Tim Burton James Cameron George Lucas *More coming soon!*
*Coming soon!*
*Coming soon!*
*Coming soon!*
*Coming soon!*

 

THE TERMINATOR (1984)


James Cameron wrote the screenplay for his second feature film, after coming up with the image of a robot emerging from flames while he was sick in Rome around the time he made Piranha Part Two. The alienation the director felt would work well with the time travel story, which would examine the key theme of the struggle between technology and humanity.

The cast again featured Lance Henriksen along with several other actors Cameron would work with again in later films. Linda Hamilton was cast as Sarah Connor, the seemingly average L.A. woman who is completely unaware of her destiny to give birth to the savior of humanity in the future. Playing her protector from the future, Kyle Reese, was Michael Biehn. And, as the seemingly unstoppable cyborg assigned to kill her, was the one and only Arnold Schwarzenegger, in perhaps the most perfect casting of his career.

Originally Schwarzenegger was supposed to play the hero, with the Terminator being more of a faceless guy in the crowd. However, both director and star realised Schwarzenegger's sheer physical presence would work much better for the villain.

Behind the scenes, the renowned effects wiz Stan Winston worked on the makeup and animatronic effects and the producer was Cameron’s wife for a time, Gale Anne Hurd. Both of them would frequently collaborate with Cameron on future films.

The film was produced for only $6 million (the last time Cameron would direct a film on such a small scale). No one expected much from it on its release, since the trailers and advertising could have made it seem to some as if it was just another brainless exploitation movie.

The film opens with a glimpse of LA in the year 2029 where a war is taking place between the machines and the last human survivors. As we see the haunting image of skulls being crushed under tanks, the text informs us that the final battle will not take place in the future, but in our own time, tonight.

The credits then begin, shifting across the screen as Brad Fiedel's metallic theme plays.

Next we’re in the present (or at least the present of 1984). Lightning flashes and a butt naked Arnie arrives.

He immediately meets a gang of punks (one of whom is played by Bill Paxton, who memorably refers to the nude stranger as "a couple of cans short of a six-pack") and demands their clothing.

The response is understandably less than enthusiastic. This leads the new arrival to shove his fist through one of the punk’s abdomens. It's a great way to introduce a character that takes a similarly brutal and direct approach with everyone he meets.

In the following scene we meet another traveler from the future who drops out of the sky, Kyle Reese.

Although he’s not as overtly violent as the other traveler, there is a slight craziness to him that suggests he could also be dangerous. Reese gets some trousers from a filthy bum (which he presumably has the pleasure of wearing for the rest of the movie) and narrowly evades the police.

He then searches the phone books for a Sarah Connor (one is reminded of the scene in The Jerk where a psycho picks Steve Martin’s character’s name randomly out of a phone book for slaying).

The Terminator visits a gun shop and asks the owner (played by Joe Dante favourite Dick Miller) for pretty much every weapon in stock. The owner suggests with a straight face that any one of them is ideal for home defence.

To avoid the pesky business of payment and waiting periods, the Terminator then blows the owner away.

The Terminator visits the first Sarah Connor in the phonebook, crushing a kid’s toy truck under his car when he arrives to show how evil he is. After asking her name, he coldly assassinates her with his laser-sighted pistol. It is now clear how much danger the other Sarah Connor is in. Luckily, her name is third in the phone book or the film would be a lot shorter.
Meanwhile, Reese also has a flashback (or flashforward?) to the frightening future world we witnessed at the beginning. It’s easy to feel his relief when he realises he's back in the mundane present.

The tension escalates as the final Sarah learns of the murder of two people who share her name. She calls the police who tell her to get somewhere public where she’ll be safe (ordinarily a sound idea).

The name of the club Sarah seeks refuge in, Tech Noir, has also
been used to refer to the genre that The Terminator
belongs to



Missed her, you stupid cyborg!

There's a nice moment of delayed suspense when the Terminator narrowly misses seeing Sarah because she drops her bag.

When he finally makes his move, the red dot of his gun sight falls on her head and the scene captures the terrifying notion of being pursued by a killer that not even a crowd of people can save you from.

At the last second Reese comes to the rescue and blows away the Terminator with his sawn-off shotgun.

In a normal movie this would be the end of the confrontation, but the Terminator soon gets up as if nothing has happened. Reese compels Sarah to flee with him by uttering the classic line, “Come with me if you want to live”.

The Terminator continues to pursue them (displaying his red "Terminator-vision" for the first time). During a brief respite in the chase, we learn that Sarah’s future son, John Connor, will rally the humans against the machines. Thus, the machine’s computer, Skynet, decided to send the Terminator back in time to destroy Connor before he was even born (a "retroactive abortion" as it will later be referred to by another character).
 
