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Wednesday 26 May 2010

The Terminator (1984)

Director: James Cameron
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Lance Henriksen and Paul Winfield
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

The Terminator opened a lot of eyes in 1984. It came out of nowhere, the second movie directed by a man whose first was Piranha II: Flying Killers, a film so bad that it has a relatively safe spot on the IMDb Bottom 100 Films rather than the Top 250. Yet it made a major star out of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who would go on to become one of the biggest box office draws of the decade, one of the most recognised men on the face of the planet and eventually, of course, Governor of California; it created an iconic villain who is among the most memorable in science fiction film history; and it also redefined what could be done without a major budget, something bizarre to consider given that the director we're taking about is James Cameron. This is the man who spent $200m to make Titanic and $237m to make Avatar, so its easy to see him as the worst example of Hollywood excess ever and the last person imaginable as a pioneer of low budget filmmaking.

Sam Raimi said that a director working with little money must innovate to make something float, for example, but a big budget director just wonders what an anti-gravity disc would cost. Orson Welles was more succinct, pointing out that 'the enemy of art is the absence of limitations.' They could have been talking specifically about Cameron, who had no limitations with Titanic. He built a full size replica of the boat, contracted companies who furnished the original to furnish his sets and flew in genuine Picassos from Paris to hang in them. It wasn't just the most expensive film ever made at that point, it cost more to produce than the original ship itself. When he made The Terminator he had only $6.4m but he put it all on the screen for us to see. Whether the first low budget action film to outdo its big budget competitors was The Terminator or Escape from New York in 1981, this was certainly emphasis that a big movie could be made without a big budget.

Of course, there's much more to The Terminator than just being a pioneer. We've all seen it and we all know the plot because it's entered popular culture to a rather pervasive degree. In 1997 a US defence system called Skynet becomes self aware and decides to wipe out the human race which it sees as a threat to its continued existence, starting with a nuclear holocaust that comes out of nowhere. A man named John Connor rallies the human race and organises the survivors into a resistance that fights back and in 2029 is about to win the day but, before it does, Skynet tries to cheat. It sends a terminator, a cyborg assassin, back in time to the Los Angeles of 1984 to find and kill Sarah Connor, John's mother, before he can be born, thus wiping out his entire existence and by extension the threat to theirs. Before he destroys the time machine, John takes the opportunity to send back a soldier, Kyle Reese, to find and protect her, and the fight is on.

From my current perspective 21 years on, it seems almost impossible to imagine anyone except Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the terminator. Yet there were a number of other choices before him, one of which still sounds intriguing to me: I can really see J├╝rgen Prochnow playing the part, albeit in a different way that fit Cameron's original vision of having a terminator that could blend into a crowd. Lance Henriksen, who the director had worked with on Piranha II: Flying Killers, was the original choice, even down to the character design sketches being based on him. Kevin Kline and Michael Douglas were considered for the part, Tom Selleck was rumoured and Mel Gibson turned it down. Of all people, O J Simpson was in the running too but was discarded as a choice because the producers ironically felt he was just too nice to be believable as a cold blooded killer. Maybe I should write a script about sending someone back in time to recast him.

Arnie was originally brought in to play Kyle Reese, the terminator's nemesis. Perhaps this was an attempt to bring an element of size and power to a soldier of the future, given that terminators don't need muscles. After Cameron met Arnie though, both decided that he should take the title role and so Henriksen was relegated to a supporting role. Incidentally, he did end up playing a very different cyborg in Aliens, Cameron's next film, which he wrote during the nine month delay to the start of production caused by his star's prior commitment to Conan the Destroyer. Bishop, Henriksen's character in Aliens, is a fascinating study of how human and machine can merge, all subtlety and social commentary, telling us about ourselves through our reactions and those of the characters to what he does. I wonder how much of that character development came out of what Cameron couldn't write into the cyborg in this film.
As you might expect from someone played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, there isn't an ounce of subtlety or social commentary in the terminator. It has only one purpose: to find and kill Sarah Connor. It is literally unconcerned about anything else at all, about pain or secrecy or innocent bystanders. It just aims at his target and doesn't quit. As Reese says to Sarah, 'It absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.' As such, the severe limitations that had plagued Arnie in his previous roles, such as his strong Austrian accent and lack of serious acting ability, turned into assets. He could get away with appearing very wooden and speaking only sixteen lines, because his amazing physique as a multiple winner of the Mr Universe title naturally lent itself to our subconscious definition of something unstoppable. He looks right when he's totally naked at the beginning and he looks right with his black leather jacket and Gargoyle shades.

