Monday, February 8, 2016

Movies I Love (1984 Week Edition): The Terminator

by Patrick Bromley
James Cameron's first movie is still my favorite.

James Cameron is a great filmmaker. His storytelling may be overly conventional and he's a pretty bad writer (particularly of dialogue), but he knows better than most of his contemporaries how movies work. There is a reason he directed the biggest movie of all time and then followed it up with the new biggest movie of all time. He understands pace and classical structure and visual storytelling as well as anyone save maybe for Steven Spielberg, but Cameron does those things inside of movies that are always pushing the technology of cinema forward. He is equal parts traditionalist and innovator, a claim that can't even be made by the likes of George Lucas, who, outside of Star Wars, is not a traditionalist and whose innovations haven't caught on in nearly the same way.

If it sounds like I'm being defensive, it's probably because I am. I feel like I have to defend my respect and affection for Cameron the filmmaker because Cameron the person does not make it easy for me. He is a blowhard and an egomaniac. He is, by nearly all accounts, an enormous prick on set -- one of these directors who claims to demand greatness and gets results and therefore has license to treat people like shit. His dialogue is clumsy and, at times, eye-rollingly bad. The emotional content of his films is unambiguous, nakedly worn as text and never subtext. I'm aware of the criticisms of him and his work. I maintain that he is a great filmmaker. His movies bear that out.
There remains some debate as to whether or not The Terminator really is Cameron's first movie, as he's credited as the director of Piranha II: The Spawning, release two years earlier in 1982. Cameron himself has claimed that he was fired off Piranha II very early on and has almost nothing to do with the version that was released. For the purposes of this piece, I'm going to take his word for it and call The Terminator the first "real" James Cameron movie. Despite being his first, despite being his cheapest and despite being the most simplistic of his films, it's still the one that works the best more than 30 years later. Why is that?

Perhaps the simplicity is key. You know the story by now: it's 1984 in Los Angeles. Two people are sent back in time from the year 2029, where a war against man and machines has decimated the planet. The first is a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a cybernetic machine sent to kill ordinary waitress Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who will one day give birth to a son who will one day lead the uprising against the machines and win. The second person sent back in time is Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a soldier for the human resistance who travels back to protect Sarah and guarantee not only the future birth of her son but the survival of the entire human race.

The story is simple: thing wants to kill people, who have to get away from thing. Those are the stories Cameron tells best. The Terminator remains the best screenplay he's ever written for exactly that reason; it's not humorless (the breakout line "I'll be back" will never not be funny), but it's not prone to the stupid one-liners or attempts at comedy that torpedo Cameron's writing so much of the time. Maybe it's because producer Gale Anne Hurd is credited as a co-writer (though Cameron, being Cameron, has denied her contributions to the script). Or maybe it's because it bears a strong resemblance to the work of Harlan Ellison, who threatened legal action and received both a settlement and a title card referencing his influence (which Cameron has also denied) at the end of the movie. Whatever the cause, it's Cameron's most stripped-down movie on a number of levels, the main one being the story. It's his cleanest film.
Of course, there's a good chance it remains my favorite of his movies because it pulls together so many of my favorite genres. At its heart, The Terminator is a slasher movie with a major sci-fi bent told through the language of a breathless action film. Unlike the usually standard '80s "we're in danger and running for our lives, let's stop and hump" moment, the sex scene in The Terminator (which I forgive partly because I like the love story in the movie and Michael Biehn sells the shit out of it and partly because I love Brad Fiedel's iconic score), isn't a wasted moment. Considering what the movie is about, it's arguably the most important scene in the movie (and arguably the series). A lengthy set piece in which the Terminator lays ways to entire police station might seem extraneous as it doesn't directly relate to the pursuit of Sarah Connor, but it does serve to establish the "just how dangerous is he?" in regards to the Terminator. It raises the stakes. It's character development for a machine. Better yet, it's character development through action. This is an art that has largely been lost in the years since, as action sequences and exposition must stand apart probably because modern action is all handled by pre-vis and is meant to deliver spectacle, not advance story. Cameron's approach to the exposition in The Terminator is ingenious because he puts it all in a chase scene.

Cameron originally wanted Lance Henriksen to play the Terminator, reportedly enlisting the actor to dress the part as part of Cameron's pitch. The studio wanted O.J. Simpson, perhaps because they knew a killer when they saw one. The role eventually went to bodybuilder-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had supporting roles in a few movies before breaking out in Conan the Barbarian two years earlier. Schwarzenegger has stated he was reluctant to take the role, feeling that at this stage in his career he should only be playing the hero but eventually giving so much thought to how the Terminator should be played that he knew he had to do it. The rest is movie history, as it was really The Terminator that turned Arnold Schwarzenegger into a huge superstar and a household name. That's because he's fucking awesome in the movie: impossibly enormous, flat voice and cold, dead eyes. It's a role that he would play three more times over the course of his career and the one for which he will always be best remembered. Though there's not a lot asked of him in the original movie -- he's a shark -- he would find new layers and nuances in the sequels and eventually create a character that's subtle and interesting, particularly in Terminator Genisys, in which he's the only goddamn thing worth watching at all. It stands to reason that I would love The Terminator as much as I do as it's the movie that really gave rise to the career of one of my favorite movie stars of all time.
One of the things I really love about The Terminator is just how much Cameron accomplishes with such a limited budget. These days he's known for making the most expensive movies of all time, inventing new filmmaking technologies and singlehandedly advancing the state of the art with infinite resources at his disposal. In 1984, though, he was out to prove himself and making a movie for just over $6 million. While that went further in '84 than it does now, it still isn't a lot of money considering what the movie pulls off. The Cameron of The Terminator is the guy who worked as an art director and FX designer for Roger Corman's New World Pictures -- a guy who knew how to stretch a buck and would work tirelessly until everything was up to his insanely high standards. And say what you want about even his more recent super expensive movies, but the money is still up on the screen.

