RT Bonded with James Bond, spent 12 Days with Friday the 13th, and Trekked with Tim; this week, we get Terminated by revisiting every Terminator film leading up to Terminator Salvation. I’ve seen The Terminator, love Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but could never be bothered to watch Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines all the way through. (I blame the casting of Claire Danes as a future resistance fighter.) I want Kyle Reese’s stolen department store Nike Vandals, and am still baffled as to why that one-time promising break-out star of the ’80s, Michael Biehn, never quite made it. In revisiting the Terminator franchise, I hope to unlock the secret of what makes for a good sequel, figure out its chicken/egg causality, and see how the new flick measures up to what’s come before it.
And so, we begin.
The year is 1984. James Cameron – Canadian, Roger Corman effects designer, newbie director – debuts his seminal sci-fi thriller, The Terminator, which he’d written from a nightmare he had while helming his first flick, the Corman-produced Piranha II: The Spawning. The film begins in the year 2029 A.D. (just twenty years from now – prep those disaster emergency kits) and shows us that the future is a bleak wasteland where robot machines chase what’s left of humanity through a junkyard world, equipped with lasers. Because in the ’80s, nothing was deadlier than a laser.
After that bleak flash forward, we land in present day 1984, where Cameron introduces what will become a seminal character to the entire science fiction genre, in a single, simple shot. Amidst lightning flashes on a dark, gloomy night, a hulking male figure lands, nude, in dreary Los Angeles. It’s the Governator!
Arnold Schwarzenegger (henceforth to be referred to as “Ahnold” or “The Governator”), at the time a 37-year-old seven-time Mr. Olympia bodybuilding champ who had reprised his titular role as Conan the Destroyer four months prior, had originally been considered for the role of soldier Kyle Reese (OJ Simpson, co-star Lance Henriksen, and Kyle Reese himself, Michael Biehn, were once considered for the Terminator role). Clearly, Cameron ultimately made the right choice, as juxtaposing the hulking, enormous muscled Ahnold with the smaller Biehn in this time traveling “landing” scene immediately makes Biehn – and by extension, humanity – the underdog up against the cold, killing machine that is the Terminator.
The Terminator is a science fiction horror flick, but it’s not without its moments of humor. As the Governator approaches a trio of punks (say hello to Bill Paxton as “Punk Leader”), I swear you can see his junk in the shadows. To which I ask, why would a Terminator need genitals? As Ahnold takes a knifing, we see that he does not feel pain; as he demands clothes from the punks, we learn that his model has an Austrian accent. His deadpan delivery of mundane, every day lines like “Nice night for a walk” and scrolling through programming for possible responses like “F*** you, asshole” take the cake.
Shortly after, our hero lands: the perfectly coiffed, handsomely scruffy soldier from the future, Kyle Reese (played by the perfectly coiffed, handsomely scruffy Michael Biehn, who would star soon again for Cameron in the ’80s sci-fi classics Aliens and The Abyss). If you pause on his landing scene, note the special effects work that went into adding subtle character details: ugly, painful scarring all over Reese’s body reveal a lifetime of battle and also the resilience of a survivor, in a single visual snapshot.
We soon learn that both Ahnold and Reese are after an LA single gal named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, another future Cameron spouse along with producer Gale Ann Hurd). Sarah Connor is what can only be described as a damsel in distress, a character set up that is at first annoying but pays off in the end (and pays off big time in future films). But when we first meet her, it’s clear Sarah is in need of help; she gets stood up by a date, messes up orders at work, is yelled at by customers. When she goes off to the movies by herself, leaving her even more annoying roommate and her boyfriend alone at home, we feel bad for her. And then, she realizes she’s being followed.
The Terminator has one of the funniest kills in movie history, funny because the victim all but deserves it. It’s also the first scene that reveals that this is indeed a horror movie – an indestructible killer on the loose, heroine being stalked – and happens because Sarah’s roommate just can’t put her Walkman down, even while getting a midnight snack after making love to her boyfriend. She dies in slow motion before Ahnold hears Sarah leaving a voicemail and realizes he’s got the wrong girl.
All of which brings me to one drawback to The Terminator; it holds up, but it’s dated. 1980s hair and fashion aside (remember, I love those Vandals), its characters are constantly felled by use of then-modern technology: Walkmen, old fashioned answering machines, day planners that tell pursuers which Big Bear cabins you might escape to… Even the Terminator wasted time by looking up all the Sarah Connors in LA in the phone book. But maybe that’s the point; even with the aid of technology, you just can’t fight technology from the future.
Sarah meets her two would-be suitors in a crowded nightclub alled TechNoir. Get it? TechNoir; future and past, technology and violence. Subtle. It’s one of the film’s best scenes, a ballet of three stranger characters moving towards each other, each isolated within a room full of oblivious dancers. Sarah – ever the passive victim – looks up to meet the barrel of Ahnold‘s gun, a deer in headlights until Reese pulls out his homemade sawed off shotgun and blasts the Terminator away. Alas, like every good serial killer/horror movie villain, the Governator doesn’t die and engages Reese and Sarah in a car chase that culminates in two notable events: Ahnold performs an excruciating self-surgery on his own arm and eyeball (a nod to Un Chien Andalou?) and, finally, Sarah steps up and shows some balls, saving Reese from a suicidal cop showdown.
Held at the police station (where Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen put on a great buddy cop routine), Reese tries in vain to explain that he’s simply trying to save Sarah and, by extension, all of humanity from a killer robot from the future. Why won’t they believe him? They do eventually, when Ahnold – delivering his famous “I’ll be back” line to an unhelpful desk cop – smashes his way through the precinct. Cameron films Reese in upwardly angled hero shots as he rescues Sarah and drives off to spend the night under an overpass and continue cultivating their special Stockholm Syndrome-like bond. (Seriously, would you go anywhere with a crazy sounding dirty homeless looking man with a gun, let alone sleep with him on the second night?)
As Reese teaches Sarah about the future, I begin to wonder; how much of this “history” is circular? Reese teaches Sarah the things she’ll teach her unborn son, who will grow up to teach a young Reese those very same things… And Reese and Sarah make love because he’s been in love with her picture his whole life, which was given purposefully to him by John Connor so that he could send Reese back in time to save his mom and conceive him. And now my head is starting to hurt.
Thankfully, none of those time traveling implications matter just yet. The first Terminator is a horror movie, after all! That means more chases, more showdowns, more false endings (including the awesome scene in which the Terminator emerges from a truck explosion in its Endoskeleton form!) and finally, what I’ve been waiting for the whole time: the chance for wimpy Sarah Connor to grow a pair and save herself, her unborn son, and the future.
As Reese gets shot and begins to falter, Sarah starts to show some backbone. “On your feet, soldier!” she commands, and their dynamic is brilliantly reversed. They elude the Terminator through an empty factory until Reese sacrifices himself (good men are so hard to find), and Sara finds herself in pain for the first time, shrapnel lodged in her thigh. But wait, it’s not over! The Terminator’s Endo-torso is still alive and still in pursuit, and Sarah leads it on an agonizing slow crawl chase through smashing pistons and hydraulics; with a final “You’re terminated, f***er,” Sarah simultaneously beats the machine and tells us she’s been reborn a heroine.
In the film’s final scene, Sarah is driving through Mexico, pregnant and preparing tapes of instruction for her son. A boy snaps a candid photo of her that turns out to be the one that John gives Kyle Reese in the future, tying the film’s questions about time travel and causality together. Sarah drives off into the distance – “a storm’s coming,” after all – and we wait to see what will happen next as the battle for humanity continues.
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