After forgettable movies like Hercules in New York and Stay Hungry, Arnie was becoming well known in the early eighties as Robert E Howard's musclebound Hyperborean hero, Conan the barbarian. Yet it was his role here as the terminator that truly defined him and it's easy to see its influence in almost every other part he would play for at least the next decade. After one final sword and sorcery role in Red Sonja, he became again and again an unstoppable machine with cool one liners, including the 'I'll be back' catchphrase that was used for the first time here. It didn't matter if he was playing human or not, he was the unstoppable machine template that every action hero had to follow. He was so right for this that he fell naturally into the role, once even forgetting he was in terminator make up while going for lunch in downtown LA during a break in filming. We can imagine the reactions to such a primeval fear apparently come to life.

It really is the primeval nature of this film that makes it so appealing, rather than any meditation on the future of the human race or the paradoxes involved in time travel. It's just a slasher story in science fiction clothing, all about our fear of what's out there beyond the light of the campfire. It isn't surprising that such a story, which speaks to us on a very guttural level, sprang from very personal places. Cameron was stuck in Rome, broke and unable to get home, surrounded by people who couldn't help him because he didn't speak the language, a time that he described as 'the greatest alienation in my life.' So he conjured up an idea of a 'metallic death figure rising Phoenix-like out of fire' as a fantasy of being able to do anything, without fear of consequences. 'It's like the dark side of Superman,' he wrote. 'Everybody has that little demon that wants to be able to do whatever it wants, the bad kid that never gets punished.'

Of course, the terminator is a villain, in cinematic terms, and with such a powerful wish fulfilment villain, the heroes had to be extra heroic. The one thing that Cameron didn't bring to this script was a strong relationship between Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, which was introduced at the suggestion of the film's backers. Cameron is known for writing stories featuring strong women, but as this film begins Sarah Connor is absolutely not that. She's utter fluff, almost a MacGuffin, because she's the most important thing to everyone in the movie but she doesn't actually do anything of importance, except by accident. It's interesting to note that Cameron married Linda Hamilton, who plays Sarah Connor, but not until 1997, long after she had bulked up to become the tough as nails version for the sequel. After this film, he married its producer and co-writer, Gale Anne Hurd, who had to be tough to succeed as a female producer in Hollywood.

This anomaly in Cameron's leading female characters meant that Linda Hamilton had a tough task on her hands, one that she was able to live up to. It's one thing to play a strong character but it's another thing entirely to play a weak character who could believable become strong at a later point in time, like the sequel made seven years later. In this film she's a victim, just like any other victim in a slasher movie except that she can't be allowed to die. She's an inconsequential waitress with no real sense of self, yet she will apparently give birth to the man who will save the human race, and have the strength of personality to prepare him for his life's work. It's amazing to watch the first two Terminator movies back to back and see the difference in Linda Hamilton, not just her muscles but her attitude. She managed the task of being both the slasher victim in the first movie and the last woman you'd ever want to mess with in the second.

