May 27, 2014

Movie Review: The Terminator (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.” – Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn)

Director: James Cameron

Writers: James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd, William Wisher (additional dialogue), Harlan Ellison (The Outer Limits teleplays "Soldier" and "Demon with a Glass Hand")

Producers: John Daly, Derek Gibson and Gale Ann Hurd

Studio: Orion Pictures (later bought by MGM in 1998)

Major Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen

This (along with Aliens) is the movie that forgives Cameron all his subsequent hubris. Filmed on a shoestring budget of just $6.4 million, The Terminator became a sleeper hit and then exploded into the insane mega-franchise we know today. Oh, and it helped that Schwarzenegger fellow really launch his career.

No one saw this film coming. In 1984 the big buzz was about movies like Ghostbusters, Star Trek III and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Then in late October this movie about an unstoppable robot killer from the future hit the screens. And would my parents (i.e. mom) let me see it? No. Apparently killer robots are too intense for a 12-year-old. So I would have to wait until it came out on VHS in 1985 and I could cajole my dad into renting it.

It blew me the Hell away. And the more I watched it in years to come, it still blew me away. It’s this perfect little story but with the action and tension of a much larger film. You’re dealing with the salvation of the human race, but remain focused on just three characters.

It’s hard to picture now, what with two (increasingly larger) sequels, then Terminator: Salvation and now Terminator: Genesis will happen in 2015. But at the time, The Terminator was unlike anything else anyone had seen on a movie screen. Unless you count the Harlan Ellison Outer Limits stories which Cameron unwisely mentioned as inspiring him. Ellison jumped all over him and got a retroactive credit.

For me the iconic scene of The Terminator character isn’t the massacre at the police station, his impromptu eye surgery or even the final scene in the factory. It’s when that child’s toy gets crushed and you see the cyborg begin his methodical killing of everyone named Sarah Connor. It drives home that this relentless machine cares about only one thing and would torch the world if that is what it took for him to complete his assignment.

Looking back, it’s hard to picture Ah-nuld as Kyle Reese and Biehn as The Terminator. That was the original idea before someone wisely realized that the Human Wall was a much better choice for a remorseless killing machine. Biehn brought weariness and a frayed “on the edge” bent to Reese that Schwarzenegger would never have been able to pull off. Plus, Biehn and Hamilton had some genuine chemistry together. They cling to one another, two desperate people trying to outwit and outrun something that doesn’t eat or sleep and wants them dead. Again, the amount of emotion and tension in what is essentially a three-person film make The Terminator feel larger than it is. That is why this is still the best of four franchise films made so far. Yes, I know plenty of people like Judgment Day more. But that is another discussion for another time.

Where does this fit on the list? It’s a top 10 for me, a genre-defining film that has few if any flaws. Children of Men has more emotional depth and some amazing tracking shots. But it didn’t rewrite what was possible to put on the screen. The Terminator did just that and that is why I’m slotting it (currently) at #2. It’ll likely come down a notch or two, but I am hard-pressed to see it drop much.


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