The ultimate chase movie, and the film that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a superstar. Praise Be.
Back before he made the 3 hour arse-number that was 'The Big Boat Movie', James Cameron made some damn good films. The Terminator was one of the best, a sci-fi chase movie that launched Cameron and his star into the big time and developed a huge cult following, a following so powerful that it would result in not one but two sequels being made.
Devised while he was ill in a hotel in Rome, the script was written backwards from Cameron's vision of a metal figure emerging from flames (a scene which was to become, though he could never have known it, one of the most memorable images in cinema history). Originally set in the future, the time-travel aspect was added before production began, since it would have been too expensive to create all the sets required on their very low budget. The budget was so low that by the end of the film Schwarzenegger was carrying his costume around in the boot of his car and the crew were sneaking about on residential streets without permits trying to grab shots.
Moving the action from 2029 to 1984 actually made for a more interesting storyline. In the future, man is at war with the machines, and having fought back from the brink of extinction, humans had entered into the ascendancy, and were about to deal the killer blow to the machines. Knowing their end was nigh, the machines decided to strike at the leader of the human resistance, one John Connor, not in the present, but in the past, by killing his mother before he was born. (Given that it is the central conceit of the movie, let us just gloss over the myriad problems and paradoxes thrown up by the idea of time travel, and suspend our disbelief for the duration).
To this effect, a ruthlessly efficient killing machine, known as a Terminator, is despatched to 1984 to assassinate John Connor's mother, Sarah. Discovering this plan, the humans use the machines' own time travel technology to send back a lone warrior to protect Sarah and preserve the future of the human race (so no small burden there, then). Both terminator and human must then race to find Sarah and fulfil their duty, each knowing that their kinds continued existence is the prize.
The Terminator begins with a vision of a dystopian future, a desolate wasteland littered with skeletons and the ragged hulks of destroyed machines. Hunter-Killer aircraft roam the sky, and huge juggernauts crush human skulls under their tracks (this symbolism of human things being tread upon and destroyed by machines is a favourite of Cameron's, and crops up all through the film). Soldiers dash between piles of rubble, attempting to evade the machines' powerful weaponry while attacking with their own, in what looks like a horrendously one-sided battle. Over all of this plays Brad Fiedel's haunting, evocative score, as much an integral part of the movie as Arnie himself, and just as memorable.
Leaving the battlefield, we are taken to Los Angeles as it looked in 1984, where the giant machines have been replaced with the more mundane garbage truck. Electricity crackles between metal structures, and a blinding sphere of light appears in the middle of the street. As the light dies away, a birthday-suited Arnie is revealed, looking terrifyingly large and not a bit mean. This is the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101, 800 Series, or Terminator to you and me. Know now that you have just witnessed one of the most significant character introductions ever.
Realising that walking around downtown LA with nowt to keep him decent isn't a good idea, the flesh-covered robot sets off to acquire some clothing. Coming across a gang of street punks, we get our first taste of just how ruthless, and lethal, this visitor from the future is, and are left in no doubt whatsoever that whoever crosses its path is going to have the worst day of their life.
In an alley not far away another sphere of light is appearing, this time fading to reveal the pain-ridden body of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), Sarah Connor's human protector, for whom time-travel has been no comfort trip. Availing himself of clothing and a weapon in a less brutal fashion than his opponent, he sets off to locate Sarah, having the advantage over the terminator of knowing exactly where she lives. He must now contact her before Arnie comes to call, and so the chase begins.
We are next introduced to Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who is just a regular woman, working as a waitress in a diner, and who has no idea that her life is about to be completely turned upside down or, if she's really unlucky, ended. Cameron begins to build the tension nicely, as the terminator takes a methodical approach to finding her and starts executing all of the Sarah Connors in town in phone book order. Sarah becomes aware of danger after seeing news stories about the murders and having a feeling that she's being followed (which isn't paranoia - she is, though it's Reese and not the T-101 at this point).
