The Terminator revisited
Does the world need to be saved from this time-travelling murder machine?
Can we show the kids?
The Terminator (1984)
Arnold Schwarzenegger is The Terminator, a killing machine from a future in which artificial intelligence has identified mankind as the enemy and has set about terminating humans enthusiastically and efficiently. The Terminator has been sent back in time to kill Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) because she will become the mother of the leader of the human resistance, who in turn has sent back his right hand man, Michael Biehn, to protect her. They fall in love and Biehn becomes his best friend’s father before sacrificing himself to save Sarah.
Look, it sounds complicated, but The Terminator is mostly high violence and low quippery. It pretty much made Cameron's and Schwarzenegger's careers, so we have this to thank for Titanic and Arnie’s real-life impassioned speeches to Russian soldiers.
The early ‘70s specialised in depressing visions of the future. In Silent Running the last forests on Earth were blasted off into space; in Soylent Green humans were boiled down into food. Even George Lucas, in THX1138, had a monochrome vision of an inhuman society, before remembering how much he had enjoyed Flash Gordon as a kid and coming up with Star Wars, returning science fiction to its pulp-inflected roots with derring-do and exciting explosions.
1984’s The Terminator marries these impulses - the apocalyptic future and the thrilling adventure - and adds the urban grittiness of ‘70s movies like The Warriors to produce something quite new: high concept sci-fi as low-brow action movie. In many ways it’s the great-grandfather of modern superhero blockbusters, but with cigarettes.
Consensual sex: Obligatory ‘80s soft core sex following obligatory ‘80s perfunctory 'romance'. Sarah Conner's room-mate has a sex scene but manages to keep both her top and her Walkman on throughout.
Gratuitous nudity: The naked bums of Schwarzenegger and Biehn, followed later by the breasts of Hamilton. The bums are arguably intrinsic to the story, the breasts are not.
Violence: Constant, crimson and cartoonish. A *lot* of guns but also some squelchy organ removal.
Bechdel test: A pass, in that Conner talks to her co-worker about something that isn't a man. However they’re talking about the murder, by a robot, of another woman, so it’s a pass in the same way that an E is better than a U.
Stereotyped minor BAME character: Paul Winfield is on-point as a world-weary, chain smoking detective, who is definitely too old for this shit, and much too Black to make it to the last reel.
Disappointing afterlife of the stars: Does being a philandering Republican governor of California count? Or, indeed, director James Cameron making both Titanic and the stupendously dimwitted Avatar?
Female character: Sarah Conner is, with Ellen Ripley, one of the foundational Strong Female Characters of the Hollywood action film, and Linda Hamilton’s transformation from cowering victim to determined and resourceful protagonist is a tremendous piece of work.
Character actors: Lance Hendrickson, who apparently played the Terminator for Cameron when he was pitching the script to studios, is rewarded with another cop role. Bill Paxton gets to be a stereotypical ‘80s movie punk and has his heart ripped out by Arnold.1
Quotable bits: "Come with me if you want to live." "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!" And - altogether now - "I'll be back."
Special effects: Stan Winston ahoy! Absolutely spectacular physical effects throughout, all stop-motion robots and rubbery masks; the peak of the craft.
Can we show it to the kids?
It’s full of the sort of gritty, squelchy violence you don’t get outside of horror movies these days; the politics are debatable and ‘of its time’; and those special effects are in danger of looking a bit silly for an audience raised on good quality CGI. But if you have a teenager with an indulgent attitude to mild horror, excessive violence and old-fashioned special effects, it’s still a genre classic.
Is it as good as you remember?
The Terminator understands that the ‘80s action hero is a special effect in himself (it is, almost always, himself). It uses Schwarzenegger as an object as much as it deploys him as an actor; he is the massive, still point around which the action of the film whirls incessantly. His monstrous physicality, his acting style and even his stilted Austrian accent are all used to emphasise the Terminator’s inhumanness, both as a character and as a presence.
It’s also one of the last physical special effects extravaganzas, if you’re nerdy about that sort of craft. (In Cameron’s2 original vision the Terminator was composed of shape-changing fluid metal but he couldn’t figure out how to do it until CGI came along in time for Terminator 2.) Of course physical effects carried on being used in movies after The Terminator, but they were complemented and increasingly supplanted by digital FX. To modern eyes the jerky stop-motion robot skeletons of the Terminators and the rubbery injuries of their victims are old-fashioned, but for its time the Stan Winston Studio’s work was astonishing. The Terminator is a wonderful example of a craft at its absolute height of accomplishment, and a totemic early example of ‘80s sci-fi action flicks.
James Cameron needs to be kept away from keyboards, because his dialogue progresses from thick-eared to thick-skulled and then thick-eared again as it comes out the other side. But what's not to love in the everyday story of a PTSD-suffering incel who falls in lust with a photo of a dead woman and then travels back in time to sleep with her so he can become his own best friend's dad?
A little foretaste of the Aliens cast, of course, and also the greatest vampire movie ever made: Kathryn Bigelow’s stupendous Near Dark.
One of my favourite physical special effect stories is how they achieved the look of a computer generated wireframe model of the city for Escape from New York by building an actual model of the city and covering it in reflective tape so that it shone like computer graphics. James Cameron was one of the model builders.