As Kyle Reese, Michael Biehn is a great soldier, crude but effective. Even though he's suddenly thrust into the middle of the big city halfway through the 1980s everything he does is done how he would do it in a combat zone, which of course from his point of view is precisely where he is. A very telling line from a deleted scene, has Sarah telling Reese that 'wherever you go, you bring the war with you.' He's the man who saves Sarah and, by extension, both John Connor and the future of the human race, but he's more out of place in LA than the terminator. His grocery list just contains what he needs to make plastique. He doesn't use headlights because hunter killers can track them. When Sarah asks him about the women in his time, his answer is merely 'good fighters'. Yet there's depth enough that he has come through time for her. Biehn, who originally auditioned for the part of the terminator, is a much better Reese than Arnie would have been.
There are other people in the film beyond the three main characters but the story focuses in so closely on them that nobody else has much of a chance. Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen are decent detectives, Earl Boen is memorable enough as a police psychiatrist to be asked back for the first two sequels and there's the always welcome Dick Miller as the gun salesman from whom Arnie gets his much quoted Uzi 9mm. Miller is another link to another name worthy of mention because while he wasn't directly involved, this film is possibly the most obvious product of his legacy as a filmmaker. He's Roger Corman, who regularly cast Dick Miller as star or supporting actor and who gave James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd their starts in the business. Cameron started out as art director and miniature builder for Corman's Battle Beyond the Stars and shot second unit on Galaxy of Terror. Hurd was Corman's executive assistant for quite a few years.

There are a number of names offscreen who deserve much praise here. Brad Fiedel's music is still excellent, fortunately an anomaly for the decade it was written in, as most electronic scores for eighties films sound painfully dated today. Fiedel's music is recognisably eighties but also has a timeless quality that made it work just as well seven years later in the sequel and on from there to the rest of the media franchise that this film spawned. Maybe it's the simplicity of it that makes it so effective, reminding of the simplicity of the themes John Carpenter writes for his own movies. I used it for some time as my background music when playing Doom. Then there are the effects which are highly impressive for the budget. Amazingly they weren't nominated for an Academy Award, though only three films were in 1985, and it's notable that every picture Cameron has directed since has been nominated for Best Effects, regardless of the quality.

The success here is mostly due to the presence of Stan Winston in the crew, though he was not yet the legend he later became. He had been a versatile makeup and effects artist for some time but his animatronic terminator skeleton was what made everyone sit up and pay attention. This walking metal endoskeleton, perhaps even more than Arnie's face, helped make the terminator one of the great iconic villains of the cinema. It's hard to imagine a better final battle than the one Winston conjures up here with half a terminator, seemingly just clutching hands and glowing eyes, dragging itself ever onward towards its goal. The facial prosthetics are more dubious, but they're good enough and some would still stand up today, such as when the terminator gets run over by a truck, cleverly mirroring an earlier scene where the exact opposite happens. Today it would be done closer up with CGI and stylish camera angles but it would be no more effective.

It's often said that the biggest problem with Hollywood today is that it has the technology down but it's forgotten that it needs quality stories to go with it. Cameron's latest film, Avatar, is the epitome of this, being possibly the most technologically advanced picture ever shot, gorgeous to look at in every way, but with a story that plays out like a fourteen year old fanboy's attempt to put Pocahontas into space. Back in 1984, Cameron and Hurd had a story to back up their action, a commentary on man's relationship with technology. I've always seen the opening sequence as a microcosm of the film as a whole. An old black guy is happily doing his job but the terminator pops through time and screws up the electrics of his garbage truck. He hasn't a clue what to do and so runs away. The film is an extrapolation: we have a love/hate relationship with our magical technology and, at least in The Terminator, the result is a literal war against the machines.

While Cameron is a science fiction action nut who mostly works in a traditionally male genre, one of his biggest achievements as a filmmaker is to cross that demographic line and make pictures that appeal to a female audience too. Much of that surely has to do with the powerful female characters he writes into most of his stories, especially here where Sarah Connor doesn't start strong but by the end of the film, finds herself well down that road. She's an empowering role model to women. Yet it's more than that. What's possibly most important about The Terminator is that when all is said and done, it has something for all of us. It's a great action piece, a great horror film, a great thriller, a great science fiction flick and even a great romance. Unlike a film that seems ostensibly similar like Robocop, though still a great movie, The Terminator speaks on a primal level to all of us: boys and girls, men and women. That's an enviable achievement.

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