Before she can get to a police station, the terminator catches up with her, and she is only saved by the presence of Kyle Reese and his shotgun. Taking her away, Reese then lays the full deal on her ? how her son, as yet unborn, will one day become the leader of the human race, and that the expressionless lunatic who just tried to kill her was in fact a walking, talking robot from the future. Needless to say Sarah finds this hard to believe, and the rest of The Terminator has a rather paranoid feel to it, as she doesn?t know who or what to believe.
The movie, like the terminator itself, is a masterpiece of efficiency, and Cameron has elected to allow the action to flow as much as possible, rather than use a lot of dialogue filled scenes, and in doing so keeps up an energetic and frenetic pace. Although he could have allowed Reese to try and persuade Sarah, and the audience, that he was telling the truth with words, Cameron allows the visuals to do that instead, and in the end, after seeing the evidence with her own eyes, she can only come to one conclusion.
The action is not non-stop - there are lulls to allow for some plot exposition, and to set up some of the major action scenes, most notably the police station massacre - but the movie never suffers for this. And though the pace has dropped, the feeling of approaching menace is always there.
Budget issues aside, everything worked magnificently well for Cameron, not least his actors. Michael Biehn is wonderful as the tough soldier from the future, who knows he cannot return home, and makes a believable transition from hard-edged to showing an inner vulnerability that touches Sarah Connor's heart. He engenders real sympathy for his character, and he plays very well next to Linda Hamilton. Hamilton is excellent, and she too makes a believable transition, though in contrast to Biehn's character she moves the other way, beginning as an innocent, a victim, and growing tougher as the story progresses, and in the end becoming one of cinema's great heroines (though this transition would not be fully realised until Terminator 2: Judgment Day). The only fault I can pick is that she delivers her kiss-off line in the factory so poorly, which is a pity more than anything else.
The real star of the show, obviously, is Mr. Schwarzenegger, who doesn't get much to say (he only speaks 17 sentences in the entire film), but in his portrayal of the monotonic cyborg became one of the most iconic figures of the silver screen. He clearly put a lot of work into his performance. When you have been using your face to convey expressions your entire life, it is actually remarkably difficult to stop using them and make your face a blank mask (though had Kimi Raikkonen, the miserable bugger that he is, been around at the time, he could easily have coached Arnie). Schwarzenegger has also changed the way he moved, still moving as fluidly as a human, but with a real economy of movement, just like you would expect of an efficient machine. Even his weapons work is excellent. Having trained for several weeks on their use, Soldier of Fortune magazine complemented Schwarzenegger on his realistic handling of guns on screen.
It must be noted that not all of the stars are human. Stan Winston's special effects, especially considering the amount of money available to him, are stunning, and though the puppet Arnie used for the scene where he removes his eye looks extremely dated now, the model work on the terminator endoskeleton is incredible. Indeed, most of the scenes with this gleaming metal monster, easily the most malevolent robot ever seen on film, would stand up in today's CGI filled blockbusters, only looking a little ropey in the stop-motion animation scenes in which the robot is walking while its full height is on display.
In The Terminator Cameron created a masterpiece, and made himself and Schwarzenegger world-wide stars. Given that it was only his second film, his direction is breathtakingly assured and wonderfully deft, and his pacing is spot on. The sense of danger increases steadily throughout the piece, culminating in a truly thrilling denouement at a computer factory where Sarah Connor must face the T-101 alone. Car chases and gunfights along the way are tightly staged, and the fact that the film is mostly shot at night imbues the film with a great atmosphere, helped in no small part by Fiedel's brooding Terminator Theme. Even the love scene between Reese and Sarah seems perfectly natural (and is, as it happens, a massively important plot-point), rather than the almost obligatory, but decidedly unwelcome, scene forced into so many Hollywood films.
I judge that The Terminator contains a full 5 units of goodness. Any Schwarzenegger fan should own this, and everyone else should see it at least once.
Michael Biehn (Kyle Reese)
Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor)