The World According to Arnie – The Terminator (1984)
Now we’re talking. After a pretty lackluster (to say the least) start to his career, Arnie finally finds the role he was born to play. A massive, hulking, emotionless robot killing machine in James Camerons (official) directorial début. And what a terrific film it is.
It’s 1984 Los Angeles and waitress Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is happily living out a normal life, unbeknownst to the fact that she’s living through histories most horrendous fashion period. In separate storms of lightening two naked men appear out of nowhere. One is a musclebound Austrian cyborg delightfully known as The Terminator (Arnie) and the other is Kyle Reese, soldier from the future (Michael Biehn). In the future, after a nuclear war started by machines, most of humanity has perished. But a small number of survivors, led by John Connor, fight back. Connor is on the verge of victory when the machines, not ones to play by the rules, make one last move, and send a cyborg back through time to kill the mother of the unborn leader of the resistance. In turn, John sends Reese to protect his mother, and himself.
Arnie, as The Terminator, is terrific. Granted, it’s not exactly the most demanding role, but what he does, he does brilliantly. He projects a terrifying threat, the emotionless face, the constantly scanning eyes and the monotone, robotic voice all combine to create a classic horror character, in the mould of Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger. He’s a virtually unstoppable killing machine, and Arnie, with his imposing physique, creates one of the most memorable characters in film. Apparently he suggested that the Terminator should turn his head slowly, left and right, scanning like a security camera, keeping with the theme of a machine, and it works brilliantly.
Linda Hamilton is very good as Sarah. She is particularly successful at pulling off the subtle shift in her character, who begins the film as a normal, average horror film victim, to a strong woman capable of surviving the relentless pursuit of a robot killing machine. She makes the character believable, and what’s smart about it is that Connor doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary. She manages to overcome her pursuer through grit, determination and a little bit of luck.
Michael Biehn is also very good as the soldier sent back from the future to protect the woman he loves. His love of a woman he only knows from a photograph is at base level absurd. But Biehns performance sells it, and we believe. Just as he was in the future, he is clearly outmatched by an enemy far superior, and he uses his guerilla know-how to defend Sarah, and John. He is particularly effective in the scenes where an understandably disbelieving Sarah learns the truth about her adversary, selling the story and making it not only believable, but terrifying.
Written by Cameron, William Wisher and Gale Ann Hurd, the screenplay is simple in it’s structure, direct and effective. There is plentiful exposition, which is necessary to broaden what is essentially a very simple story, but its masterfully drip fed throughout the film. We gradually learn the scope of the story, and how and why these future soldiers travelled back in time because of an anonymous waitress.
As I said earlier, this is James Camerons official début film. After doing fx work on the original Piranha, he was hired as director for Piranha II: The Spawning, only to either quit, or be fired (or a combination of the two) a few weeks in. That’s probably a substantial blessing, because as a début film, The Terminator ranks up there with the best of them. The film, made on a modest budget of $6 million, looks terrific, especially the brief future scenes, with the humans battling the huge machines on the ground and in the air. For the most part, the special effects are seamless, particularly the rear projection. The brief future scenes are incredibly believable, and expand the story to an epic scope. The stop motion of the metal Terminator, and Arnies model head are a bit clunky in this day and age, but well made considering and they don’t effect our experience of the film when viewing the film today. Cameron originally envisioned the character of The Terminator as a small, unremarkable person, able to blend in with the crowd. He was considering Lance Henrikson (who appears as a cop), and Michael Biehn for the role, and Arnie (who was already attached to the film) for Kyle Reese before he wisely chose to switch it around. It was a very sensible decision.
The score by Brad Fiedel is hit and miss. On one hand, it’s just like the film itself, simple and epic. The opening credits with the simple percussion is terrifically effective, and the love theme is brilliant. These are understandably the only noticeable parts of the score to carry over to the sequel. The other aspects of the score are a little dated when viewing the film today. The electronic element is typical of the 80’s, but a little cheesy by todays standards. It dates the film in a way that no other element does, apart from the fashion and hair. But the film is set in 1984, and unfortunately that was the fashion then. The films crew is also filled with terrific people like effects guru Stan Winston, cinematographer Adam Greenberg and editor Mark Goldblatt.
I mentioned earlier that this was essentially a horror film, in the vein of Halloween. The young woman pursued by a seemingly invincible assailant. But it transcends the horror genre by perfectly blending the standard horror theme with science fiction, action and thriller elements to create one of the best films of the 1980’s. I hadn’t seen The Terminator for quite a few years and was surprised at how good it actually was. This is the film that made Arnies career, which is a mixed blessing. We can thank Cameron for Junior and Jingle All The Way, or for Predator and Commando. I like to choose the latter.