Los Angeles 2029: There is nothing but rubble, mountains of skulls and gigantic killing machines rolling through the streets gunning down the last few remaining inhabitants of LA.
“YEAH SKYNET!! GIT SUM! GIT SUM! YEAH! YEAH! YEAH! HOO-RA-A-AH!”
“Dear, please quit rooting for the terminators,” Lady Cataline sighs. “It’s bothering the children.”
“Nah, we’re cool with it, Mom,” replied Cataspawn.
Before Westworld came along the Robot Apocalypse used to be cool. The Machines weren’t angsty at all.
They just wanted to get the job done and after this week who could blame them?
And in that spirit of optimistic nihilism, I decided to give another look at that OG franchise starter, The Terminator.
1984 started off as a bad year for Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was contractually obligated to reprise his role of Conan for the sequel and while he loved the character, he could tell that changing the film from R to PG was turning the franchise from great to garbage. Conan was not meant to be lovable. His career was just starting as an actor and he needed a quick win. So, he threw the dice on a low budget science fiction actioner by this new guy named James Cameron, that wasn’t going to take up much of his time. It was one of those parts that only looked big because the rest of the characters talked about yours all the time but he would still get star billing. The only other thing the director had done was Piranha 2, but at least it was a resume. Schwarzenegger threw the dice and it came up snake eyes…
Well, actually no, that’s the common perception but The Terminator didn’t do too badly. It raked in $34 million against a budget of $6 million which is pretty good for what was a B-movie.
I admit I didn’t see it in the theaters either. It had looked interesting, but I was way too busy at that time.
However, since it was B-movie I knew it wouldn’t be long before it was out on video, so I chose to wait. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought that way because The Terminator went from Modest to Monster when it hit the shelves of Papa Kostapulous’ Video Rental and Gyro Shack.
This success made Hollywood give a second look to the over-sized Austrian. Arnold had a movie called Commando built around his, well, talents, and his career was suddenly off and running. Although, his career was nothing compared to the Director. Cameron became one of the gods of Hollywood. In fact, most of the cast and crew of that picture went on to bigger and better things,
Not bad for a drive-in and cheap-seats movie.
But has it held up with time?
Since it’s currently available on Amazon Prime, I gave it a look for the first time in twenty years.
Movie begins with that late lamented icon of Eighties blast-flicks; Orion Pictures.
Then we see the opening scene
Okay, so I covered the opening scene. Anyway, the visuals of a bleak future established the tone effectively. Title credits and score begins and it’s Eighties synth music which meant that Cameron couldn’t spend a lot of his budget on the music. I’m not going to lie to you, while I was nostalgic for the melody, it also felt kind of cheap.
The opening credits end and we see a massive machine in the night, similar to what we’d just seen. But then the lighting gets better and we see it’s a garbage truck. Subtitles appear that tell us that it is now “1984, Tonight.” It was a neat little way of maintaining the continuity of tone. It was needed and it worked.
Flash and thunder that signifies the arrival of the Terminator. Arnold scans around him and walks forward, allowing your Eighties’ Girlfriend to see his butt for the first time. He says, “hi,” to Bill Paxton and company, I was surprised to see that Brian Thomson was one of the Punks, I hadn’t remembered that.
Arnold acquires his thrift-find wardrobe and we move on.
Your Eighties Girlfriend then got to see Michael Biehn’s butt which was probably a bit of disappointment for her after seeing Mister Olympia’s ass. And while the big guy clearly had a smooth ride, our newcomer was obviously riding in the jump seat. A nice touch that I’d forgotten were the burn scars on Reese’s back.
Arnold picks up his arsenal. The gun shop owner allowing a customer instant access to both firearms and ammo was an eye-roller, but we had to move the picture the along. It was an interesting Eighties gun collection. I was a little surprised they went with a 1911 instead of a Bren Ten. But after a moment’s thought, it became clear that the weapons were chosen by Cameron primarily for visual impact. The 1911 long slide is a big gun and looks proportional to an Arnold who had been in competition shape for Conan: The Destroyer. The SPAS-12 shotgun just looks villainous and cool
The Uzi was still kind of new so it had a cool factor going for it. The laser sight is nothing new today but thirty years ago it was whiz-bang cool. I could be wrong on this but I think Cameron may have been the very first director to use one in a motion picture and he did so to great effect.
I then experienced a wave of nostalgia as the Terminator consults a phone book in a public phone booth to get the address of his first victim.
Finally, we meet the third and principal member of this triad, as she arrives for her crappy waitressing job on her scooter. Looking at Linda Hamilton objectively, you see a young woman with what were, pretty average looks. I’m not being cruel here, (unless Linda Hamilton is actually reading this), but she was never a ravishing beauty and that worked for the Sarah Connor character. She was just a very average nineteen-year-old woman in every way. That was her job.
We get a quick and effective snapshot of her crappy life and it wasn’t so different from what all of us Gen-Xers were doing at that point. We could identify with her.
Arnold kills the first Sarah Connor he’d found in the found phone book and interestingly it was obvious that he wasn’t at all used to firing guns back then. He flinched every time he pulled the trigger. I strongly suspect that part of the reason Cameron put him in sunglasses was so that the audience couldn’t see this killer robot being afraid of guns. I admit I could be wrong on that; the eyeball scene wasn’t cheap to do. This was also the first use of the laser gun sight (that I can remember) in a movie. You see the red dot settle on the woman’s forehead and then you get a quick cut to the Terminator firing the gun. You as an audience member know exactly where the bullet was aimed so there was no need to see the woman being hit and you didn’t. You just see the Terminator fire once then in the same shot lower the gun’s point of aim and fire repeatedly.
Skipping ahead, Sarah finds out there is someone killing women named Sarah Connor, she tries to call her roommate. ** But her roomate has just come down with a case of shot in the back. That slow-motion impact shot was one of the first signs that Cameron was going to be a well above-average director. An average B-movie grind-master would have lovingly shown the going blood-squib going off in an unrealistic manner on the actress. Whereas in this shot you see only see the woman already flying forward off her feet.
The Never-Lucky Sarah tells her roommate that she is at a club called Tech-Noir, which was all the Terminator needed to know. (UPDATE: That and her student ID which he saw).
Sarah finally gets through to the Police (911 existed but wasn’t culturally, “a thing” back then). The cops tell her to stay put because she will be safe in a public place, they are sending a car for her.
Arnold stomps in, breaks the bouncer’s hand, and then starts slow-mo’ scanning for Sarah. Sarah is herself scanning the bar and she and Reese meet eyes directly for the first time. The Terminator homes in on Sarah.
Boom-boom-boom-boom. “Come with me if you want to live.” A simple line with a long-life span, you wouldn’t think it would have that kind of cultural impact.
Now comes the Pope in the Pool scene AKA the exposition dump. Doing this necessary but boring background filler right after a chase scene was a great idea. While Kyle is explaining the history, the camera is focused on Sarah who is nearly catatonic after having been almost murdered. Then she shifts into complete denial of the problem and tries to run away from the guy who is trying to save her. This was a great human touch. It made Sarah more believable as a person. It wasn’t a smart move but it was very realistic one.
A second run-in with the Terminator where he punches through the windshield makes her something of a believer. She asks Kyle if he can stop it and he admits that “with these weapons, I don’t know.”
Cops arrive and she convinces him to surrender.
We had had a few shots of the detectives in the cop shop when the Phonebook Murders started. They were decent Joes who just didn’t know what they were up against. They were sympathetic figures, trying to fit an oddly shaped peg into a square hole. We get the second part of the exposition dump while Kyle is being talked to by the criminal psychologist (who goes on to have quite a future with the franchise. Both in the next movie and in the under-rated series).
We know the rest of the future history. Exposition dump complete.
“I’ll be back.”
