Friday, December 20, 2013

The Films of 1984: The Terminator


"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 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 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 2013 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, 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.

A near-perfect fusion of big emotions, big concepts and stellar action-movie filmmaking, it's almost impossible to conceive of The Terminator as Cameron's first, since it is remains so accomplished on so many 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-and-neon 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 un-commented upon.  Here, in total anonymity, a monster arrives; a technological boogeyman that can change the direction of the future itself.  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.  This world, at least from the perspective of the future, is already dead, a metaphorical if not literal graveyard.

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.  In fact, it isn't man's world at all anymore.

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.  The music is about death; the culture (as seen in the punk rockers) is also about death.  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.  Again, there's the feeling that this world is already dead; its epitaph already written.

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 fingers 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 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.

In The Terminator, one of Cameron's 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 what time we have.


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.

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. 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 obvious reasons -- 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, and no offense is intended, just a recitation of facts.  In the early 1980s President Reagan sometimes 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.  Many of his advisers in his first term stressed the concept of "winnable" nuclear war, and that's simply a terrifying thought.  To President Reagan's ever-lasting credit, he backed down from these beliefs (and even recanted his "Evil Empire" comment) in the name of peace.  Regardless of his welcome evolution, the "apocalypse mentality" of the 1980s was a hugely powerful force in American cinema mid-decade -- think War Games (1983) and Dreamscape (1984) --  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 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.

2 comments:

  1. Terrific review for a great film. It is hard to fathom that 'Terminator' is Cameron's only second feature film. This film, to me is the finest film of the franchise. 'T2' seemed sanitized, nurtured for an increasingly pc 90's audience. The 'Terminator' felt almost mean by comparison, the film felt dangerous. I recall seeing this film as a part of a double bill Halloween weekend of 1984. 'Body Double' was the main feature and 'Terminator' was almost a throwaway and I left the theater almost having completely forgotten seeing Brian DePalma's film. You should have seen the audience reaction of 1984 moviegoers that evening! Amazing film!

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  2. Anonymous11:24 PM

    Another excellent review of a classic science fiction film. Thanks, John. Keep up the excellent work.

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