The Terminator (1984)
I have had a rather unusual view on The Terminator for the longest time. I do consider it James Cameron’s best movie, and the best of this franchise. These are for reasons of pacing and innovative filmmaking. Yet, what I mainly consider this film as is not so much a science fiction movie, but essentially a techno-slasher film. You’ve got a hulking, invincible juggernaut of a killer stalking and hunting down an innocent young woman. That’s a bare bones plot description for both The Terminator and a Friday The 13th sequel. The vibe of the movie is very relentless and evokes a very techno-horror hybrid ideology. Beyond that quirk of perception, I do have many things to praise this film for that I feel James Cameron severely abandoned afterwards.
In the post-apocalyptic future of 2029, SkyNet, a super computer defense system wages a losing war against a human resistance which it is intent on exterminating. In their desperation, the machines send an indestructible cyborg known as The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the woman whose unborn son will become mankind’s only hope. In hopes of preserving humanity’s future, the human resistance sends soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back in time as well to protect Sarah. But does he even stand a chance against the most unstoppable killing machine ever created?
Obviously, The Terminator has been widely praised since its release, and so, there’s not much I have to tell you that hasn’t already been said. Regardless, most of these reviews are about what these films mean to me and the nature of cinema, in general. James Cameron previously worked in the special effects world working on numerous lower budgeted pictures, but after a great deal of hard work and determination he scored his first major directorial job with this film. The budget was tight, but with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s growing star power from the Conan films, there was a lot of credibility and weight put behind this. Still, it wasn’t an easy task getting it made. The restrictions of budget and resources really did work towards the film’s benefit. It forced Cameron to be innovative and a bit of a guerilla filmmaker. It’s a perfect example of better creativity through adversity. As I mentioned in my Aliens review, I think once Cameron got a big budget and a lot of freedom as a filmmaker, he lost that edge and began to indulge in overly long films with far laxer pacing and storytelling techniques. He was still innovative in the technical realm, but not so much in the creative one where tight storytelling was concerned.
What I find to be so intelligent and original with what Cameron did with The Terminator is how he maintained tension and a tight cohesion of the plot. The main exposition in the film is dealt with in the midst of a car chase. The excitement and danger are high, keeping the audience intently invested in every second, and Cameron uses that time for Kyle Reese to impart a great deal of exposition about himself, the T-800, and the future war. In the vast majority of films, the exposition scene is a slow paced, quiet scene that is regularly the most derided scene in the film from the director’s perspective. Cameron changes that all up, and makes it one of the most captivating scenes by melding it with an intense chase sequence. From there, even the slower, character building scenes maintain some degree of urgency or dramatic electricity to never allow the film to lose your interest or attention. If not in the hands of James Cameron’s innovative and visionary filmmaking talent, I could surely see this movie slipping down into a B-grade sci-fi film that you’d see premiere on late night Cinemax. Believe me, those films do exist, and were heavily inspired by this far superior film. Having the right director at the helm can make a severe difference in whether a movie is brilliance or cheap exploitation fare.
This film is expertly shot with strong, sharp focus on every detail and bit of action. The night scenes are definitely gritty creating a dangerous edge and energy that wholly serves the tone and vibe of the picture. It brilliantly reflects the “tech noir” theme of the movie, showing us the dark side of technology. Cameron and his director of photography Adam Greenberg do a marvelous job all around. All of the action is shot with skill, dramatic weight, and great storytelling ability. Just in the way it is shot, The Terminator looks and feels like a 1984 film, and in all the best ways. It might have its rough edges here and there, but they work so excellently towards the energy of the picture. Overall, you can see the great, deliberate insert and close-up shots that establish and enhance the mood and tension of the film. The slow motion sequences are beautifully and masterfully done creating so much tension and dramatic anticipation. The editing of Mark Goldblatt is some of the tightest, most dead-on-the-mark work I’ve ever seen. There’s not an extraneous frame anywhere in the runtime of this movie. Every shot has purpose and cohesion to the kinetic and emotional beats of the story. Action directors of today should go back and watch this movie to see how you competently direct, shoot, and edit an action sequence. The car chases are great, but the entire police station massacre is insanely tense and masterfully shot and edited. It’s a major action set piece of the film, and it could not have been executed any better than it was. Yet, the climax is able to top that with a long series of action sequences from a car chase to the explosions to the final industrial plant confrontations. It continues to hammer home the seemingly indestructible nature of the Terminator as it continues to come back from one fiery explosion after another. It’s a frightening action climax where the monster simply will not die while our heroes continue to suffer more and more injuries hindering their ability to continue running away.
