Our review of the 1984 sci-fi/action/horror extravaganza that really should count as the directorial debut of James Cameron, except Piranha 2: The Spawning still totally exists.
In 1984, James Cameron had a literal fever dream, owing to one of those viruses you inevitably pickup on trans-continental flights. Possibly combined with nervous exhaustion from his work on Piranha 2, which I totally believe. Just watching Piranha 2 makes me nervous and exhausted, so making it must’ve been Hell on Earth. No wonder Cameron dreamed of a metal skeleton walking out of a wall of fire…
Returning home to California, Cameron banged out a script about two killer robots, sent back in time by an evil computer to kill the Mother of the Future. One would be the metal skeleton Cameron dreamed about. The other would be some manner of shifting, liquid metal…thing…not even Cameron could imagine pulling off well back then. So he and producer/co-writer/his future wife Gale Anne Hurd scaled things back to one killer robot and the human soldier charged with stopping it. This naturally led to further changes that, ironically enough, helped the film become the major motion picture that it is today, still discussed and loved by nerds and plebs alike. And, if there’s any justice in the universe, it always will be.
All for just six and a half million dollars – a shoestring budget, even for the time. It was the year after Return of the Jedi, and “everybody” “knew” you couldn’t make a sci-fi film for under a ten million dollars. Not unless you were, say, David Cronenberg…and that’s ten million dollars Canadian. Doesn’t even count. Cameron used British money to fund this sucker, and he made every cent count. He’d just spent months working for Italians, after all. And before that, he worked for Roger Corman. If there’s one thing a career path like that will teach you, it’s how to pinch every penny. And if there’s anything Cameron’s career can teach us, it’s that you can use your reputation as a total budgetary Scrooge to wring larger and larger budgets for each of your subsequent films.
But that comes later. If you watched Terminator in 1984, you would’ve seen a movie that looked better than most of its contemporaries – even the ones that cost four times as much, like David Lynch’s Dune. Or 2010: Odyssey Two. It straddles the middle ground between those high-concept science-fantasies and the cheap slasher flicks that were already paying bills all over Hollywood at the time. Some of the few who dare criticize this thing do so by saying it cleaves too closely to its horror movie heritage…but some people…well….[Frost, from Aliens: “Boy’s definitely got a corncob up his ass.”] Terminator’s a film that proves the artificiality of genres – that truly great movies transcend the thoughtless, lazy classification systems that sadly characterize a lot of movie so-called “criticism.” So let’s criticize this fucker up right. What is The Terminator all about, and why’s it so damn good?
Well, it’s a heartwarming coming of age story about an unremarkable, everyday woman who discovers hidden wells of strength within herself when she’s forced to overcome adversity. The adversity just so happens to be a robot from the future, out to kill her because her child will one day lead a resistance movement against its creator. In metaphorical terms, this is a story of generational warfare. Like the Hatfields and the McCoys, if the McCoys were killer robots. Rather than the usual Sins of the Father being visited upon the Son, the Sins of the Son (and, from Skynet’s perspective, anything but total submission counts as a sin) are retroactively applied to the Mother, and she is made to pay for them because…well, women pay for everything in this culture, one way or another. Part of whole package deal you get when you are both the ultimate consumer and the ultimate consumable. Is that fair? Nope. Fuckin’ isn’t. But instead of dealing with this basic unfairness (which sounds too much like work) our society likes to throw up its hands and say, “Why bother? The Apocalypse is just around the corner.”
People sometimes ask me, “Why are you Millennials so cynical? Why the obsession with dystopias that are really all just high school in sci-fi cos-play? Why don’t you have any concept of a future that isn’t Just Like Now?” Well, gee, hoss – I don’t know. Maybe it’s because half the adults we knew growing up were waiting for the bombs to drop so they could go play Mad Max In Real Life. While the other half were waiting for Jesus to snatch ’em out of their clothes and give ’em front-row seats for the Thousand Year Heathen Roast….
The Terminator takes the long way around the barn to justify what boils down to a feature-length chase scene.Plenty of movies did just that but, obviously, we aren’t talking about them because, as a concept, The Terminator allows its film to broach topics that’re too big for those other movies I just slagged off. Topics of free will, determinism, mechanization & the ever-shifting line between human and machine that is cybernetics. [“The 600 series had rubber skin. We spotted them easy. But these are new. They look human. Sweat. Bad breath. Everything. Very hard to spot.”]
To pick the most obvious example: the film starts out (and occasionally flashes back/forward to) a post-apocalyptic future where an army of sentient machines wage genocidal war on human kind, mopping up from the nuclear war they started “a few years from now.” That’s about as bleak as you could get in 1984, with the Cold War still a reality and President Reagan going on about putting missiles in space. Yet here comes Kyle Reese, the human soldier sent back to protect Sarah, with a message from John Connor to his mom. [“The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”] If that’s true – regardless of what future sequels might say (and believe me, we’ll get there) – then the presence of time travelers in this movie’s 1984 suggests, against all other evidence, that there is hope for a better tomorrow.
After all, if we’re going by what I call Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure Rules, and time is closed loop of reflexive causality that no amount of traveling can alter, why would Skynet resort to time travel in the first place? Ah, but that assumes Skynet knows anything about time travel than Kyle Reese. [“I didn’t build the fucking thing!” “Okay, okay…”] That it has access to some special knowledge by virtue of being the machine that destroyed the world. It doesn’t even have a copy of the prewar LA phone book in its database. The terminator has to hunt one up itself, and even then, it still has to go down the list of Sarah Connors.
