Come With Me If You Want to Live: #13, The Terminator


1984

Director:  James Cameron

Cast:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, Bess Motta, Earl Boen, Rick Rossovich

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class A (3/7, hot white star).  A strange little gem of a film, this one.  It doesn’t know if it wants to be a thoughtful time travel paradox film, a love story embedded in that paradox, an action movie, or a horror film.  On the other hand, it’s generally pretty successful on each of those levels, sometimes in spite of itself.

Introduction

Once upon a time a Canadian boy named James Cameron moved to California at the age of 17, saw the movie Star Wars (he would have been about 24 at the time) and decided to make movies.  Largely self-taught, he became a model maker at Roger Corman‘s studio and knocked around the fringes of the movie industry in various roles until he became the special effects director for Pirhana II: The Spawning.  When the producer of that film fired the director, he tapped Cameron for the job, though he subsequently fired Cameron as well.  Cameron stuck with the film as an editor and special effects guru.  To add insult to injury, Cameron developed food poisoning while in Rome during the editing phase of the project.  Happily, while sick, Cameron had a dream featuring a robot—in some reports, the robot was sent from the future to kill him (www.amazingcameron.com) while in others, the dream consisted of a metallic torso wielding kitchen knives and dragging itself out of an explosion (The Futurist by Rebecca Winters Keegan).  In any event, the idea for The Terminator was born.

Cameron and his friend Bill Wisher began to flesh out his idea, initially conceiving of two terminators, one a cyborg and the other made of liquid metal (though the second robot couldn’t be filmed using the technology at the time and so Cameron reluctantly scrapped the idea, at least until 1991’s Terminator II: Judgment Day).  By the by, Cameron’s agent hated the idea and Cameron fired his agent because he had so much faith in the idea.  At any rate, Cameron sold the idea and script to Gale Ann Hurd, a co-worker from the Roger Corman days, for one dollar as long as Cameron got to direct.[1]  In order to secure funding for the movie, Cameron sent his friend Lance Henrikson in first dressed as a terminator, and John Daly of Hemdale Film Corporation agreed to fund the film, and Orion Pictures to distribute it.

I suppose this just goes to show that Cameron knew he had an interesting idea, and he was tenacious enough, and believed in himself enough, to push the idea until he got it done.  He would have been about 24 when he saw Star Wars, and perhaps 29 when The Terminator got the go-ahead.  He created an enduring science fiction franchise which is still going strong now, having spawned four movies and a television series.  By some estimates, the franchise has outperformed, at least financially, the Indiana Jones franchise, which is saying something.  Current ownership of the franchise appears to reside in the hands of Pacificor, a hedge fund.[2]

The Terminator itself was made for a budget of about $6.5 million, and grossed $78 million from the box office.  It received largely positive critical reviews at opening, though some commentators thought it was too violent, too lurid, and too pretentious.  As time passed, the movie’s detractors grew quiet and the critical and fan response grew more and more positive—Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 100% fresh rating, and Metacritic 84/100.  Positive recognition by the American Film Institute followed, andThe Terminator has been selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Setup:  It is the year 2029, and machines rule the planet, hunting down the surviving humans.  Then the scene flashes back to 1984, and a nude man appears in the midst of flashes of lightning.  The nude man finds three punks and kills two when they refuse to hand over their clothes in response to his demands.  In the meantime, a second nude man appears in an alley, and after stealing a homeless person’s pants, flees from the police.  Both men begin to hunt for Sarah Connor, one to kill and the other to save her….

Skip the summary and jump to impressions!

