by Adam Ferenz
1984. Written by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd. Directed by James Cameron. Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn and Paul Winfield.
Present day, Los Angeles, 1984. A hulking, naked male figure arrives in a flash of light in an alley, soon followed by another man, slimmer, also nude. The first man proceeds to kill a punk and steal his clothing, before vanishing into the night. The other steals the clothing off a homeless man and slips away from a pursuing police office. Later that day, Sarah Connor, a young waitress, is having a truly miserable day at work. It is about the get a lot worse.
The two men are from the future, where the machines of a defense system have taken control and systemically eradicated the majority of the human population, whose survivors are lead by John Connor, the as-yet-to-be-born son of Sarah, and, as we find out, Kyle, the second man to arrive. John sent Kyle back, to trace his mother and protect her from the Terminator, the first man, a cybernetic being sent to kill her. The Terminator begins by killing two other Sarah Connors, as the data from the future did not specify which Sarah Connor was the mother of the leader of the resistance. Only her name and city, and a year.
As one can expect, Sarah only gradually believes Kyle’s story, while the police never do. Not even after the Terminator upends the precinct, sending Sarah and Kyle once again on the run from the Terminator, who follows them. During the 24 hours they run from the killing machine, they build a small arsenal and make love-thus making their son-before the Terminator locates them. Kyle dies trying to stop the machine, which Sarah finally does, by crushing the construct in a steel press. At the end of the film, she is seen driving into a storm, somewhere in Mexico, a young boy having just snapped the photograph that John had apparently given Kyle in order to properly identify her.
The Terminator is a classic of a different sort. It endures for reasons not obvious, yet undeniable once discovered. Not only is Schwarzenegger a star, but Linda Hamilton, as Sarah Connor, is allowed to be that rare thing in movies: a three dimensional heroine. What’s that, you say? She suddenly becomes a bad ass at the end, so how is that three dimensional? Well, let’s back it up a minute. If you were suddenly stalked by a relentless killing machine from the future, would you shrug your shoulders and go “ok, fine, let’s kick ass?” No. You would be afraid, and then curious and probably, at the end, resolute. You would learn, quickly, how to survive, by trial and error. Just as Sarah does here. She is funny, warm, brave and real. Say what you will about James Cameron, but he writes some damn fine female characters. Co-written here, by his then wife, and producer, Gale Anne Hurd.
If the film is about anything, it is survival and fate. But, mainly, this is, to use the vernacular, a balls to the wall action picture with hair on its chest. While there are clunky moments-such as The Terminator fixing his eye, a sequence in which one can easily tell there is a robotic Schwarzenneger, rather than convincing prosthetics-and no, this doesn’t help sell the Terminator as a cyborg, because until then, it had looked convincingly human-can be overlooked, because the film is so tightly constructed.
We meet our protagonist, antagonist, and spend a little time to learn what is happening, and why, then spend the rest of the film running from The Terminator or trying to destroy it. The film takes much of what had happened in science fiction since Star Wars, such as Blade Runner and its dark future, and the rise of computers and speculation about artificial intelligence, which had long been around-don’t forget the Turing Test-and put it in a blender. What came out the other side was a work which was not immediately revolutionary, but which has nonetheless had an impact.
The future scenes of the film, set after Skynet has taken over control of Earth and nearly wiped out the human race, features a lot of night scenes, and scraggly survivors-mostly soldiers crawling through the carnage, including over mountains of skulls, which the machines of Skynet also crush in their path as they pursue the humans. The Present Day is juxtaposed with this, different only in the proliferation of machines, with everyday death still happening, especially now that a Terminator is on the loose.
The scenes owe a bit to the rough aesthetic of the earlier Escape from New York, and juxtapose nicely with the Present Day portion of the film. It is this duality, man and machine, future and present, destiny and uncertainty, which plays a major thematic role in the film. Yet, the film is not heavy on themes and philosophy. Instead, it is interested in dropping you into the middle of some intense action and seeing how far you can go, to make you feel as though you too are being hunted. This is not a film without heart, however, as the final scene, Sarah, now pregnant, rides off into a storm, holding the picture that her unborn son will one day give to his father, so that his mother might live, and he might be born.
This loop, of course, is worth talking about a bit. It is something revisited in both the second and third films, but in this one, establishes the idea of a closed circuit, and of fixed destiny, of what has to happen having to happen because it happened. As Battlestar Galactic put it, all this has happened before and will happen again. John sent his father back in time with the picture taken of his mother at the end of the film, a picture that had to be take so John could give Kyle Reese the photograph, to find Sarah, to have the night of passion with her, and to die weakening the Terminator so she could kill it and run off to give birth to and train John.
If none of this makes much sense, you aren’t alone. It’s the one place in the movie where you see both how well done the film is, and how creaky it is. This is why I feel it is best to focus not on the philosophical implications of predestination and looping, and instead examine the heart and action of the film, and I do mean the action scenes, the set pieces. These are magnificent, perhaps none more so than the final sequence in which the Terminator tries to run Sarah down on the side of the road, is blown up in his truck, loses his skin, and then chases Sarah and a wounded Kyle Reese, into a factory, where Kyle blows the terminator in half, dying in the process, before the machine, still pursuing Sarah, is destroyed by her when she crushes it in a metal press.
The film has many such moments, from the assault on the precinct, in which the Terminator utters the famous line “I’ll be back” before plowing into the front door with a vehicle and gunning down every officer it encounters, to the first showdown between Kyle and the Terminator, in a bar, when Kyle saves Sarah’s life. And all of this is in service to the birth of an action hero. Kyle may be the soldier, but it is Sarah who wins the day with her courage and resolve, brought out by the situation and some guidance and support from Reese. This is the rare action film in which the characterization happens in large part through the action, something which George Miller used to even greater effect in his instant classic Mad Max: Fury Road. Had to get that plug in, folks.
So, what does this all mean and why is this the second straight rambling bloviating work from me about a film? That is because once again, this is not a superbly deep film, but it is a superbly entertaining one. A film which, while beginning to date, still presaged an age of extreme AI, and the all out action films of the coming years. A film which most definitely belongs on this list, because it is indeed one of the great science fiction works of all time. So, go see it for the first time, or the hundredth time. Enjoy the film however you must. But, do see it, and remember…be kind to your machines…