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The Terminator
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen

Written By: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd Directed By: James Cameron

The Short Version

The Terminator is one of the all time classic sci-fi movies.

The Terminator is one of the all time classic action movies.

The Terminator is one of the all time classic movies, period.

Even after more than two and a half decades, it still retains all of its power.

This one’s an easy call: The Terminator belongs in everyone’s permanent library.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Spiced, aromatic cheese with an Austrian accent.  Once you try it, you’ll remember it.

Pairs Well With...


Can’t imagine why I picked something named after a guy who’s been terminated.  Oh, and it’s not really an ale. 

The “Ale” be Bock.  (Maibock, specifically, and hey: The Terminator shows up on May 12, 1984.)

“Listen, and understand.  That Terminator is out there!  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!

Once upon a time, James Cameron was able to show his amazing talent and make a powerful, game-changing movie without solving every problem by throwing insane amounts of money at it. 

The Terminator is one of those powerful, game-changing movies.  Indeed, I’d argue that even now, it remains Cameron’s best.

Unless you’re an exchange student from a planet that has yet to intercept video signals from Earth, I’m sure you know the story already, but just in case…

When the action begins, we see what passes for Los Angeles in the year 2029.  “What passes” is a darkened, burned-out wreck that makes Berlin at the close of WWII look like Disneyland.  Massive laser platforms roll on treads that crush the human skills littering the ground, and killers that look like metallic skeletons hunt down every breathing person they can find.

A title card appears to tell us what happened, and what’s coming:

“The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire.  Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future.  It would be fought here, in our present.  Tonight...”

“Tonight” happens to be May 12, 1984.  Lightning bolts flash on a back street in LA, and a powerfully built, very naked man appears out of nowhere.  He is a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Commando), Cyberdyne Systems Model 101.  His mission is to find and murder the mother of the leader of the future human resistance, John Connor, before he can even be born.  The target’s name is Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, Dante’s Peak).

Meanwhile, in a back alley elsewhere in LA, more lightning bolts flash, and a leaner, much less healthy looking but still naked man appears.  His name is Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn, The Abyss), and he is very human.  His mission is to protect Sarah Connor and stop the Terminator at all costs.   But first he has to find them, after he finds some clothes, and some weapons…

It’s really too bad that people started giving James Cameron scads of money to make movies.  With The Terminator, his budget was so tight that he rehearsed a scene involving a car windshield being broken a zillion times because he couldn’t afford to splurge for a second windshield if they couldn’t get the shot in one take.  He was given an especially tight leash on his renderings of the future Los Angeles, so instead of going for the absolute state of the art, he went for overall grit and a couple of memorable centerpieces, one of which he was going to use again anyway.  The Terminator forced Cameron to be creative, and to build the film around his abilities as an artist instead of around his abilities as a compulsive shopper.  Had everything been shiny and polished and pretty, this might have been just another sci-fi flick (which is exactly what the studio figured it would be).  Instead, everything is raw and gritty and real, and the result is one of the greatest, most influential movies in modern science fiction history.

And really, much of the credit does rightfully belong to James Cameron.  First, there’s the story (later legally enforced acknowledgements to Harlan Ellison notwithstanding), which on its surface is straightforward enough (as long as you don’t spend too long working through the kinks of the double dose reverse grandfather paradox it presents), and not even necessarily original, but which also has that intangible “it” that strikes a resonating chord with the audience.  That kind of magic isn’t something that you can plan for even attempt to do on purpose (not if you’re being honest with yourself, anyway); it just happens.  In the case of the story for The Terminator, it did just happen.  It’s why you don’t mind when things slow down between big confrontations.  You know that even the small talk is somehow important, and even if you never see another installment in the franchise as it was to be, the world of this film feels so rich that you come away knowing that you’ve experienced something epic.  Even the sex scene is significant; tremendously so, as it turns out, and even before you’re told why, you know… and that telegraphy isn’t a bad thing.  Again, it just adds to the richness of the movie, and the overall epic feel when all is said and done.

That epic story is helped along by epic direction, and despite all of the “epic” budgets he’d be given to play with later on, James Cameron would never recapture what he was able to achieve with The Terminator.  Pick a scene; any scene.  I’ll pick three.

How about the scene where the Terminator first catches up with Sarah?  This is a masterfully directed moment from start to finish.  Cameron has taken the time to establish the atmosphere of the club to a point where it actually feels more alive than it really is.  We know the Terminator is coming.  We know Reese is outside.  We know that a cop is on his way.  We know that the shit will hit the fan once the Terminator spots Sarah – and we know he will – but we don’t know how it will all come together.  The tension’s already high, and Cameron ramps it up even more.  The Terminator walks in and knocks out the bouncer.  It’s not enough to cause anyone else to panic, but it sets up the badassery to come.  He walks through the club.  We know there’s no way he can fail to spot Sarah… until she spills her drink and ducks down to pick it up at just the right moment.  Instead of feeling fake, this actually serves to crank things up further thanks to Cameron’s spot on direction.  When he reaches the end of the club, the Terminator goes back, and this time, he sees her.  Takes the time to recognize her.  The eternity it takes for him to pull his gun has the audience literally on seat edge wondering who’s going to come in from where… and then all hell breaks loose.  The tension breaks into a firefight that feels far more intense than something normally would when there are only two armed men involved.  The Terminator takes hits that he shouldn’t survive, and his “oh, shit” cred reaches a whole new level.  The classic line: “Come with me if you want to live.”  Just… wow.  This scene should be required viewing for film students who want to learn how to direct.  Buildup and release at its finest.