Michael Biehn is absolutely amazing as Kyle Reese. What strikes me first is the weathered, war torn quality of his performance. Reese does seem like a guy who has been through the darkest parts of hell on earth with both the psychological and physical scars to show for it. Biehn also has great physical intensity such as during the initial car chase where Reese is imparting the exposition to Sarah. There’s a depth of urgency, fear, and heart with every word he delivers. It creates someone that’s not just an action centric soldier, but a man with a solid core of humanity. The pain of Kyle Reese is deep seeded, and the trauma and pain that he has endured comes through in the texture of Biehn’s performance. This is a guy who does initially seem like an intimidating threat, almost serial killer like, but that intensity and frayed exterior are molded into a fascinating, sympathetic character that an audience deeply cares for before too long. Biehn’s romantic chemistry with Linda Hamilton is wonderful, and the tenderness that forms between them makes this so much more than just a testosterone fueled action picture. It has a lot of depth that has always been a strength of James Cameron’s films. He always seems to create very dimensional lead characters which enhance the nature of the films they populate. Why Michael Biehn’s acting career didn’t soar to greater heights after this movie is a mystery to me. It certainly did for Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.
It goes without saying that this was one of Arnold’s defining roles. While Conan the Barbarian was a big success, this propelled him into a whole new level of stardom. What he does at The Terminator was instantly iconic with only eighteen lines of dialogue. The deliberate movement and restrained mannerisms he devised for this Terminator create a cold, threatening, dominating screen presence. I have seen other lower grade actors attempt to approximate this sort of robotic performance, but Arnold just had something special. It’s the whole package from his size and build to the choice of punk or leather attire to the calculating way he surveys a scene. You can view a methodical yet relentless intelligence behind everything the Terminator does, and Schwarzenegger just hit it perfectly on the mark. There’s not a moment where you don’t take him as a serious, menacing threat, and after that is all solidly established by him, it carries over seamlessly when the flesh is burnt off and it’s just Stan Winston’s animatronic endoskeleton. While almost everyone seems to love when Arnold does the cheesy action films, I feel his best work is in the more serious roles because it creates a challenge for him. He has to dedicate himself to a far stronger character, and create something that stands out in a dramatic fashion. There are a lot of cheesy action heroes out there, but not many who can pull off the really serious, iconic roles such as Conan, the Terminator, or Dutch in Predator. Arnold can do both equally well, and that’s much of why he’s the action movie legend that he is today.
This film was especially pivotal to Linda Hamilton’s career, and the reasons why are vibrantly evident. While, as Sarah Connor, we see a great deal of panic and fear, it is all mixed in with a genuine sense of humanity. Sarah’s an average woman thrust into an extraordinarily intense and dangerous scenario, but ultimately, we see her inner strength shine through. When you first see her as a lowly waitress, you could never imagine she could come to survive and fight through this frightening, lethal experience with as much resilience as she ultimately displays. Hamilton gives us the full spectrum of emotion in an impressive dimensional performance that also adds in a layer of romanticism. The build up to the love scene between Sarah and Kyle is beautifully touching, and would be able to squeeze tears out of the more emotional audience members. That tenderness and depth of love and passion triggers the greater strength of the film that I mentioned before. It is a love scene that is not there for the sake of skin and titillation, but for the sake of love itself. At the film’s end, you can see the subtle seeds of what we will see Sarah become in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In this film, Linda Hamilton is absolutely excellent giving us a sympathetic and strong character that stands the test of time.
And I have to mention the excellent performances of Lance Henriksen and the late Paul Winfield. Henriksen has some great humorous dialogue that is just enough off-kilter to be memorable. We’re so used to seeing Henriksen playing rather dark, disturbed characters, and so, it is a wonderful treat seeing him enjoy this upbeat, charismatic character. Winfield was always a stellar, sophisticated acting talent, and while Lieutenant Traxler has his streetwise qualities, he is a compassionate and intelligent commanding officer. He strikes the perfect balance between entertaining, charming character and capable, seasoned cop. Many films like this would paint all the cops as unlikeable fools, somewhat like Dr. Silberman is (appropriately enough), but instead, Cameron maintains his sense of humanity in these characters along with casting superb actors to realistically embody those qualities.
