More than Thirty years later, we are still getting films based on the characters created by James Cameron in this essential 1984 classic. This film is so influential on modern cinema and culture that it is the equivalent of an earthquake. The ground moved and the world took notice. This was a mostly unheralded film at the time. It was done on a relatively low budget, it’s star was not yet the household name that he would become, and it was the first real film directed by future “King of the World” James Cameron. This movie laid the groundwork for Cameron’s later career and creative freedom, but here he had to fight to keep control of the project and to try and get it the promotion that it deserved. It came in behind “Red Dawn” on the box office totals for 1984 and barely edged out “City Heat” to be the number 21 film that year with just over $38 million domestically. Modest financial beginnings but big creative ones.
“The Terminator” is a science fiction classic with a time travel element and action galore. The idea of a future ruled by machines was frightening in 1984, in fact that idea had been around a long time. In 1970, “Colossus:The Forbin Project” imagined a world dominated by a super computer. Two years before that, HAL 9000 menaced a crew of astronauts on their way to Jupiter in “2001 A Space Odyssey”. The future depicted here involved the machines trying to wipe out the last vestiges of human resistance, using robotic devices disguised as humans for infiltration purposes. These cyborgs are nearly indestructible and as the hero of the film says to the target Sarah Conner: “ 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.”
An implacable foe that was somehow defeated in the future, creates a means by which it can reverse the outcome of the machine war. It will travel back in time in one of it’s cyborg forms and kill the future leader of the human resistance movement that defeated it. In essence, it is going to perform an abortion by killing the mother of it’s foe before she can give birth to him. The notorious writer and gadfly Harlan Ellison sued the studio, claiming that the concept for the film is based on his works. The notion of robots and cyborgs may be part of Ellison’s legacy, but Phillip K. Dick had stories involving androids and you did not see him claiming to have written the story that Cameron came up with. The studio settled and includes a disclaimer giving Ellison acknowledgement for his work as an inspiration, but Cameron is none to pleased with this and legitimately resents the usurping of his creativity.
We meet Sarah Conner, played by future ex-Mrs. Cameron Linda Hamilton, who is an average girl just trying to get by with an average life. She has an unreliable boyfriend, a chatty room mate and a job waitressing at a chain restaurant. She only becomes aware that something is going on when some other women who share her name are violently murdered at the hands of the hulking figure we first see arriving at the start of the film. She hardly seems like she would be an important world figure, but that is the beauty of science fiction, it lets us speculate on the future and imagine a variety of “what-if” scenarios. The cleverness of Cameron’s story will win out in the end as we discover how the future and the past collide in more than the way the Machines of the future have anticipated. Before we get to that part of the story, let’s look at the one essential element that makes the movie so compelling from the very first, the villain of the piece.
Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up in a burst of blue energy, naked and looking ominous without the intervention of any make up appliances or special effects. His physique and unsmiling face tell us right away that there is something not right about this man. He stands slowly and deliberately and moves with precise malice. When the human from the future, Kyle Reese (a terrific Michael Biehn), arrives in the same manner, his reaction is not at all the same. He is shaken, twisted and practically vomits when he is dropped into the present day of 1984. We can tell he is a tough guy from the scars and look on his face, but he is clearly a human being.
The indifference with which Arnold’s Terminator dispatches the three punks that he takes clothes from is another early tip-off to the violence that is to come. Frequent Cameron supporting player Bill Paxton has a small part as the most cooperative and cowardly of the three reprobates that provide the Terminator with his costume. The spiked and colored hair are give a ways that the time is 1984. The only thing missing from these three is a mohawk to cap off their identification as 80’s punks. Later scenes in the club where the Terminator has stalked Sarah to will provide a variety of visual cues to the times with narrow ties, high collars and big shoulders leading the way. The most awesome piece of accessory though, that helped mask the identity of the Terminator, was the pair of sunglasses he acquires. The partial wrap around and rectangular cut of the lenses is futuristic enough to be cool but trendy enough to be in fashion. They are the only piece of fashion from a movie that I can ever remember influencing me. I bought a pair of Gargoyles from the Sunglasses Hut in the Glendale Galleria in 1985 when I also bought my first convertible. With the top down I sometimes felt a little like the Terminator cruising the streets of Los Angeles over the next few years.
The Terminator has very few lines in the movie but they are often clever enough to work as a counter point to the dialogue of another character. Most fans of the film will recall the menu choices the machine scrolls through when responding to the landlord who is inquiring about the smell in the boardinghouse room. The sequence that I get a big laugh from comes earlier when the Terminator is gathering weapons to use in his pursuit. He lists off a inventory of guns that he wants from the gun store owner.
