Friday, August 12, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Terminator (1984)

"This is burned in by laser scan. Some of us were kept alive... to work... loading bodies. The disposal units ran night and day. We were that close to going out forever. But there was one man who taught us to fight, to storm the wire of the camps, to smash those metal motherfuckers into junk. He turned it around. He brought us back from the brink. His name is Connor. John Connor. Your son, Sarah, your unborn son."

- Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) in The Terminator (1984)

Today for the Cameron Curriculum, we travel back in time to the distant year 1984, and to Jim Cameron's first smash-hit motion-picture, the science-fiction action thriller, The Terminator.  This intense, fast-moving film not only began Cameron's career in Hollywood in earnest, it vaulted star Arnold Schwarzenegger to super-stardom (following the Conan films) and even gave him a recurring catchphrase: "I'll be back."  

Speaking to the film's quality and longevity, The Terminator has spawned three movie sequels (in 1991, 2003, and 2009, respectively) and even a spin-off TV series: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.  Also, the Library of Congress added The Terminator in 2008 to its National Film Registry, marking the film as culturally, aesthetically, and historically significant.

An ugly incident in the film's history involves a threatened lawsuit from science fiction legend Harlan Ellison, who claimed that The Terminator ripped-off elements of Ellison's The Outer Limits episode "Soldier," the second season premiere that featured two future soldiers accidentally traveling to the present and battling one another.   The matter was settled out of court, and Ellison's name was added to the film's end credits, apparently over Cameron's urging to Orion to fight the matter. 

This matter acknowledged, there's simply no way to gaze at The Terminator  as anything other than the product of James Cameron's stellar visual and storytelling imagination.  Looking back across the decades, it's plain to see how his film fits in with the remainder of his oeuvre, and introduces his career-long obsessions with strong women, star-crossed lovers, fish-out-of-water protagonists, and the bugaboo of nuclear war.

Going back to the original Terminator in 2011 it's a little amazing just how well the film holds up.  In many senses, it holds up even better than its 1991 follow-up, the somewhat bloated Judgment Day. The action scenes here are still breathtaking, the love story remains affecting, and film features a relentless, driving sense of urgency.  Indeed, The Terminator never lets up, never stops, never looks back...much like its titular character. 

And yet, gazing beneath the surface, one can detect the unconventional but canny manner in which Cameron approaches the film, and how his directorial strategy buttresses the quality of the piece substantially.  For instance, there are relatively few conventional locales or settings featured in the film at all.  This is a movie that takes place in parking garages, in speeding vehicles, inside seedy motels, in sewers, and in smoke-filled police station waiting areas.  The film never truly settles down in any one place too long, and that fact actually contributes to the driving pulse of the piece.  You feel like the movie has been made on the fly, filmed in one brief sanctuary after another, as the protagonists' safety is constantly eclipsed and imperiled.

Secondly, The Terminator creates -- at times -- this weird, almost authentically dream-like vibe.  It arises from the conjunction of Brad Fiedel's effective synthetic score, and Cameron's frequent use of slow-motion photography to extend time and mine the latent tension in many sequences.  Time, of course, is the very crux of the film, and the way that Cameron stretches and bend time matters a great deal in the film's overall tapestry. 

Heroes Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor only share just "one night" together, as the film's dialogue reminds the audience, and yet they experience a "lifetime" of love.  This is not simply romantic hyperbole.  It's an accurate expression of how deeply the audience comes to sympathize with the heroes and their doomed relationship.  James Cameron's choice of techniques reminds us that it's not how much time we have that matters, but what we make with the time we're given.  His directorial flourish -- slow-motion photography, particularly -- is a perfect example of form highlighting or reflecting content.

As we've now come to expect from Cameron, The Terminator is a near-perfect fusion of big emotions, big concepts and stellar action-movie film making.  It's almost impossible to conceive of the picture as Cameron's first, since it is remains so accomplished on so many dramatic fronts.

Come with me if you want to live.

In the year 2029 A.D., the human survivors of a devastating nuclear war are on the verge of defeating their enemy, an artificial intelligence called SkyNet. 

In response, the intelligent machine sends a cyborg called a Terminator, a T-100 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), back in time to the year 1984 to kill waitress Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who will one day be the mother of the future resistance leader, General John Connor. 

