The Terminator

The TerminatorSynopsis: Arnold Schwarzenegger is “perfectly cast” (Los Angeles Times) as the fiercest and most relentless killing machine ever to threaten the survival of mankind! A “genuine steel metal trap of a movie” (The Hollywood Reporter), The Terminator fires an arsenal of thrills, intriguing plot twists and heart-stopping suspense that “never lets up for a minute” (Leonard Maltin)!

In 2029, giant super-computers dominate the planet, hell-bent on exterminating the human race! And to destroy man’s future by changing the past, they send an indestructible cyborg – a Terminator – back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the woman whose unborn son will become mankind’s only hope. But can Sarah protect herself from this unstoppable menace to save the life of her unborn child? Or will the human race be extinguished by “one mean hunk of mutant metal” (L.A. Herald-Examiner)?

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The Terminator 8.5

eyelights: the brilliant premise. Arnie’s iconic turn. the exciting action sequences. the miniature work. Brad Fiedel’s pulsating score.
eyesores: the make-up effects. the paradoxical time-traveling.

“Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

To say that 1984’s ‘The Terminator’ is an indelible part of our pop culture landscape would be an understatement: it was not only a huge box office winner (especially in light of its initial budget), but it remains a house-hold name and a tremendous influence to this day. Plus which it jump-started the careers of James Cameron, Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn – and turned Arnold Schwarzenegger into a superstar.

Imagine Hollywood without Schwarzenegger or Cameron in it. It could have happened.

Although ‘The Terminator’ was James Cameron’s baby, it wasn’t originally supposed to look the way it did. Amazing as it might seem, some studios wouldn’t finance it if Cameron was at the helm (even though he wrote it), Arnie wasn’t even slated to be the Terminator, and both Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton weren’t the first choices for the leads. On top of that, the producers wanted to change the ending.

‘The Terminator’ could have been a completely different movie: Imagine O.J. Simpson as The Terminator and Sting as Kyle Reese. Imagine Debra Winger as Sarah Connor (or any given number of actresses, as Linda Hamilton appears to have been the last of a long range of options). And what if the climactic confrontation between the Terminator and our heroes had never taken place? Could the movie have had the same impact?

Thankfully, ‘The Terminator’ somehow got shaped into the classic that it is now. And, watching it thirty years later, I was blown away by how remarkably good it still is. While the special effects are dated (particularly the make up and some of the animatronics) it’s well-conceived, slickly-directed, and well-performed by all involved. And it serves up some of the greatest concepts in movie history.

The notion that a future war between man and machine has led to the near-decimation of the human race, is a good start. That the machines decided to send a mechanized killer back in time to ensure their success decades before the war begins is even better. That humanity’s only hope is sending a rebel after this “terminator” before he can change history in the machines’ favour absolutely seals the deal.

But it’s the attention to detail that makes it even better: Cameron considered the whole backstory and fleshed it out so that we understand not just the stakes but the reality of the human race in a not-so-distant future. Although the picture takes place in the present, and is essentially just a manhunt (on two levels: the Terminator hunts Sarah Connors, while Reese hunts the hunter), it’s much more substantial.

Granted, the picture’s central conceit is also its greatest weakness: by sending a killer robot to rampage through Los Angeles, the machines are effectively changing the future in ways that could potentially affect them. As well, in what is probably the greatest paradox in cinematic history, it’s literally impossible for Sarah Connor to be the mother of John Connor before Reese goes back in time; he wouldn’t already exist.

But who cares? The rest is utterly cool, the action is gripping and the on-screen magic is unmistakable. And it’s visually striking: the model work from the future wars is amazing to see, the appearances of both the Terminator and Reese are unforgettable, the look of the endoskeleton is iconic. Even the unconventional pulsating electronic score by Brad Fiedel makes its mark, especially when combined with the slo-motion action. Amazing!

Plus which Cameron knew how to create an ominous mood and build mystery for the audience: he purposely confused the hero and villain right from the onset, leaving viewers to believe that Reese is a threat, when in reality he’s anything but. And, with the able help of Schwarzenegger, he made the Terminator menacing every single moment that it’s on screen. Tellingly, some people classify ‘The Terminator’ as a horror film.

It was hard to not be blown away by Cameron’s achievement back then. And although it’s now been surpassed from a technical standpoint, ‘The Terminator’ remains a fantastic slice of sci-fi action: it is perfectly paced, with each set piece punctuated by brief but substantial downtimes and it features some remarkable moments, including the ending and the total destruction of the police station. Unforgettable stuff.

To think that, had ‘The Terminator’ not been the monstrous success that it was, James Cameron might have been relegated to smaller pictures or never helmed another one – after all, his debut, ‘Piranha II: The Spawning‘ was anything but a resume builder. He likely never would have had the clout to follow this up with ‘Aliens‘ otherwise. Similarly, Schwarzenegger might not have had the momentum needed to become the ’80s biggest action hero.

‘The Terminator’ is a game-changer. It would actually be outgunned by its sequel, ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’, six years later, but it remains a must-see motion picture for anyone who likes action, science-fiction, or who simply wants to have a good grasp of Hollywood history. Without ‘The Terminator’, a long line of films from ‘Aliens’ all the way to the Wachowskis’ oeuvre wouldn’t exist. It inspired and made ripples in the medium.

When the Terminator said that he’d be back, he wasn’t kidding: now, whether it’s readily apparent or not, there’s no escaping him.

Date of viewing: March 8, 2015

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