The Terminator (1984)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield
Directed by: James Cameron
Unbelievably, before we watched this last week, my wife had never really seen The Terminator, or its sequel, in full. I think the same was true when I finally sat her down to watch Die Hard. Which shows me how much younger she is than me (which isn’t that much younger: 3 years), and that she led a wasted childhood.
Because it’s probably impossible to truly appreciate The Terminator if you’re seeing it for the first time in 2006, with Arnie as governor, James Cameron been lost beneath the sea years ago, and the character they created having become a fixture of our pop culture. Some of the impact is inevitably lost, but not all of it. She actually served as a decent barometer of the continued effectiveness of this film, because after 22 years and vast advances in special effects, the movie still managed to impress her.
I already knew it was a pretty good flick, but it still managed to impress me. What’s surprising is that the old effects don’t take you out of the film very often. The lasers of the future look crappy, and the fully robotic Terminator at the end of the film looks like something out of Clash of the Titans when it walks, but other than that, the film only betrays its age with the fashions and slang on display. A big part of this is that it didn’t have the budget to try the big effects of the day, with an estimated budget of $6.4 million. This was a B grade sci fi film in terms of budget, but was directed with such skill that it would go on to make a stamp on the entire industry.
The strength of the film, besides Cameron’s technical mastery of filming this kind of movie, is the story. Its a common theme in science fiction that was by no means invented here, the influence of technology and how our over-reliance on it will ultimately doom us. It’s been a fixture in sci fi literature, movies, and television for years, playing off our inherent fear of the unknown. It’s a theme with a lot of legs, and Cameron and fellow screen writer Gale Anne Hurd use it well, making a film that is as interesting as it is exciting.
In terms of excitement, which is the absolute most important element of a film like this, The Terminator delivers the goods. The movie is necessarily defined as science fiction because of its subject matter, but at its heart, its a horror flick without the gore. Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is an unthinking, unfeeling, seemingly unstoppable killing machine, hunting down a young girl and killing anything that gets in his way without remorse. If you didn’t know he was a cyborg, you’d have thought I just described Halloween‘s Michael Myers or Friday the 13th‘s Jason, or a score of other movie monsters. His pursuit of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is exciting, tense, and, at times, terrifying, giving us the famed police station scene, which is one of the best of the era.
In Sarah Connor, the film gives us an archetypical film heroine, in the mold of Ripley from Alien. She begins the film as a victim, running from the Terminator, confused and vulnerable, completely dependent on her protector Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). But, as the film approaches its climax, the previously powerless Sarah finds the strength to battle back and face her attacker. Its a convincing turn by Hamilton, who is solid throughout the movie. Most of the cast does well with their parts, which is good for them, since it’ll be the movie they’ll all be associated with for the rest of their lives, and will be the first line of their obituaries (well, except for Bill Paxton, who has a small role as “Punk Leader”). Poor Michael Biehn, I bet he thought this was the start of something big.
So while I don’t think you can completely appreciate what this film is able to accomplish if you’re seeing it for the first time today, given that most people will at least be familiar with the Schwarzenegger role, will have seen better special effects, and newer movies with the same ideas, it’s still an excellent movie that you should be able to appreciate. Also, it stands as the best use of Arnold in a movie ever, taking advantage of his stilted deliveries and freakish appearance by making him inhuman. It’s exciting, thought-provoking at times (especially in its use of time travel as a device), and, most importantly, a lot of fun.