The resistance responds to this initiative by sending back to 1984 someone to stop the killing machine, a foot soldier named Kyle Reese ( Michael Biehn).

In 1984, the Terminator uses the the phone book and begins to methodically kill all L.A. residents named Sarah Connor.  As the police (Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen) assemble the disturbing clues in the case and grow concerned they're dealing with a serial killer, an unwitting Sarah encounters the Terminator at a club called Tech Noir.

Kyle rescues Sarah and soon tells her the story of the future not yet written; of her unborn son, John, and her tutelage of him in the ways of war. 

But even as Kyle and Sarah fall in love, the Terminator continues his relentless drive to find them and murder Sarah.  After decimating an entire police station, the Terminator pursues an injured Kyle and Sarah on the road. 

The final battle to decide the future occurs in an automated factory, Cyberdyne Systems...

Look at it this way: in a hundred years, who's gonna care?

Perhaps the very best quality about The Terminator is that it eerily and effectively crafts two very distinctive and atmospheric worlds. 

The first such world is Los Angeles of 1984, and city life is dramatized here as  this weird twilight world of seemingly never-ending night.

The city boulevards are rain-soaked and wind-swept. Garbage blows continually through alleyways.  Strangers, hobos and other fringe dwellers seem to move back and forth, half-conscious, in the neon-lit streets, unnoticed and uncommented upon.  Here, in anonymity, a monster arrives; a technological boogeyman.  But because he is human in appearance, he is perfectly disguised, able to fit in easily with the human flotsam and jetsam.

As Cameron paints it, this world feels particularly fragile and unwelcoming.  The punk rock music (as heard in the club Tech Noir) is harsh and driving, and there's a feeling that the denizens of daytime such as Sarah Connor don't easily see or understand the denizens of the city's night.  This is important, of course, because a war is being waged secretly at night.  Two warriors - the T-100 and Kyle Reese -- slip into this world and, unnoticed, fight for the very future of mankind.  They pick off resources (clothing, weapons, groceries, etc.), and march forward on competing agendas.  The overall feeling is that no one in authority is watching.  Nobody cares.  These people and their urban world have been written off as unimportant, inconsequential.

Cameron artfully picks up on a true 1980s aesthetic here, showcasing the homeless, the hopeless, and the lost as part of his twilight world.  Other films in the 1980s, such as Vamp (1986),  and John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988) capture a similar  mood; the electric notion that another world co-exists with ours, and could intersect with our experience at any time.  It's half-seen and half-acknowledged, but it's there...

The second world that The Terminator creates with frightening acumen is Los Angeles of 2029.  It's a world in which human skulls appear to form the firmament of a new terrain, and the skies are forever gray and dark.  Many science fiction films visit post-apocalyptic futures, but The Terminator presents one of the grimmest and most effective visualizations of such a landscape.  The world of 2029 is a colossal junkyard that consists of ruins as far as the eye can see.  Where some films (such as The Road Warrior or the Planet of the Apes films) have opted for showcasing real deserts as the aftermath of a  nuclear war, The Terminator really goes for broke here, showcasing broken, desperate humans living in horrible, miserable conditions.   Man's world has been twisted and broken. 

One terrific shot in the post-apocalyptic scenes reveals two starving children huddling in front of a TV set.  Cameron switches views after a minute, and we see the yellow light emanating from the television is that of a candle, one set inside the broken screen.   The moment is picture perfect as gallows humor, and as heartbreaking glimpse of a tomorrow that must never be.

The feeling evoked  in the contrast between 1984 and 2029 s is that one world leads to the other world, as easily as the present flows into the future.   There's a feeling in the 1980s scenes that mankind has abdicated his sense of responsibility to the world and to civilization at large.  In one scene involving the police detectives, the question is asked "who is in charge here?"  The answer seems to be nobody.   Nobody is in charge.  Nobody is making a difference.  Man seems to have given up on his world and his fellow man.

Sarah's roommate, Ginger, for instance, tunes out of reality even while making love to her boyfriend, Matt.  And Sarah and others seem to constantly be speaking to answering machines or unfeeling telephone operators.  Punk-styled predators -- played by Bill Paxton and Brian Thompson -- stalk the night too, seizing on the world's very lack of order.  It's not difficult, given the shape of the world of 1984, to imagine a future in which man surrenders his very well-being to a machine.  Indeed, Tech Noir -- the Night of Technology - precedes the dawn of SkyNet.

As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), "the antidote to this techno-punk world is human love and connectedness."   And here, Cameron gives the audience star-crossed lovers Kyle and Sarah, two classic characters in film history. 

They not only love each other, they conceive a savior for human-kind out of that love.  Implicit in this scenario is a criticism of the world as it stands in the 1980s.  It's one where, to quote Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, there seems to be an abundance of lovemaking, but little real love.

Murder is as easy as flipping through a phone book (let your finger's do the walking...), the police are ineffective and insincere, and even medical science (as represented by Earl Boen's Dr. Silverman) is incapable of feeling empathy or providing help.

The seed Kyle brings back to Sarah, then, is one of love, compassion and self-sacrifice.  Kyle is a man of duty who understands how valuable human life is, and he brings that understanding to a purposeless Sarah and to her disaffected, empty world.  I mean, just think about Kyle for a moment.  He could have escaped from his apocalyptic world back to 1984 and made a very selfish decision.  He could have stolen some clothes, abandoned his mission, and had a pretty decent life (at least until 1997).  But Kyle didn't do that.  He cared about his peers and his purpose and stuck to his mission of saving a woman he had never met, and only fantasized about.   

In Terminator 2, Sarah tells Silverman that everyone blindly living life (before Judgment Day) is already dead; and that's also clearly the vibe of The Terminator.  The world seems to be running on fumes, as a culture of death (in terms of punk music and punk fashion...) spirals further and further away from not just inter-connectedness, but civility and decency itself.  Reese opens Sarah's eyes to the fact that "a storm is coming," and that the world in this half-awake, half-asleep state, cannot continue.  Sarah also opens up Kyle's eyes to love too.  She makes him see that he can't remain disconnected from pain or hurt, or that he'll be making the same mistake as the 1984-ers.

At several crucial junctures in The Terminator, Cameron utilizes slow-motion photography to enhance the power of his visuals.  In the first such case, the Terminator kicks open the door of a middle-aged woman named Sarah Connor (not our final girl, but another S.C....). He forces her way into the house, levels a gun at her head, and fires.  It's all vetted in  agonizing slow-motion, and so the nature of the intrusion and violation is heightened significantly.  The terror of the moment -- the seeming randomness of the crime -- is punctuated.  As the moment lingers, we reflect on the horror of it.  Of a stranger coming to our door, breaking it down, and leveling a gun at us.  Again, this is a very 1980s brand of fear: of random violence and crime run amok.

Later, Cameron uses slow-motion photography during the lead-up to the Tech Noir fight sequence, and this time, he deploys it to lengthen the audience's feelings of tension and suspense.  Sarah Connor has no one to protect her, no avenue of escape at all, and as The Terminator nears in slow-motion, his power and dominance -- and her vulnerability -- attain near-epic proportions.

Finally, Cameron uses slow motion photography at the culmination of Sarah and Kyle's love scene.  Intertwined, their hands open slowly, as if a flower blooming.  The idea here -- again -- is that time may be constant, but as humans we experience it as relative.  Here, the connection between Sarah and Kyle is significant and meaningful, and the "blossoming" image of their hands suggests that their love has, well, literally borne fruit.  Their love-making is also like a stolen moment during an un-ending nightmare that "will never be over." 

Again and again, we've seen in the Cameron Curriculum how James Cameron is able to connect powerfully -- nay viscerally -- with audience emotions, and foster feelings of immediacy and immersion.   In The Terminator, one of his neatest conceits involves this manipulation of time's passage in the edit.  And yes, it's a highly appropriate selection given the film's theme about time travel.  Cameron's approach reminds us that time feels different at different times, and that ultimately the secret of time is to make something positive out of it.

Over and over again in the film, Cameron reveals great ingenuity in how he deals with the concept of the future.  For example, Sarah's waitress friend notes that in a hundred years, no one will care about what's she doing in 1984, but that is not technically true.  The people of 2029 no doubt wish that the denizens of that earlier age had made different choices, especially regarding the invention and implementation of SkyNet.  And personally, of course, Sarah Connor's name will no doubt be long known -- even in 2084 -- if human beings manage to defeat the smart machines.  

Also, the film is downright poetic in the way it deals with Sarah Connor's photograph, and Kyle's possession/loss of it.  Interestingly, we see the photo burn in the film before we even see it developed.  But we are asked by Reese to wonder what Sarah is thinking about when the picture is snapped.  By the last reel, we know precisely: she's thinking of him, of Kyle.   Thus Kyle fell in love with a photograph of a woman who, before he was ever born, was already in love with him.  Mind-boggling stuff.

Other aspects of the film are equally stirring, and admirable.  For instance, the disintegration of the Terminator's human appearance is splendidly vetted.  His eyebrows are singed off first.  Then he loses an eye. Next he injures his fore-arm (and must repair it with a razor knife...).  As the movie progresses, the Terminator appears less and less human, until finally -- during the climax -- he is revealed as the soulless automaton that he is, no longer able to pass in human society as one of us.  The methodical disintegration of the Terminator's appearance, however, barely seems to go noticed by society at large, and again a point is made about people only seeing what they want to see; of avoiding the confrontation with something different or unpalatable.

In terms of the Cameron Curriculum, we certainly have a fish-out-of-water element in The Terminator.  Here, the obvious fishes-out-of-water are Kyle and the Terminator, who have traveled back in time forty-five years to a totally new world.  But a closer reading of the film suggests that it is Sarah who may be the out-of-her-element character.  Although 1984 is her time and Los Angeles is her world, she is swept up into the conflict between future man and SkyNet, and forced to countenance all kinds of things she can't even imagine, including her own destiny and purpose.  In this case, the Terminator and Kyle are the characters with the useful information, and Sarah spends the film playing catch-up, at least until she comes into her own in the film's finale.

Sarah Connor is also James Cameron's first great female character.  She starts out living a largely unexamined life, and yet by the end of the film can clearly "see" a future that others can't.  She survives the attack on her life and becomes the person she was destined to be.  Although Sarah protests along the way of her development -- noting that she can't even balance her checkbook -- she soon becomes literally the mother of humanity's future.  The factor that makes Sarah change so radically is  one man, Kyle, and that's one of the key points we've seen here on the Cameron Curriculum. Essentially -- to use a Titanic metaphor -- Kyle plays "Jack" to Sarah's "Rose," waking up Connor from her complacency and infusing her life with a sense of purpose.

The shadow of nuclear Armageddon hovers over The Terminator, and that too is a common aspect of Cameron's canon.  Nuclear weapons play a critical role in every one of his films save for Titanic (1997).  Here, Cameron focuses on the madness of putting life-and-death nuclear decisions in the hands of "the machine," and that theme would become even more pronounced in the sequel.   But again, the context of this film must be named.  In the early 1980s, President Reagan frequently joked about nuclear war.  On an open mike he once declared that "bombing begins in five minutes," and in a 1984 debate with candidate Walter Mondale he inaccurately reported that nuclear missiles could be recalled from submarines after their launch.  The "apocalypse mentality" of the 1980s was thus a powerful force in American cinema mid-decade, and one can see it here, very prominently, in The Terminator.

I've also often likened The Terminator to a technological version of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) because both films involve an unstoppable, relentless monster pursuing a young woman, and that woman's ultimate turnaround to fight back.  Michael Myers is "The Shape" and not quite human, and Arnie's The Terminator is a technological monster.  But these boogeymen certainly share traits in common.  They both come and go as they please; they both often hide in plain sight; and their thought processes are quite opaque to audiences.  They both kill and pursue victims, but we don't really know what they're thinking or why they're thinking it.   Like Michael, the Terminator -- who also survives being beaten, bruised and flame-broiled -- is truly a classic movie villain because of his relentless nature. 

In the sequels, Arnold would play the machine as a hero, but there's something potent, callous and devious about his portrayal of this Terminator, this first time out.  Underlying the cold, mechanical nature of the thing, there's some sense of an identity, of an enjoyment of his vile actions.  This Terminator thrives on the hunt, it seems, and isn't entirely immune to concepts such as irony or humor.  His selection of rejoinder to a nosy landlord in a sleazy motel is a perfect example.  "Fuck you, asshole."  Why select that particular option (from a table of options)?  It has something to do, I would argue, with the machine's personality.

The Terminator is an incredibly effective thrill machine, but the reason the film is remembered today (and will be remembered well into the future) is because James Cameron has surrounded his meticulous action scenes with "living human tissue," namely an affecting love story and meditation on time itself.  This skin on the story's mechanical bones makes the film resonate on a deeper level, and point explicitly towards Cameron's future approach in film making.

 It's "something about the field generated by a living organism"...and it's called heart.

Next week: the Cameron Curriculum concludes with Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).


  1. Fascinating review, John. I like the metaphor of Kyle as Jack to Sarah as Rose, that's brilliant.

    I'll argue briefly that the Titanic iceberg could be considered as a metaphor for nuclear warfare, because it destroyed a microcosm of society, destroyed a technological wonder in but a few short hours. In colloquial speech, the berg nuked the Titanic and the partiers had to chill out, literally. But that's a bad pun.

    Sarah can't balance her checkbook. That's a metaphor for can't get her life right. Not until Kyle changes her life and the Terminator attempted to end hers.

    Rose can't get her life right (and maybe can't balance a checkbook either), until Jack changes her life and the iceberg attempted to end hers.

    Ellen can't seem to balance a checkbook or get her life right. Her life is so skewed, she has to abandon her daughter and go off on a dangerous mission in deep space as a prospector for resources. Fighting the threat of the Alien gives her a life. But later, after she is revived and her daughter is gone, her life is skewed again until The Company manipulates her into fighting Xenomorphs and protecting Newt. It's a vicious cycle that keeps on trapping Ripley...

    In Avatar, Jake can't balance his checkbook to have the operation he needs without going off on another deep space mission, and without the use of his legs, his life is all skewed, too. But what happens to him an Pandora, what Neytiri does for him, sets him right, too.

    Of course, that theme is a classic one, and undoubtedly Joseph Campbell would recognize the mythic structure. Taylor can balance a checkbook, but his life is completely out of whack, so he willingly enlists on the Liberty-1 mission; by having his life threatened by the ape society, his life is righted and he finds love (even if she is an animal; one wonders if that is a form of bestiality, considering how much humans have devolved), setting his life right. Before he finds Lady Liberty in the sand, he truly seems happy, for the first time in his life, I imagine.

    One wonders that, even if Trudy isn't the love interest for Jake, does she fulfill the same role for him that Kyle does for Sarah, acting as a protector from the Sky People/Skynet?

    And it is interesting to see the Pandorans plugged into their society organically, naturally, not technologically like in the world of The Terminator or The Matrix. The Pandorans do have their checkbooks balanced; their lives are in balance UNTIL the Sky People show up. Avatar is a perfect mirror for The Terminator on its 25th anniversary, isn't it? Having just watched Avatar, I can say that. More to come about that film soon.

    Gordon Long

  2. As a red blooded male who wishes he lived in the future, I would definitely travel through time for Linda Hamilton. She is so good in this film. This is probably my favorite of Cameron's sci-fi films. Just curious, John, what did you think of Terminator:Salvation? Thanks for the review.

  3. Part I

    The Terminator is pretty damn good. It’s probably James Cameron’s best film. I know I praised as much with True Lies, but here, I think, is a film that works so cleanly and direct, without dividing eccentricities or messy interpretive confusions. Anyone can watch The Terminator and at the very least fall into its basic yet powerful narrative grip. It is a transfixing 107 minute thriller with prime ingredients and zero fat: a guy and a girl run, a killer cyborg follows. This is a movie that doesn’t fuck around.

    It’s also a great product of timing; that, or Cameron was smartly advantages of the times and temperates. Probably a little bit of both. The Reagan era, the Cold War’s third act, continuing nuclear nightmares, rising computer technologies, punk anarchy--all of it blanketed with a kind of surreal myopia. Indeed, Nobody Cares. I also think Los Angeles was the perfect setting, set afar as the continental edge of civilization so to speak that in turn has never felt like a place rooted in the safer order of things. Westward expansion on certain levels paralleling time itself, L.A. has always been that last place beyond the desert, before the sea – sprawled out, hazy, isolated from the rest of history as a kind of precipice overlooking the void. The last stop before the end. This is where John Connor would be born, or prevented, the fate of humankind decided. And yet, as you’ve observed, it bares not some epic battlefield but is, instead, a string of low-scaled, seemingly inconsequential locations such as back-alleys and underground parking lots, motels, nightclubs and desolate midnight freeways. In addition to Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and They Live, I’d also like to include the cheeky Night of the Comet and a personal favorite film of mine, Repo Man. Indeed, there was an ’80s pop-sentiment that Los Angeles would (or should) either be the front row to some inevitable apocalypse or the cacophony that preludes it. The latter fits best with these aforementioned films, especially The Terminator where fringe happenings amidst L.A.’s tenderloins give way to the oncoming storm.

    I once watched this film with my (a) girlfriend and, concerning Kyle Reese, she described him as being extremely hot and sexy. At the time I remember thinking, “fair enough,” in that Michael Biehn was a reasonably good looking dude and because chicks always go for the bad boys (at least in their fantasies), but she further explained the reasons had to do with how emotionally vulnerable the character was, how he was almost painfully in love with Sarah and that he had literally traveled across time to be with her* That was when I realized what a tragically romantic hero Cameron had penned, but within an updated, even postmodern, sci-fi context. I like the way the character is introduced in an undignified manner, under great physical pain, naked and in a fetal position – a mere scrap of all that is left of future humanity who then must become Sarah’s lone knightly protector. Biehn certainly gives an effective gut performance as a guy whose every act, both violent and intimate, is one of desperation.

  4. Part II

    However... this is Arnold’s movie. It really is.

    It’s interesting to consider just how radically different this film would have been had Cameron followed through with his original choice to cast Lance Henriksen in the starring role, if it would’ve been a starring role at all. The concept illustration shown here... something closer to Romero’s living dead; fiendish, but also a cypher of sorts, as proposed by Cameron himself, that would blend in with crowds. It’s easy enough to imagine a more menacing Bishop lurking in the shadows like some psycho or street addict; I reckon Henriksen compensated both with Aliens and as the degenerate vampire in Near Dark. But not here, no. This movie is all Schwarzenegger, and his casting marked a shift in antagonist nature that was nothing short of seismic. Arnold’s Terminator does not lurk, he does not blend in. Reese describes the T-800 as an infiltration unit, but Arnold doesn’t do much infiltrating. Instead, he adopts the shortest distance between two points: putting his fist through a car window, tossing aside a payphone user (“Hey, man, you got a serious attitude problem!”) or wiping out an entire police station wholesale.

    Honestly, I can’t help but wonder if Cameron was perhaps playing devil’s advocate with this aspect of the film. There’s something disturbingly cathartic about watching the Terminator terminate, tapping into a certain antiauthoritarian mentality in response to today’s civilized norms but further baiting, dare I say, homicidal urges hardwired within the deepest recesses of our id. We live in a world of consequences, the Terminator does not – he rampages through it, dressed in punked-out surplus gear then later as a night biker with a singed hair. Who doesn’t want to be this guy? least for a day. Add to this the slightest touch of black humor in the way Cameron and Arnold together round out the character; “You can’t do that,” says the gun store owner when he sees the Terminator loading shotgun shells, to which the Terminator responds, “Wrong,” before blowing the guy away. But was it even necessary for him to say anything at all? Maybe not but that in itself might be the Terminator’s idea of making a joke, likewise when later understating the obvious: “I’ll be back.” And you gotta love the way the character enters a sunny suburb setting as a car tire crushing a little kid’s toy truck.

    James Cameron’s direction was rather bare bones. Granted, this was a markedly low-or-limited budget endeavor, so the money and time to indulged from the director’s chair was likely not available. Still, the utilitarian style further accentuates the film’s content. Instead of the anamorphic lens that frames its sequel with an epic scale, The Terminator’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio achieves a more graphic quality, as in a flattened, graphic paneled visual design and shot-flow that, not unlike Verhoeven’s RoboCop and Total Recall, ties in with the more adult, hard-edged cyberpunk comics and the cable network era of shows like Max Headroom that were both popular around the same time. This greatly adds to the film’s gritty, urban-tech feel, and it also allowed Cameron to better square some truly incredible imagery. Hands down, the best scene in this film comes just after the gas tanker explodes when Kyle and Sarah embrace out of exhaustion; behind them in one awesome shot (via the lost art of rear projection) the endoskeleton Terminator rises from the flaming wreckage – it was Cameron utilizing every Corman-learned trick in the book to translate his own nightmarish vision to big screen. And the translation was damn near perfect. Watching this film as a kid, that scene burned a hole right through my brain. I was zeroed in, terrified, ecstatic. I would draw pictures of that shit on my binder during math class. Movies are cool.

    * = I also got laid that night. Thanks, Terminator!

  5. Hey JKM,

    Like yourself, I prefer THE TERMINATOR over T2 and the other sequels as this first film as a lean, mean quality to it that is incredible. The action sequences are incredibly choreographed - tense, kinetic and gritty - something that was missing from the slick sheen and polish of the T2 action.

    Plus, Michael Biehn brings an exciting edgy quality to his role that is fascinating to watch. I know my wife really digs him in this film (and also TOMBSTONE) for many of the reasons Cannon stated above. He and Linda Hamilton have fantastic chemistry together and I like how Cameron takes the time (incredible considering how fast-paced this film is) to develop their relationship so that you care about what happens to them and you want them to succeed and the Terminator to be destroyed.

    Cameron's visions of an apocalyptic future still haunt me to this day and are incredibly evocative on what I'm sure was a modest budget but man, does he get the most of it.

    Another fantastic essay, sir!

  6. Excellent look at this break-through Cameron film, John. A couple of things I noted in this re-screening. Because of the order of the films in the curriculum, its minuscule budget is readily apparent. It's almost a shock to watch after what we've seen to this point. The film has a smallness and closeness because of its scale (and dollar constraints). Due to this, it's the most intimate of his films because it can't afford not to be. Its special effects are almost quaint in comparison to his latter films. And second, its pittance of a movie allowance matters not a damn bit. It's a wonderful, lean & mean (as J.D. mentioned) vehicle that hits on all cylinders (even if there's only 4 of them). It showed you what the filmmaker could do with a lowly Pinto!

    It also has a marvelous cast, too, performing top notch work. With all the wonderful points commenter Cannon has made throughout this series, I have to respectfully disagree with the position this is "Arnold's movie." I'd contend, as well, this only put the former Mr. Universe back on track to super-stardom. He'd really reach that plateau once the mid-80s hits landed with COMMANDO in '85 and PREDATOR in '87. But, he could have again derailed it to a so-so career with more things like RED SONJA (which also followed THE TERMINATOR). So I argue this is Cameron's baby all the way through. It works because Sarah (Linda Hamilton) and Kyle (Michael Biehn) work so damn well together and balance out Arnold's heavy presence as the infiltrator cyborg. All three character have to contribute, and do so mightily, for this small film to be as great as it is.

    Lastly, I'd argue that if one of those three main cast members doesn't work or connect with the audience, or if JC's tale doesn't go it in the direction it he puts, this turns out to be only minor movie in his career. And if that happens, perhaps he doesn't get named to helm ALIENS. And who knows if he gets the financing or the cast for something like THE ABYSS down the line. PIRANHA PART 2 got Cameron noticed, but I submit it was THE TERMINATOR that truly made him. Everything keys off of it.

    I'm very much looking forward to T2, JKM. But, I'll be sad to see the Cameron Curriculum end. As always, thanks very much.

    p.s., I'd also mention that JC's car chase segments in downtown L.A. here were striking and well done. Enough so that it reminded me of Walter Hill's THE DRIVER and its scenes in the same local from '78.

  7. Hi everybody,

    Great comments here on James Cameron's inaugural film, The Terminator.

    PDXWiz: I love your description of the iceberg as, basically, the nuclear bomb metaphor of Titanic. That's just perfect. It really tracks pretty well, actually, and enables us to see how Titanic fits with the other films. Very clever, I think, and extremely imaginative. I like it! I can't wait to read your thoughts on Avatar, now that you've seen it.

    jdigriz: I couldn't agree with you more about Linda Hamilton. She's so beautiful and so great in Terminator. I also loved her in Beauty and the Beast back in the day.

    more to come...


  8. Cannon: Your comments never disappoint! I like how you parse The Terminator in terms of its clarity. I think you're dead-on about that. The film is direct and efficient, a lean, mean, excitement machine. You wrote "zero fat," in regards to the film, and that's a pithy and perfect turn-of-phrase.

    Like you, I have often wondered about how the film would have been different with Lance Henriksen as The Terminator. He's such a great actor that he would have brought intensity and power to the role, but it would certainly be a different kind of intensity and power than Arnold brings. Arnold is more playful, I think, whereas Lance Henriksen really becomes "the guy" he's playing, down to every nuance and reaction. Two different approaches, but two great actors, certainly.

    I'm also glad you made some mention of Michael Biehn, a really underrated actor too. In a short span, he was in Terminator, Aliens, The Seventh Sign and The Abyss. All of which were pretty big pictures. And in every case, he was really terrific; really memorable. I often wonder why he didn't make the transition into the 1990s more successfully. As a kid watching Terminator, he was the guy I wanted to be. (Actually, that would be true of Hicks in Aliens too.) And I loved your story about getting laid after watching the film. Hah! That's awesome!

    more to come...

  9. Hi J.D.

    I love your comment on Terminator, and am glad to see more of the love for Michael Biehn. I forgot about him in Tombstone in my comment above to Cannon, but there's another great performance (and one in the 1990s to boot, if I recall correctly). He does have incredible chemistry with Linda Hamilton here. Wow. They light up the screen together, and you really get a sense of a powerful love affair between Kyle and Sarah.

    I agree with you about Terminator 2. It's a very good film, but it lacks the straight-forward, "lean and mean" approach that you discuss. It's played more for laughs and sentimentality, and the action scenes -- while spectacular -- somehow don't feel as involving. What makes T2 so good, in a nutshell, is Robert Patrick. My goodness, that man SELLS that character, and the threat of the film. I mean, he's of much slighter build than Arnold, but damned if he doesn't come across as a major threat.

    More to come...

  10. Hi Le0pard13:

    Michael, I hope you had a super happy birthday, my friend. I'm glad you were able to get to the theaters to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

    I love the first two points in your comment. One, that this is a relatively small, low-budget film. And two -- it matters not a whit. You said it very eloquently and your point is well-taken. The action is driving and forceful, but the feel of it is intimate. It's two attractive people on the run from the most relentless monster since Michael Myers. On those grounds, it is unimpeachable. But then, of course, there's the post-apocalyptic angle too, and the time travel conceits. It's really quite the achievement for Cameron, as well as Arnold, Hamilton and Biehn.

    I also enjoyed your rhetorical time travel dilemma played out here. What if one of these cast members hadn't been in the film? Would it have succeeded? Would we have Aliens, Titanic and Avatar to discuss today if Terminator hadn't hit on all cylinders (as you write.) We can't know for certain, but I think it's a good guess that the timeline would have turned out very differently.

    Thank you for a wonderful and thoughtful comment.

  11. @ J.D. I got to disagree with you a bit about the action sequences of T1 and T2. I think the T2 action sequences are some of the greatest in the history of film. Their 'polish' just has to do with budget but that budget was put to good use: real trucks going in canals, real helicopters going under bridges, real stuntmen falling out of helicopters, real buildings blowing up.

    Yes, the same could be said of T1 as well (all real stuff) and there is certainly a sense of accomplishment to the low-budget nature of the production but T2 should never be criticized because it was lucky enough to have a bigger budget. The canal chase is still one of the greatest pieces of action cinema ever released.

    However, in theory, I agree with you. I prefer the nitty gritty, like the chases in Lethal Weapon 2 and Lethal Weapon 4, that seem to involve more imagination then budget. But got to defend T2!

    @JKM Great job as usual. Would have loved to see Lance as the Terminator, just for the hell of it.

    And where oh where is Michael Biehn these days!!!! What a great emotional actor (not a very deep actor but can emote with the best of them).

    His deleted scene in T2 really helps make connect the universes together a bit better. While I defend the action sequences of T2, the disparate natures of the settings, etc creates a small divorce of story between one and two.

  12. @ Will: you aren't the only one that will defend T2, my friend. But, I'll wait to comment on it on John's closing curriculum review ;-).

    Great to see and hear you join in on this, Will. Thanks.