The film uses Holocaust imagery with the laser scan that Reese
has been branded with

Sarah is understandably dubious about this story, especially the notion that her stalker is a cyborg T-800 series model 101 (though his seeming invulnerability to bullets is a bit of a clue that he’s not human).

When his car slams into a wall, the Terminator, like other classic movie villains, has mysteriously disappeared by the time the police arrive (a rare act of cowardice that is later to be explained).

It’s interesting to see a “personal” moment for the Terminator, when he does some emergency repairs and we get a look at his inner workings.

Back at the police station, psychologist Dr. Silberman gives his professional opinion that Reese is crazy as a loon and then conveniently leaves before all hell breaks loose.
The major shootout that follows is one of the most exciting scenes in the films, with the Terminator mowing down cops like bowling pins as they futilely try and take him out with their own weapons. Luckily Reese escapes and gets Sarah out of there before the Terminator can find them. The film then pretty much ignores the massive police hunt that would occur after the massacre, aside from a mention on the radio.

We get another flashforward to the grim future where people watch the flames in long dead TVs and Reese has a treasured picture of Sarah burnt during an attack by another Terminator.

The film slows down a little after that, but the threat of the Terminator is ever present even as Reese and Sarah discuss their very different lives and, not surprisngly, fall in love.


An often-quoted dialogue moment is when the landlord interrupts
the Terminator in his room and the cyborg scans through a list of
responses before choosing the perfect line.

There's a romantic scene of Reese and Sarah making homemade explosives, which must be a first. The two of them even find time for a touching love scene.

Luckily, the couple finish before the Terminator tracks them down (he learnt their whereabouts by impersonating Sarah's mother - Reese neglected to mention this vocal mimicry ability).
After another chase Reese is wounded, forcing Sarah to be more proactive. The Terminator commandeers a truck, showing a rare display of mercy by telling the passenger to "get out" rather than just killing him. Thanks to Reese's homemade nitroglycerin, the Terminator and his truck are blown up, but of course it is not the end. The Terminator, now sans flesh, still pursues his target.

The Terminator chases them into a factory and Reese sacrifices himself by blowing it up. In a realistic touch (unlike most action movies where explosions just make people fly safely though the air), Reese is killed and Sarah gets shrapnel in her leg. But the Terminator, now missing its lower half, is still coming. It chases Sarah through a machine and she presses the button to crush it for a crowdpleasing finale.


All together now: “You’re terminated, fucker!”

The final scene has Sarah in the desert, heavily pregnant with a gun and dog for protection. It turns out that John Connor’s father is none other than the man he himself sent into the past, Kyle Reese.

A Mexican boy tells Sarah “there’s a storm coming in”. “I know,” she replies, as she drives off into the ominous future (well, a matte painting of the desert). It’s a great way to end a classic film.

The three main actors are all superb. Schwarzenegger has arguably never been better than as the remorseless Terminator, his physical presence and vocal delivery perfect for the robotic assassin. The actor's movements are very efficient and machinelike, with no energy wasted. He is nearly always one step ahead of the heroes, which makes him a very real threat.

His performance is even more impressive considering his dialogue in the film consists of less than sixty words. Indeed, even when a puppet replaces him for the final scenes, the power of his performance lingers. Perhaps to help him blend in with the puppet, Arnie's skin looks a little rubbery at times.

The character of the Terminator itself is an interesting study in social psychology. Though intended as the ultimate villain, many people could relate to his character and some even saw him as a hero. The fact that many people would love to blow away their boss after a bad day at work or take similar action when someone gets in their way is unsurprising, if a little scary.

Cameron summed up the appeal of the character thusly: “It's like the dark side of Superman, in a sense. I think it has a great cathartic value to people who wish they could just splinter open the door to their boss's office, walk in, break his desk in half, grab him by the throat and throw him out the window and get away with it. Everybody has that little demon that wants to be able to do whatever it wants, the bad kid that never gets punished.”

Michael Biehn is equally good as Kyle Reese. Although it’s obvious that he's the hero to anyone watching the film now, Biehn plays Reese with a nice ambiguity that suggest he could also have sinister intentions towards Sarah. He manages to make cheesy dialogue like, "I came across time for you, Sarah", just about work.

Originally in the script, Reese had a companion who was killed by getting a fire escape fused inside him (which contradicts the time bubble effect seen in the sequel) but it was wisely decided to have Reese alone from the beginning. The fact that Reese seems on the verge of death in his flashbacks is an obvious foreshadowing of his eventual fate.