Police station massacre. And the pretty much the highlight of the movie, it’s what everyone remembers the best. The big reason it worked so well is that it functioned as a mini-story within the story. It starts with an attention-grabbing start as the Terminator crashes through the front of the station but then ratchets down slightly and lets you get to see what the Terminator can do. The second cop killed is just carrying a cup of coffee. He didn’t know what the noise was about and was caught in a “green state.” After the first shots the cops go into “yellow state” as they grab their guns and start revving themselves up for a fight. The action escalates to a climax. The cops are in full “red state” as they uselessly fight against something that they can’t takedown and are slaughtered to a man. And then there is denouement as Kyle finds Sarah and they escape again.
Any doubts the police had instilled in Sarah are now extinguished; she is an absolute believer in her problem. This is the middle or rather the muddle of the story. The protagonists and their antagonist rest and regroup. We find out that Reese has been mooning over Sarah ever since John Connor gave him a photo of her. Which if I was John, I would have found skin crawling, “okay Dad, here’s Mom. Now develop creepy oneitis over her before I send you back to time to visit your affections on her when she is at her most emotionally vulnerable.”
Linda Hamilton fulfills the nudity clause in her contract and the savior of humanity is conceived. Time for the climax…uh, I mean the next climax.
The last fight scene begins, another chase scene happens and there is false victory before Kyle and Sarah discover that Arnold’s limited time on set is done and they will now be chased around by Stan Winston’s creation. Sarah, who has been mostly reactive up until now, finally takes the lead because Kyle is injured. It is her story now, she is the one in charge of it. This was a natural progression that felt right. It wasn’t forced at all.
Like any good Jihadi, Reese blows himself up while failing to kill the target. Sarah tricks the machine into the steel press. And shen then mourns the only man she will ever love.
Final scene we discover that Sarah is pregnant with John and that her fate is now a Mobius loop. It was decent little surprise ending. I remember it surprised me when I first saw it.
So, does The Terminator still hold up?
There were several things that I liked.
The casting directors knew their business and had an eye for talent. The Terminator is sort of like Fast Times at Ridgemont High in that regard. You spend a lot of the movie playing Spot the Future Star (or at least the well-known actor). Some of that was Cameron’s preference for keeping familiar faces around his sets and as his boat rose so did theirs.
The story is well-paced and if Cameron did indeed write this, then it may well be his best script. Once his muse chose visuals it concentrated on those to the determent of his other artistic abilities. For a very new director, Cameron knew how to get the most out of his actors. Particularly, a star who frankly wasn’t much of an actor but had a ton of presence and charisma.
You also see a lot of a nascent James Cameron style sense that would become an unmistakable signature as time went on.
I enjoyed the somewhat outdated special effects. I liked the stop-motion animation at the end. Although I admit that that is out of a sense of nostalgia. Although, it would take a younger viewer right out of the story.
The actors all knew their stuff.
The story is still simple and compelling. An intimate tale of adventure and horror with science fiction and blast-flick elements.
So, why am I sitting here sounding like I’m trying to convince myself that I really liked this movie more than I did?
Because it doesn’t really hold up.
It fails to hold up in a way that Predator did. Watching again, I realize that most of my affection for the piece was nostalgic in nature. I remember more about how I felt when I first watched it, than what was actually on the screen.
It was always a pretty cheap flick. Cameron made the most of his limited resources, but action-film school grammar has moved on even though this a movie that wrote a lot of it. The Terminator is a lot like Star Wars: A New Hope. There is a lot of things there that I still like about it, but it bores my kids to tears.
If you loved it, you’ll probably still like it. I can’t take that away from you and I wouldn’t want to try. But we are the last generation that is really going to enjoy it.
Okay, I’m done here.
*We took a look at the Franchi in the 1990s when the Marine Corps was briefly obsessed with “non-lethal” weapons. The reason the SPAS-12 can do both gas action auto and pump action is that a bean-bag round doesn’t have the oomph to cycle the reload action so you need a pump for that.
** You remember her? The slut who was listening to that damn Punker ear-worm on her Walkman, Intimacy? That damn “song” hasn’t been stuck in my head for twenty years but now it’s back.