherent storytelling. A younger Sarah Connor is played by “Game of Thrones” star Emilia Clarke. Skynet is now living software developed by an Apple-like company, and personified by former “Doctor Who” actor Matt Smith. Former savior of humanity John Connor (Jason Clarke) is now some kind of liquid-metal Terminator hybrid. Yes, Arnold is back, but he’s reduced to a walking sight gag as a gray-haired guardian Terminator lovingly referred to as “Pops.” Arnold recites dialogue that sounds more suited to Star Trek’s “Data.” The once formidable Terminator is now reduced to being the girlfriend’s grumpy, disapproving dad. Story-wise, TG is a heap of big-budgeted nonsense that exists in startling contrast to the franchise’s first two films.
Of the many sequels and spinoffs, the most faithful in spirit to the first two superior films was the wildly underrated Fox Network TV series, “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” (2008-2009), a short-lived but very intriguing series that further explored the life of Sarah (another “Game of Thrones” star in the role, this time it’s Lena Heady) and her son John (Thomas Dekker) on the run from Skynet, the artificial intelligence whose very creation they are trying to stop. They are aided by a reprogrammed Terminator (played against type by the waif-ish Summer Glau of “Firefly”), as well as Kyle Reese’s brother, Derek (“Beverly Hills 90210″‘s Brian Austin Green). This prematurely aborted series was, in my opinion, the best Terminator offering since the first two movies, and was criminally overlooked; perhaps due to the poisoned well water of the inferior theatrical sequels.
It’s also a hell of a shame it never got to conclude its brilliant 2009 cliffhanger…
“God, a person can go crazy thinking about all this…”
The first two Terminator movies were the only two of the series to get an “R” rating, and (in my opinion) they were also the most adult of the series; giving the post-apocalyptic themes of the series the appropriate gravitas that later entries chose to ignore in favor of mindless action and humor.
James Cameron credits the genesis of the story to a fever dream he had in Italy while shooting “Piranha 2” (a film that was ultimately taken away from him by the producers).
Cameron had a vision of a ruthless robotic killing machine rising from flames; a key moment captured perfectly in the film the moment after Sarah and Kyle blow up the terminator in a tanker truck. Cameron, ever the showman, falsely starts in with reassuring music once the truck explodes. We see Sarah and Kyle hugging in victory. I remember my sister telling me that, at her theatrical screening, people literally began to leave after the truck blew up, thinking, as Sarah says, “It’s over”…
…and that’s when we see the metal endoskeleton rise from behind our hugging heroes, amidst the fiery wreckage of the exploded tanker truck. It’s Cameron’s fever-nightmare reified.
The last chapter of the movie was just beginning as the now-skinless robot, dragging its inoperable leg, continues to chase our heroes through the abandoned factory in the final act. This sequence is almost metaphor for the Terminator franchise itself: each time we think it’s over, it rises from the fire like a phoenix (even if limping a bit awkwardly at times) to rage on in another installment.
Sequels in the Terminator series would have varying degrees of effectiveness with “Terminator 2” easily being the best of the lot, but none of them would ever again have the simplicity and stripped-down, adrenaline-fueled terror of that first film. “The Terminator” is that primal, universal, pursuit nightmare reified in flesh and steel.