THE THING THAT WON’T DIE, IN THE NIGHTMARE THAT WON’T END.
James Cameron has fought hard for The Terminator. He claims that the idea for the film came to him in a dream, but few question the fact that certain key ingredients were inspired by Harlan Ellison’s writings for the TV series The Outer Limits. Ellison sued Cameron and the case was settled out of court. The film’s credits came to acknowledge Ellison’s influence, but the director still prefers not to talk about him. After all, Cameron’s concept is what built his career.
The film is Cameron’s second after debuting with the abysmal second Piranha flick in 1981. This time, after beginning a fruitful collaboration with producer Gale Anne Hurd, he had control of the project. The first shot shows a tank rolling over and crushing human skulls sometime in the future; laser beams shoot out from monstrous machines that are looking for human soldiers to kill. It’s the worst war in Earth’s history and from this point in time the machines send a cyborg back to 1984. Its mission: To find and kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the future mother of John Connor, leader of the human resistance. The cyborg, the T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), looks like a (very buff) human, inexplicably has a thick Austrian accent and kills anyone who comes in his way.
What he doesn’t know is that John Connor’s people have also managed to send a warrior back in time, a man called Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), whose mission it is to keep Sarah from getting killed by the T-101. Kyle locates Sarah at Tech Noir, a disco, and that also becomes the place where the two time travelers first clash.
Limited acting abilities no obstacle
It was the first time that director Cameron explored his constant theme of dependence on machines. They can control us if we don’t watch it, but they’re also the key to salvation in moments of crisis. The Terminator is such a tightly directed thrillride that there is no time for any lulls. It starts and then won’t stop until the end credits begin to roll, much like the grim and utterly focused cyborg. Cameron worked on a small budget, but the film doesn’t look cheap. The visual effects near the end, when the cyborg has been skinned to the bone, so to speak, is a stop-motion extravaganza that will have you on the edge of your seat. It may look creaky to a modern audience, but the jerky moves of that technology actually add to the frightening impact the T-101 makes on us.
That’s not to say that he isn’t scary in human disguise. Schwarzenegger may have played Conan the barbarian in two movies, but this part truly elevated the former bodybuilder to stardom. His limited acting abilities are no obstacle; what’s needed of him is to look as imposing, rigid and cold as possible and he does it with aplomb. Hamilton and Biehn are reasonably engaging, but they’re simply there to be hunted and pose a few obstacles to the star of the film. Hamilton does however get a cool moment near the end of the film that is not unlike the one Roy Scheider has in Jaws (“smile, you son-of-a-bitch”).
Stan Winston’s makeup effects get great exposure in a few sequences where the T-101 operates on itself; Brad Fiedel’s electronic score is another good ingredient that is pretty simple but hugely effective, as the metallic, pounding music adds to the relentless feeling.
It’s a dark and violent film that ends with a ray of light even though we know that a horrible war is waiting in the future. Its main achievement is clearly having turned the guy who directed a worthless horror sequel into the filmmaker who created an enduring science fiction classic.
The Terminator 1984-U.S. 108 min. Color. Produced by Gale Anne Hurd. Directed by James Cameron. Screenplay: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd. Music: Brad Fiedel. Makeup: Stan Winston. Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger (T-101), Michael Biehn (Kyle Reese), Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor), Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, Rick Rossovich… Bill Paxton.
Trivia: O.J. Simpson was allegedly considered for the part of the T-101, but was ironically enough not deemed credible as a killer; Henriksen was the original choice to play the part. Followed by four sequels, starting with Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and a TV series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009). The franchise was rebooted as Terminator Genisys (2015).
Quote: “Listen. And understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” (Biehn to Hamilton)
Last word: “Casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as our Terminator […] shouldn’t have worked. The guy is supposed to be an infiltration unit, and there’s no way you wouldn’t spot a Terminator in a crowd instantly if they all looked like Arnold. It made no sense whatsoever. But the beauty of movies is that they don’t have to be logical. They just have to have plausibility. If there’s a visceral, cinematic thing happening that the audience likes, they don’t care if it goes against what’s likely.” (Cameron, Wired)