“The 12-gauge auto-loader.The .45 long slide, with laser sighting.Phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range.”
The clerks retort ” Hey, just what you see, pal! ” is a hysterical example of the nonplussed response from a gun store owner unable to recognize anything other than a possible customer. Equally funny, although easily missed is the clerks addendum when the Terminator says he will take them all. “I may close early today.”
The clerk is played by long time Roger Corman favorite Dick Miller, who appeared earlier in the year in my favorite movie from 1984, Gremlins.
After murdering the other Sarah Conners in the phone book, the Terminator locates our Sarah’s apartment and ends up killing more innocents in his pursuit of his objective. The telephone is used a couple of times as a device to get the machine close to the target. This leads to the showdown between the Soldier and the Terminator in the night club. Just as the machine is targeting Sarah, who thinks Reese is the bad guy following her, Reese jumps in with his shotgun and temporarily stops the Terminator in a wild shootout that is the first furious action scene in the film. The relentless barrage of shots should be enough to stop a small gang of hoodlums but it only manages to make the Terminator pause. The two then have an extended chase and continuing gun battle through the streets of L.A. One of the locations will be familiar to L.A. residents, it is a subterranean parking structure, which to many locals is the necessary evil we all live with. Those continuing ramps and alcoves which make room for all our cars becomes a space for a game of cat and mouse between the visitors from the future.
The movie is filled with quotable lines, the most famous of which has been parodied, repeated and used in a hundred other films and TV shows. It’s number 37 on the AFI list of movie quotes and Arnold has used it in a dozen or more of his subsequent films.
The destruction of the police station results in the elimination of two supporting characters that fans enjoy. Paul Winfield had a poster credit and Lance Henricksen is a cult favorite. They end up being collateral damage in the Terminators relentless quest to kill Sarah Conner. It is a long action sequence that involves a lot of gun play and some more iconic images of the Terminator locked and loaded for action.
Two thirds of the way through the movie, it turns into a love story as Reese and Sarah bond and she actually manages to get him to smile one time during the movie. The stuff that makes the film work for most action/sci fi junkies however is not the sex scene but the effects work of the make up artists and animators. As the Terminator gets more and more roughed up in the fights with Reese and the police, his appearance changes dramatically.
He looks slightly beat up after his first encounters but it doesn’t take long for his exterior to begin to decay. That’s when the prosthetic make up and puppetry starts to pull us into the fantasy of the character. When he scoops out his own eyeball, we have a great yuck moment, provided by a mix of animatronic puppetry and make up. This use of practical effects is one of the things that made the original Terminator a classic. We are privy to the effects technicians best efforts to simulate the events depicted on the screen and even if they are not perfect, they help us suspend our disbelief enough to make the rest of the picture work. The performance by Arnold and the clever make up in the last third of the picture also secure the audiences willingness to go along with the events. If we don’t take those baby steps along the way, the ending won’t work at all. As an audience we have to buy into the idea that what we are seeing is a machine, not just a human being pretending to be a machine. The climax of the picture depends on our willingness to follow the effects to their ultimate 1980s perfection, the stop motion/puppetry combination that occurs after the truck crash.
I was as amazed as anyone else by the CGI breakthroughs achieved seven years later in the sequel, but I will always be a fan of the traditional techniques used to make the slam bang finale of the original film. From “King Kong” to the Ray Harryhausen fantasy films, through to the first “Star Wars” films, stop motion has been used to show us the impossible. This movie essentially completes the process because with the new computer technologies available, the time consuming process has now been limited to occasional animated films.
The rise of the Terminator from the spectacular crash and fire of the tanker truck is one of those great “Holy Crap” moments from a film. A traditional movie would have ended there, but Cameron in his vision knew that the Terminator is relentless. He rises from the ashes and continues his hunt of Sarah Conner in his purest form. Free of the outward facade, a true robotic monster emerges. Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to see several special effects technicians who work in stop motion, speak at “Gumbyfest“. One of these men contributed to the creation of the armature used in these sequences. It is always impressive to me how many people are involved in the production of a single motion picture. Each one brings something to the table and adds to the success (or failure) of a movie.
The sensibility of the director, who also wrote this movie with his then wife and Producer Gale Anne Hurd, elevates it past the “B” picture label that it was certainly described as. “The Terminator” is a lasting piece of cinema history that was an early step by the film maker who brought us the two biggest blockbusters of all time, and the actor who defined the action genre for almost two decades, and who became the Governor of California along the way.