Linda Hamilton was also a great find as Sarah Connor. She portrays a believable women in peril without being weak and annoying, and her transformation to a woman of action by the end is very satisfying, especially when she orders Reese, "On your feet, soldier!"

Lieutenant Traxler (Paul Winfield) and Detective Vukovich (Lance Henriksen) have a nice anti-banter going - they clearly don’t care much for each other.

The rather slimy Dr. Silberman is well played by Earl Boen (who, aside from Schwarzenegger would be the only actor to appear in all three Terminator movies). Cameron’s attention to fleshing out even the minor characters is one of the film’s strengths.

The dialogue is serious when it needs to be but isn't afraid to poke fun at the absurdity of the story, too. Ironically, the most memorable line in the film is also the simplest.

When Arnie enters the police station and utters the line, “I’ll be back”, few guessed it would become a catchphrase that would show up throughout the actor's other films.

Cameron does a remarkable job within the low budget confines. The action scenes are exciting, the actors well directed and the pace never flags. If you ignore Piranha Part Two (and most people do) it was one of the most assured directing debuts of the 1980's.

The L.A. locations (shooting took place almost entirely at night) lend the film a gritty realism that makes the fantastic story work even better.

The action scenes work very well for the most part. There are some parts where the low budget shows, such as during the sped-up car chases, but for the most part the action puts many big budget epics to shame. It helps that there's an emotional core behind all the action.

The editing is another of the film's strengths. It's lean and very mean, with hardly a wasted moment. There were some interesting deleted scenes from the film. Lieutenant Traxler's arc was cut down - originally he began to suspect Reese was telling the truth. There was also a subplot with Sarah investigating the possibility of defeating the Terminator by destroying the company that would create Skynet (a theme that would be very important for her character in the sequel).

An extra scene at the end would have revealed that the factory at the climax was Cyberdyne, the company that created the Terminators. Hence, it can be surmised that the remains of the Terminator helped them develop the machines that they were already destined to produce. However, this is deliberately vague in the theatrical version of the film and the subplot was left undeveloped until the release of the sequel.

The visual effects are impressive for the most part. The modest budget does show through in certain parts, especially with the fake-looking animatronic head that replaces Arnie at certain parts.

The final stop-motion model of the Terminator, while impressive for the time, has also dated badly (though it does emulate Schwarzenegger's limp quite well). The life-size version used for some shots is slightly more believable.

Brad Fiedel’s impressive theme music manages to suggest a mechanical menace with its clanking percussion. While some of it feels a little dated in a 1980's techno way, it does a good job of both emphasising the action and bringing out the emotion in the quieter scenes.

The film also deals with time travel in an interesting way, by having the attempts to alter history in the film result in simply creating the events as they were supposed to happen. By sending agents back in time to destroy each other, Skynet and John Connor end up creating their own existence.

Overall, the film remains a classic because of the quality of the script and the impressive performances, two areas that are usually lacking in cheaply made exploitation movies. Though some parts of it have dated, it's still remarkably watchable.

Unlike many modern sci-fi thrillers, it's the quiet moments that really stick in the memory, such as the brief but tender relationship between Reese and Sarah. Though there would later on be legal disputes over where Cameron got the idea for his film, The Terminator was at the time a strikingly original film. Cameron set out to make what he called the definitive robot film, and in many people's eyes he succeeded.

Another director, such as Terry Gilliam, might have played up the paranoid aspects of the story by keeping the audience guessing for longer whether Reese was really from the future or just crazy, but Cameron spells things out literally with the prologue and Reese's flashbacks. For that reason some may not consider the film a work of art, but Cameron proved with this one film that he had what it took to become a major sci-fi/action director.

The film was a surprise hit critically and commercially, grossing almost $40 million that fall in the U.S. Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison brought a lawsuit against the makers because of the alleged similarity between the film and scripts he had written for the TV series, The Outer Limits. However, this was settled out of court.

Like many cult '80’s movies, The Terminator would be an even bigger hit on home video. It proved Schwarzenegger could be a star outside of Conan films, and made the character of the Terminator an icon. He would later be voted the 22nd greatest screen villain by the AFI. To this day Schwarzenegger is most closely identified with this role, as seen by the media dubbing him the "Governator" when he went into politics.

The film also made Cameron one of the hottest new directors in Hollywood. Now he just had to find his next project.


PREVIOUS CHAPTER: THE EARLY YEARS

NEXT CHAPTER: ALIENS

   

 

 

Site Directory / Home / Contact the Webmaster
Original site concept by Arran McDermott. Design by Melanie McDermott, 2006.
All articles and text copyright Arran McDermott unless otherwise noted.
All images are the copyright of the studios that produced the movies and are kindly used without permission.