While the animatronics, stop motion, and optical effects work largely appears dated next to today’s sleeker digital effects, especially with the work done in the sequels, I think that gritty, rough edged effects work here benefits the overall style and feel of this movie. The stop motion animation in the climax evokes more of that techno-horror feeling taking the scary skeleton of the haunted house and meshing it with a dark science fiction menace. Stan Winston did an amazing job with all the physical effects further cementing his stature as an effects wizard and master of creature designs. Having clocked in stunning work with the Terminator, Predator, and Alien franchises, his quickly earned legendary status is no surprise. The visual effects were handled by Fantasy II, and for a mid-80s low budget science fiction picture, they did an excellent job. Combined with Cameron’s vibrant vision, they achieved something that really grabbed audiences’ attention at that time, and truly captivated their imagination. The brief future war sequences are stellar. The only thing I ever mark as a negative is the use of rear screen projection, which Cameron would use again in Aliens. It just never looks convincing, especially when compared to good quality blue screen composites. Regardless of that, these were very eye-opening effects in 1984, and they entirely serve the film’s dark, gritty tone.
The synthesizer based score done by Brad Fiedel encapsulates that tense, dark atmosphere of The Terminator. The compositions alone are excellent, and the main theme has become iconic. The use of the metallic percussion reflects the cold, mechanical heart of the Terminator, and gives us a rather chilling, ominous feeling whenever it appears. So many other cues are done with great feel for the intensity of their respective sequences maintaining the weight of the drama and action. Many instances again evoke a high tension horror atmosphere such as whenever the Terminator is seconds away from killing Sarah. The synthesizer sound perfectly fits for a 1984 tech-noir action film as it simply enhances that oppressive technological theme, and is an obvious sign of the times. However, it can get elegant and beautiful during the aforementioned love scene. Fiedel takes that heavy, almost claustrophobic type main theme, and rearranges it into a piano love theme that is sad, touching, and wonderfully gorgeous. While Fiedel would blow it out of the water with his work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, what he does here is a solid, excellent fit for the kinetic energy and tense danger that is so tightly wrapped in this film while highlighting the depth that the film has to offer.
The Terminator is really amazingly well written. As I said, Cameron is able to raise the concept above the standard action movie fare by injecting dimension and emotional depth into his story and characters. They live and breathe as realistic people that an audience can attach themselves to, and that makes the rather fantastical story gritty, believable, and gripping. The dialogue is honest and real showcasing distinct personalities that leave a lasting impression, and with the stellar casting, it couldn’t be any more pitch perfect. It’s not just those iconic one-liners from Schwarzenegger or Biehn that make it great. It’s every nuanced quality of the characters and depth of the story being told that have made The Terminator a classic. Arnold Schwarzenegger has done movies with far more quotable dialogue, but they do not match the filmmaking quality and intelligence of this one. That is all due to the innovative creativity and artistic talent of James Cameron.
James Cameron had a vibrant vision for this movie, and was intensely driven to realize it on film. While he hasn’t lost vision, I do think he’s lost a number of exciting qualities that made The Terminator so exceptional. He used to be able to tell amazing and captivating stories in innovative and exciting ways. Even if the storytelling rhythm and cohesion became more lax in his subsequent films, we were still treated to things we hadn’t seen before, and were given stories that ignited our imaginations while still touching us deep in our hearts. The Terminator is an excellent example of what made Cameron a fascinating and awesome filmmaker for many years. However, as his budgets got bigger and his ego became overinflated, I just think he stopped caring about the story and characters, and was just more enamored with the evolution of visual effects and filmmaking technology. I would really wonder if someone gave James Cameron a $6.4 million budget today, could he still make a film as well made as this one.
This if my favorite film of the entire Terminator franchise, and I consider it the best film James Cameron has made. This is for the reasons of the tightness of the storytelling where not a scene, moment, or frame is wasted. While even Terminator 2 took the time it needed to tell the story it had to tell, I just love the relentless momentum of this movie. It has its character building scenes wrapped up nicely between and within the action sequences. No part of the film ever drags on. Coupled with all the amazing talents from the actors to the special effects mastery to the cinematography and editing, The Terminator is a lightning strike of stardom and awesomeness. I take nothing away from its 1991 blockbuster sequel, but there is just something so riveting about the lean and smart storytelling in this film that sets it apart for me. It’s that guerilla filmmaker mentality of better creative through adversity and budgetary restraints that sparks my love for The Terminator. Cameron showed the talent he had despite the restrictions of the production, and made a big impact when this hit theatres. Everyone who worked on the film believed strongly in it and Cameron’s ability to make it happen. It’s that ambition and hard working dedication which can set the exceptional filmmakers apart from all the others. This is a film that should be on every action and science fiction film fan’s must-see list. And while it’s not my favorite Schwarzenegger movie, it is one of his best.