And then there’s the issue of John Conor’s birth. In the 11th hour, cut-off from everything they’ve ever known, Kyle and Sarah have a moment we all watched over and over again before the internet gave us 24/7 access to other people’s boobs. Was Kyle Reese always John Conor’s father? Was he “fated” to go back in time and hook up with his commander’s mom? The film implies the hell out of that by having Adult John give Younger Kyle a picture of his mother. A picture we see destroyed in the middle of this film and created at film’s end. But if that’s true, then Future John’s talking completely out of his ass when he tells his dad to tell his mom “there’s no fate but what we make.” Is that message genuine, or is it just what Sarah needs to hear during the most traumatic experience of her short-and-heretofore-uneventful life? A little morale-boost from her unborn son, the Great Military Leader? Telling people what they need to hear in order to survive is Basic Military Leadership 101. And even if he’s wrong aboutt the “fate” thing, he’s right about her being stronger than she thinks she can be. Hell, this time, I noticed how Sarah saves Kyle’s damn fool life just a few chase scenes after he first saves her’s. [“No, Reese…they’ll kill you.”] Yeah, there’s someone who knows the LAPD.
It’s maddening. The human side of this film seems trapped in a causal loop, while the robot side seems predicated on what I call Back to the Future rules, where each alteration to the past creates a new timeline that supersedes the old. Otherwise, the only thing Skynet can do to prevent John Conor’s birth is not send a Terminator back in time. And then we’d have no movie. And Skynet would probably cease to exist.
In any other film, this would be a problem, but The Terminator has no interest in how time travel works. It’s interested in one very simple task: freaking its audience the fuck out with its central concept. A task it succeeds at admirably, thanks to Stan Winston and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Part of me will always wonder what might’ve happened if Lance Henricksen had played the Terminator, like Cameron planned before Arnold joined the project. The rest of me knows this film wouldn’t hold up half as well. The reason why all that time travel crap doesn’t occur to you as you watch it is because you spend all your time watching Ah-nuld give arguably the greatest performance of his career, and the best killer robot performance ever committed to film…for about seven years.
He may stick out in a crowd, but his smooth, over-calculated movements and sheer bulk are their own breed of psychological warfare. For once, Ah-nuld’s blank, pale, emotionless face [“…and blackest eyes. The devil’s eyes.”] become an asset to the film he’s in, and he spends this whole time dancing on the edge of what we now know enough to call “the Uncanny Valley,” where fake humans are just real enough to make those few things they get wrong stand out. Like the dead-fish eyes of the fake Ah-nuld head they use for a few close-up shots. That’s a little tough to look at, for reasons the filmmakers didn’t intend. But the rest of the time, Ah-nuld’s so good at being a killer robot, in fact, it became hard to see him as anything else…even after Commando and Predator and…um…Raw Deal…? Really? No. Total Recall. There ya go.
But Ah-nuld gets all the press, to the detriment of his other co-stars, who all deserved better careers. Linda Hamilton carries this film on her back, being both its POV character and the living MacGuffin (see? Consumer and consumable), transitioning from Boring, Normal Person to Horror Movie Survivor more believably than anyone since Jamie Lee Curtis. I’d even go so far as to put her ahead of the First of the Final Girls. Michael Bien is the best action star of the 80s who’s career fizzled out in the 90s, along with the rest of the genre. His soldier’s shouting and gritted teeth are already believable, showing why he could get away with sleeping through Aliens boot camp. [“Somebody wake up Hicks.”] Even the background characters are memorably well-acted. I’d watch the hell out of a Cop Drama anchored by Paul Winfield and Lance Henricksen…in fact, how come Paul Winfield never showed up in Henricksen’s pseudo-mystical Cop Drama, Millennium? Earl Boen’s Dr. Silverman is a preening fool, but I wouldn’t have it any other way, to the point where he may be the series’ secret MVP…the lone voice of reason in this fucked-up, time traveling world. Which, because it is so fucked up, might just also make him the craziest person around.
The only thing that keeps this movie from being perfect are a few cheap shots. The rubber Ah-nuld head. Bits of the stop-motion endoskeleton performance. Little continuity errors, like the placement of peoples arms. Things you only notice because everything else looks so damn good. And I feel bad picking on ’em for it. Oh, you mean to tell me a low-budget movie from the early-80s didn’t have the time or budget to get all the coverage they wanted? Gasp. Shock. Sound the trumpets: we’ve got a revelation on our hands.
Yes, it’s startlingly similar to at least two stories Harlen Ellison wrote for The Outer Limits back during James Cameron’s childhood. So much so that he got his name in the credits by threatening to sue. But that’s his baggage – not mine. Mine tells me this is one of the high points of 1980s sci-fi, combining excellent action, directing, editing, and acting with a distinctive mood and atmosphere that generations of lesser filmmakers and have struggled, and failed miserably, to recapture. This came out the same year William Gibson’s Neruomancer hit bookstore shelves, kicking off what we now call “cyberpunk,” But I want to live in a universe where the name of the club Sarah flees to when she thinks she’s being stalked became the name of the genre: Tech Noir. Like classical Noir of the 40s and 50s, Terminator is an astonishingly smart film disguised as a dumb one, that shows just how smart “dumb” movies can be with a little ambition on their sleeve. Both apocalyptic and hopeful, it’s made of 100%, certified paradox, reconciled by a once-in-a-lifetime collection of talent, vision and drive that leaves you fulfilled…and wanting more at the same time. Which is good, because that collection of talent reconstituted itself less than seven years later, and made one of the greatest, most influential movies of all time…