Flash forward to a scene that begins with another classic line: Ah-nold’s first utterance of “I’ll be back.”  Sarah’s in a police station and surrounded by thirty cops.  Reese is a prisoner there, ready to be shipped to the funny farm.  The Terminator walks up to the front desk, asks after Sarah, and then turns and walks away.  We know that it won’t be that simple… and it isn’t.  A moment later, the car comes through the front door and everything gets crazy.  We know in the back of our minds that the cops don’t stand a chance, but the visual proof is even more awesome than what we might have been imagining.  The Terminator is methodical, systematic, and lethal.  His expression never changes; he’s casual and intense all at once.  The unspoken message is clear: he’s there to do a job.  Nothing more, nothing less.  This is his only reason to exist, and he feels absolutely nothing about it.  Part of Cameron’s genius in this film is ramping up the scariness of the Terminator by degrees, and here he truly kicks it up a notch.  Yeah, he was scary before, but he’s frightening now.  The cops don’t have a chance, and the audience truly believes it.  Cameron showcases all of this to perfection, and it doesn’t even require any coherent lines of dialogue once the shooting starts.  The camera conveys it all, and again, the director is presenting a clinic on how to do it right.

Before I bring up the third highlight scene, Cameron also showed his integrity as an artist here.  Leading up to the end, the climactic chase includes a tanker truck explosion.  Studio executives tried to say “That’s it!  That’s the big boom; that’s how these pictures are supposed to end.”  Cameron, as we know, had more in mind; namely, the robotic factory sequence.  As such, it’s said that his response was – literally – “fuck you.”  Amazingly enough – and quite fortunately – Cameron prevailed, and this is a very good thing, because if the film had ended where the studio wanted it to end, everything that had been building up would have felt like a waste, the audience would have felt cheated, and The Terminator probably would have wound up being just another B movie with blown potential.  But instead, what we get is that oh-so-important closing battle that delivers on all of the promises made earlier in the movie, and which cements the place of The Terminator as an all-time classic.

We’ve seen that the Terminator is a badass and that he can take a lot of punishment.  We’ve seen that he’s very task-focused.  But in this final confrontation, we truly discover the meaning of “will not stop.”  As noted, Cameron has ramped up the scariness and the toughness of the Terminator by degrees; at the same time, he has also been ramping up the Terminator’s identity as a machine.  When we first met him, he was a naked man (swaying plumbing at all, if you don’t blink) who may have been socially awkward, but still fit in.  Halfway through, he’d lost an eye and had to do some repairs on his hand, giving the audience a glimpse of the monster within as more of the social niceties of his “cover” fell away.  Now, in this last sequence, all of the flesh has burned away, and what we’re left with is the mechanical skeleton by which all future mechanical skeletons would be judged.  It combines the primal fears of the old world (the skeleton) with the shiny mechanized doom of the new, and once again, Cameron knows how to wring every drop of tension from the chase that follows.  The skeleton limps, but it doesn’t matter.  He keeps coming.  He’s blown apart, but it doesn’t matter.  He keeps coming, even with only half a body and no more weapons but his bony-looking hands.  Even Michael Myers has nothing on the Terminator’s definition of “does not stop,” and Cameron knows how to film it for maximum effect.  Even when the chase is literally reduced to crawling, it has all of the intensity of the high speed stuff involving cars and shotguns earlier in the film; indeed, this scene has even more.  Forget coasting; this is one movie that’s going to fulfill every promise, and James Cameron is there to make sure it does.

Nothing he’s done since has been able to match what he was able to achieve with The Terminator.  Nothing.

Of course, there’s more to this movie than James Cameron.  For example, there’s that other guy that The Terminator propelled to a permanent spot on the A-List, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  (Sure, people knew who he was thanks to Conan the Barbarian, but The Terminator is what really launched him to a level beyond the B-List.)  It’s well known that he wasn’t the original choice for the role – OJ Simpson was considered and rejected, among others, and Lance Henriksen was all set to go – but once Cameron got to meet him in person and decided that maybe Schwarzenegger would be better as the villain than as the hero, movie history was made.  And truly, there could have been no better choice.  Schwarzenegger is able to perfectly play the heartless mechanized executioner; indeed, his “Terminator face” is so cold that it’s sometimes possible to mistake the real Arnold for one of Stan Winston’s effects.  Further, this futuristic killing machine is truly larger than life and in some ways beyond human; there just simply isn’t another physical specimen like Schwarzenegger who can lay a better claim to fitting that mold.  This is truly one of those cases where the right part met the right man at the right time.

And then there’s Linda Hamilton, whom some later audiences might be shocked to see here as an actual “girly girl” instead of someone who might just as easily be mistaken for a man.  Even though the film takes place over a matter of just a few days, the way that Hamilton is able to portray the evolution of Sarah Connor into the woman who would not yet be the powerhouse that taught John Connor to be the leader of the human resistance, but who, by the end of the film, would show all of the sparks that showed her as ready.  She takes it just the right distance, and she does so believably.  It’s a natural progression that never feels forced, and while some of that is story, it only works in the end because of acting.  Some say that the sequel to this film was her finest hour in front of the camera; I say that it’s right here.

And still, there’s so much more.  Brad Fiedel backs up the action with an excellent score, including one of the greatest movie themes of all time.  Stan Winston’s effects are outstanding.  The gritty future on a budget works so much better than it would have if it had been “fully funded,” so to speak.  The supporting cast is outstanding.  The chase sequences are incredible.  Even the 80s music that serves as the background to set the stage of “the present” is spot on.  If you’re finding any real flaws in The Terminator, frankly, you’re looking too hard.  This is a truly outstanding movie.

Bottom line, there’s a reason that The Terminator is looked upon as a modern classic from so many different angles.  Taken as action, taken as science fiction, or just taken as a movie without any genre pigeonholes, The Terminator is one of the true all time greats.  If it’s not already sitting in your permanent library, then you’ve got something missing.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2011

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