Given the level of fame he has required, as well as the fact that the 1991 sequel to The Terminator was the most expensive movie of all time when in production, and that he has become so well-known for the epic quality of his work, especially in his last two movies which were, depressingly, twelve years apart, it sometimes comes as a surprise that the movie from which he made his name, his second credited film as director, looks like the type of grungy sci-fi movie that could only have come from the 1980’s, like a punk rock album before moving onto a more mainstream style of rock n roll as evidenced by movies such as Aliens, T2 and True Lies, before going classical with Titanic, and all out colourful, brilliant pop with Avatar. I will now henceforth stop the use of music analogies.
The Terminator, released in year 1984, is a film both of its time and one that has managed to age beyond it. A lot of things about it feel right out of the 1980’s, from some of the fashions, the hair styles, the soundtrack, both the songs and Brad Fiedel’s fantastic score, to the dancing in the Tech Noir nightclub scene, especially when Cameron slows the action down as the T-800 (Schwarzenegger of course, cementing himself as a movie star) zeroes in on Sarah Connor. The scene itself is drenched with tension and atmosphere, complete with about twenty extras in suspect clothing dancing weirdly, as it will no doubt look to a younger generation of viewers who will get introduced to the movie.
I went backwards with The Terminator movies. I saw the second one first, loved it, and then a short time after that the first movie was shown on British television, through the BBC, who, at that time, were showing the film for the first time ever on British television uncut. I was way too young to watch it of course, with it scenes of hearts being ripped out, about twenty extras being gunned down in the police station shootout, as well as the T-800 with his face being torn to shreds as the film went on, but I was a kid and I loved every minute of it. I also recorded it and pretty much wore out my VHS copy, re-watching it again and again, usually in double bills with the second film. Of course the first is a very different film to its more action packed and essentially “blockbuster” sequel, and yet both films compliment each other very well that, like the first two Godfather movies, it’s really hard to have one without the other.
Like the Mad Max series, the Terminator series started with something smaller that was playing out on an epic canvas. Whilst the budget was relatively low ($6.4 million), and is set pretty much on the darkened streets of Los Angeles, Cameron’s imagination is well-played out on-screen. Despite the limited budget and its present day setting, one truly gets the feeling of seeing an epic story play out, one of a future war, a futuristic world ruled by machines, and time travel as well as a love story that is playing out through the ages of time.
The film keeps its futuristic setting at bay for the most part, with a prologue and haunting dream sequences filling in the gaps, whilst an epic full-blown war between man and machine would be left until the epic opening of the second film, with the war itself being at the centre of McG’s somewhat middle of the road and not that great fourth instalment Terminator:Salvation (the less said about the Cameron-less sequels, the better).
Many studios were unsure of the film, loving the concept and the script but not wanting a somewhat untested Cameron calling the shots. It was only because the commitment between himself and producer Gale Anne Hurd (his soon to be wife at this point) that precluded the film from being sold to a studio without his involvement, before they convinced the smaller production company Hemdale, who had a distribution deal with Orion Pictures, to put forward the money that allowed the film to be made. A lot of it, as is the case with Cameron films, has passed into movie making lore, stories that are told over and over again because they are so damn good; that OJ Simpson was considered for the Terminator, a notion rejected because nobody believed he could play a stone cold killer and that Lance Henriksen was initially the final choice and he went full on method actor when at production meetings and that Schwarzenegger was considered for the role of Kyle Reese before Cameron decided he was appropriate for the lead role itself, whilst the film’s most iconic image was born from a fever dream Cameron had during the troubled period when he was virtually fired from Piranha II and of course the now famous line “I’ll be back” originally being “I’ll come back”.
The film is Cameron in a very stripped down mode before the budgets got larger and the stories more epic. Essentially one could argue that The Terminator is a slasher movie, albeit with a sci-fi threat as opposed to a supernatural or human one and that knives are exchanged for guns and that instead of a hockey mask or a William Shatner mask, the face is human and the real horror lies underneath. That image of the endoskeleton emerging from the flames feels like it could only have come from a nightmare. The death stare the character wears throughout, one eventually hidden away with sunglasses, a move that follows the horrific image of the titular character ripping his shredded eye-ball from its socket, as well as the sequence where he attacks and murders Ginger and Matt could have come from many a horror film. The fact that Ginger and Matt have just finished having sex beforehand only adds to the sex equals death philosophy of the slasher movie.
In every respect The Terminator is like the machine at the heart of the film itself; a lean, mean, perfect machine. Yes the sequel is bigger, louder and one could easily make the argument for it being the better film. It’s certainly one of my favourites. As the years have gone on my love for each one has swung backward and forward over which is the best, but as I said before, you can’t have one without the other. The Terminator is fast paced, the exposition is delivered in the middle of a chase sequence, rather than in between, Schwarzenegger’s performance is actually, no joke, fantastic, festering itself into the deeper part of your nightmares and fears, whilst Linda Hamilton brings vulnerability and ever-growing strength to Sarah Connor, hinting at the character she was to become in the second movie, whilst, as is always the case when watching this, or Aliens, or The Abyss, one has to ask why Michael Biehn never became a bigger star, as he brings warmth, humanity, love and strength to Kyle Reese, and the film’s final moments carry a tragic charge due to the love story at the film’s heart actually being carried well by both himself and Hamilton.
Add to this the combination of Adam Greenberg’s amazingly dark photography, Mark Goldblatt’s fast paced, yet coherent editing, Stan Winston’s effects work and the pounding score from Brad Fiedel, The Terminator, the movie itself, is a machine that does not feel pity, or remorse and will not stop, EVER, until the end credits roll.
COMING SOON: “Hasta la vista, baby.”