Short summary:  Sarah Connor is really just an ordinary girl who lives with her roommate Ginger, works as a waitress, and is looking for love.  But someone—it’s a cybernetic soldier from the future—is killing women named Sarah Connor, and she’s terrified when she realizes she’s being followed.  Kyle Reese, a soldier from the future, finds her easily, but the cybernetic Terminator of the movie’s name has a slightly more difficult time of it.  When the terminator does find her, Reese saves her life and tells her “Come with me if you want to live.”  In short, clipped dialogue Reese tells Connor of the bleak future awaiting humanity when a computer network called Skynet achieves sentience and decides to wipe out humanity—but also of the heroic John Connor, who leads humanity’s successful rebellion against the machines and smashes Skynet.  But before the victory is complete, Skynet sends a Terminator, a cybernetic infiltration unit, back in time to kill John Connor’s mother—Sarah herself—and so to prevent its destruction by eliminating its enemy before he can be conceived, much less born.  Reese is one of John Connor’s lieutenants, sent back in time as well in order to prevent the Terminator from achieving its goal.  And so we’re off!

Impressions

In some ways, the movie has a very simple premise and it’s hard to understand how it’s created such an enduring place for itself in popular culture.  But in another way, it’s obvious why it did—it’s the grandfather paradox in another form, coupled with a terrifying monster and a horrendous vision of a future in which our own technology destroys us.  Throw in a love story and a high-octane dose of action, and you’ve got yourself a very nifty little movie.

The Terminator has a great visual appeal, and in some ways that’s also surprising.  One of the last great gasps of traditional special effects,[3] the movie relies on things like stop motion, models, and masks (and possibly split screens) for its effects.  They are rather effective, even though the stop motion towards the end of the film is not completely believable.  But the termintor’s dissolution, going from perfect human to chrome skeleton, with horrific damage to the organic parts along the way, is astonishing and convincing.

There are, of course, lots of explosions and violence as the terminator seeks out its prey, and the film is unstinting in portraying them.  In spite of everything—and the terminator has an astonishing kill ratio—the gore is mostly confined to the terminator itself.  That gore, however, is astonishingly realistic.  Make no mistake, however, The Terminator is violent in a visceral and ugly way, but it’s not a gorefest.

The music was composed by Brad Fiedel, and consists of a synthesizer track with a recurring motif consisting of percussive effects and a single melodic line laid over it.  It’s rather striking, in an ’80s sort of way, and it is reminiscent of a heart beat—which was no accident, according to Fiedel.  Fiedel did something interesting with his main theme or motif, as well:  it completely dominates the movie.  In one scene, it might be slowed down and performed on piano, serving as the love theme.  In another scene, it might be mark the hunting theme for the Terminator.

The performances are generally pretty good.  Linda Hamilton does a very nice job with her arc:  she begins as a terrified waitress seeking love, but rises to the challenges confronting her and begins to fight for herself by the end of the film.  Her transformation is believable and enjoyable.  Indeed, the only flaw in her performance, and it might well be the direction or the script itself for all I can tell, is her dictation to her unborn son as she flees to Mexico to avoid the coming war.

Michael Biehn also does a nice job here, playing the love-lorn and time-lost soldier with a gritty intensity.  He’s driven, and his powerful emotional connection with Sarah—senseless and without cause, but no less real and realistic for all of that—gives his character a reason for his actions above and beyond merely saving the human race.  Arnold Schwarzenegger, too, gives an astonishing performance in the film, portraying the robot with undeniable flair.  To my considerable surprise, Schwarzenagger had ony eighteen lines of dialogue.  Somehow nearly every one them is memorable and striking.  And while some might say that it’s no great performance to emulate a robot, any number of science fiction actors over the years have demonstrated that playing an emotionless character is rather difficult.

It’s worth mentioning a few other faces and names in the film.  Paul Winfield, a veteran actor with a surprisingly diverse career, does a beautiful job as the harried but sympathetic police chief, and Lance Henrikson, a friend of Cameron’s and the man who first played the murderous Terminator in a pitch meeting, is a detective with a fair degree of screen presence.  Earl Boen’s Doctor Peter Silberman is even more noticeable, and he’s a rather unlikeable psychiatrist with a flair for saying the wrong thing.  Boen really brings the doctor to life.  Finally, Bill Paxton has a small part as one of the thugs who first laughs at, and then is killed by, the Terminator in its initial foray into the twentieth century.

One of the movie’s strengths is that once the action begins—and it begins early—the movie never stops, never even slows down, except for the consummation of the love between Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor.  Science fiction action screenwriters and directors could take note of Cameron’s accomplishment here, as the quick moving, action-packed story still manages to include an interesting and thoughtful storyline and a rigorous observance of such niceties as logic and the laws of physics.

The time travel storyline is one of the oldest, hoariest chestnuts in the book, and yet The Terminator manages to put a new and unique spin on the plot device.  This is hardly the first time in movie history in which a sentient AI is the enemy, and it’s hardly the first time that a soldier from the future winds up in our time, and it’s far from the first time a killer robot has been a major plot point.  It is, however, the first time that these disparate elements have been brought together (Harlan Ellison’s plagiarism lawsuit may suggest otherwise, but in that case it was just the idea of two time-traveling soldiers, and in that case it was an accident, as seen in the Outer Limits episode “Soldier”).

Normally I dislike time travel stories intensely, I think because they often feature either a “fated” aspect or a “none of this happened” ending.  The Terminator avoids the second problem and makes extensive use of the first aspect in the story.  John Connor sent Kyle Reese back in time because he already knew that Reese was his father, thanks to his mother’s audioletters.  It doesn’t feel like a cheat, however; it feels more like the culimation of Reese’s life, that all he was and is has been focused on this one mission.  Were I behind the Terminator franchise and looking to make a sequel, I would have been fascinated with the kind of man who could do what John Connor had to do, though truthfully the story probably wouldn’t be that captivating.

Wrap-up

All in all, The Terminator is astonishing ride which never fails to entertain.  It may not be a tremendously deep movie thematically, but it has enough action and a sufficiently gripping story that it doesn’t matter.  The tremendously fun ride is set in an intriguing story which makes full use of its time travel premise, and the performances—both the big and the small ones—are entertaining and good.  The film opens with a view of the terrifyingly bleak future, the equivalent of a country music hook, and it never lets up.  The momentum builds and the violence escalates in a beautifully choreographed crescendo, all set against the backdrop of a time travel story of no little depth.  In short, this movie is one to watch, even now.
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[1]  Hurd is credited as a scriptwriter for the film.  According to Cameron, Hurd, in her role as producer, did make some suggestions, but contributed no actual writing. Jump back to review.

[2]  While it isn’t wholly clear how the franchise intellectual property rights changed hands and wound up where they did, it appears the the production company Halcyon bid on and obtained the global rights to the francise in 2007.  This is the company that produced Terminator Salvation, a 2009 film intended to launch a new Terminator trilogy.  Unfortunately, the company declared bankruptcy in 2009, due in part to the need to pay off Pacificor, one of their investors.  In order to raise money, Halcyon attempted to auction off the rights to the Terminator franchise, but the only bidder was Joss Whedon for $10,000.  A subsequent auction saw Pacificor itself buy the rights for $29.5 million, intending to later sell those rights instead of developing new films.  While it has been reported that Hannover House, an Arkansas company, intends to produce an animated movie called Terminator 3000, Pacificor has warned that any attempt to do so without a license will be met with legal action. Jump back to review.

[3]  Three years before this film was released, 1981’s Looker had brought the first computer generated character to the big screen.  One year later, in 1982, Star Trek II made extensive (though obvious) use of CGI to portray that film’s Genesis Effect, while Disney’s Tron had a fifteen minute CGI sequence (the light cycle battle).  In the same year as The Terminator, The Last Starfighter used CGI to generate all of the space ship shots—the very first truly integrated CGI, in which CGI was used to create “real world” objects on the screen.  Hollywood would embrace this new technology and look back only seldom, from this point forward.  Indeed, 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day would make extensive use of the new process. Jump back to review.

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