Cameron wisely hired Stan Winston Studios to do the visual effects, which remain impressive and not just because we know they were done on the cheap. There are those that might argue that some of the model work, stop motion photography and animatronic Schwarzenegger heads don't hold up. I beg to differ, but that may because I tend to prefer visual effects that are practical and tactile (though, to be fair, the CG in Terminator 2 represents some of my favorite FX of all time). Even the future of 2020 as presented here in the opening moments remains more powerful with just a few endoskeleton models, some ships, some lasers and a few dozen skulls than any of the CGI in the last two Terminator films. It's like comparing Star Wars to the prequels: less is more because we know where to look and just a few images can stand in for a much bigger story existing just outside the frame.

How good is The Terminator? It's so good that it has survived three bad sequels, at least two of which were essentially remakes of the same story. It's one of my favorite action movies of all time and one of my favorite movies of the '80s. It made possible the careers of both James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and movies are better for having both. It is a perfect movie in that it is an engine that perfectly does what it sets out to do. It is relentless and exciting, imaginative and executed with expert efficiency. James Cameron has done bigger in a number of films, but he has never done better.


  1. Excellent review and i agree on all your points, Cameron's best and still for me the best film of the series...

  2. It's a bit of a shame given his early work that he seems hellbent on doing three more Avatar movies. I also still find it hard to judge Titanic because the phenomenon surrounding it was just so ubiquitous at the time that even just hearing the opening flute of My Heart Will Go On triggers a Clockwork Orange-like reaction. True Lies is probably the last Cameron movie I can say I enjoyed on anything other than a technical level, and you have to wonder what he would have gone on to do if Titanic and Avatar hadn't been such huge hits.

    T2 edges out The Terminator for me as far as my personal favorite, but I can't argue against the original being the better movie.

  3. Back in the 80's I recorded The Terminator off of WGN. I maybe watched it 100 times. I don't think I saw the unedited version until a few years ago. I love it so much. Side question- am I the only one who loves The Abyss?

    1. Nope! I'm a fan of The Abyss, but it's a bit of a mess. Cameron never did figure out how to integrate the Spielbergian hippy-dippy stuff with his patented action-adventure elements. Still, the special effects are great, and Alan Silvestri's score is magnificent.

    2. Nope! I´m also a fan of both versions.
      The ending doesn´t really work and the message is a little bit over the top, but everything else is just fantastic.
      Every time I watch it I´m wondering why Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio didn´t had a bigger career.

    3. Agreed on MEM. She was awesome.

    4. She has the curliest hair. Like the curliest.

  4. Love Terminator! The pacing, effects, and story are superb. In addition to all the action/sci-fi awesomeness, the second-act scenes with Kyle and Sarah do a great job of creating an emotional foundation for the whole franchise -- something that has only been replicated in the TV series and, to a lesser degree, in T2. My only nitpick is that some of the exoskeleton stop-motion near the end of the film could be smoother, but otherwise the movie holds up exceptionally well over thirty years later.

  5. I'm convinced now more than ever that the only person that should be directing/writing/producing a Terminator film is James Cameron. Not a single moment in the last three films has that feel of menace, doom, and all around perfection that Cameron was able to capture in some parts of the original and larger ones in its sequel. Unfortunately I feel that, having seen ROTM and Salvation(I will NOT see Genisys)that I cannot UNsee those films and capture that feeling of epicness I felt upon my first viewing of T2. How I miss the Terminator of old.

    1. It's so hard to imagine this in the world we live in now because we hear so much about films beforehand but when I first saw T2 and the Kid was inbetween the two Terminator's and the flowers dropped, I did not know the twist and it was amazing, I still remember mouth sat open in shock, that's why I love film,
      I can even watch T3 but After that im out, not decided on the last one yet?

  6. You mentioned the soundtrack by Brad Fiedel. It's one of only a handful of soundtracks that I regularly listen to. It's maybe even better than the movie, and I love the movie.

    By the way, heads up, buyers beware, etc, the original soundtrack contains nearly none of the music from the's a bunch of pop songs from the era (?!?! I know, right?). But there is also another soundtrack which is the score from the film, and that's the one you want.