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The Terminator (1984)

by on 2011/01/22

The Terminator is a movie I’ve seen so often, and which has become so familiar, I might have exhausted any fresh consideration of its cheap thrills and Big Ideas alike.  Can one become too familiar, even with a classic of science fiction?  Maybe, and yet I keep returning to it.

The setting is Los Angeles, in 1984.  Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) ekes out a living as a waitress, with a roommate, few strings, and fewer prospects.  When a serial killer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) begins gunning down other women with the same name, the police are unable to protect her.  A stranger, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), wants to help, though his tall tales of a postwar future make him only slightly less suspicious.

I suppose I was wrong in expecting no surprises in this screening, my umpteeth, I suspect.  I’d never noticed before how downright talky it would get.  Whereas I remember its sequel, Judgment Day, being a nonstop sequence of action beats, this Terminator felt strongly modulated:  action, talk, action, talk, action, talk, and so on.

The movie feels very much like what it is:  the first entry in a franchise.  Serious screen time is devoted to outlining its mythology, and then filling in those outlines.  Whether we see it ourselves in flash-forwards, or listen to Kyle’s hollow ramblings, the filmmakers lay down a lot of groundwork for later mining.

Bear in mind the story takes place toward the Cold War’s twilight and, while it exploits the spectre of nuclear horror, it pins the blame on technology that “got smart”.  While its sense of machine intelligence is more industrial than informational, that aesthetic makes sense from the point of view of pathetic fallacy.  Robots are more resonant than subroutines.

I say “resonant” rather than “threatening” because The Terminator itself is not the one-sided affair you might expect.  It deliberately seeds its script with wry ironies.  Sarah’s ansafone assures her callers, “Machines need love too.”  A fellow waitress dismisses their daily drudgery, “In a hundred years, who’s gonna care?”  At one point, Reese warns Sarah she’s hurting him but, at another, he becomes like his inhuman prey, suggesting “Pain can be controlled . . . just disconnect it.”

However good Biehn and Hamilton are — and they are very winning here — the main draw is Arnold Schwarzenegger as Connor’s stalker, the titular Terminator.  Like the similarly-derided Keanu Reeves, Schwarzenegger is singularly compelling when cast in an appropriate role.  The T-101 cyborg is just such a role.

Discount his terrible hairdo.  Overlook his hairless brow ridge.  Ignore the primitive mannequin.  Schwarzenegger’s greatest asset is not his delivery of “I’ll be back”, but rather a deliberate, mute menace.  Biehn plays Reese with a shellshocked mania, and Hamilton channels a suffering skeptic, yet neither quite matches his intensity.  Only their terrible hair poses any kind of threat.

The future, on the other hand, does not look terrible.  Which is to say, it makes the terrible look great.  A bleak, black world strewn with rubble along the ground, and airships in the sky, the scenes remain convincing, despite their age and artifice.

Some effects betray themselves:  the visible grain in any “lightning” scene, the aforementioned mannequin, and the occasional jerky stop motion.  I understand the need for each, but not why they’re used in certain contexts.  For example, we see some convincing shots of Arnold with his eye missing, so why do most other scenes resort to the unconvincing mannequin?  Also, why employ stop motion in scenes where we don’t see a robot in full?

Still, these nitpicks are forgivable in an exceptional early effort from writer/director James Cameron.  In general, the visuals work well.  The grainy stock supports the grungy quasi-noir feel, “Tech-Noir” as an in-joke suggests.

A distinctive score by Brad Fiedel rounds out the proceedings.  Very much an Eighties take on tomorrow, it relies on extensive percussion, orchestral hits, metallic effects and, fortunately, only the occasional cheesy synth brass sound.

Along with his contemporary, Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner), James Cameron changed mainstream science fiction considerably.  Another B-movie raised nearly to an “A” game, The Terminator fuses a dystopic outlook with a sleek economy.

Its successors — even with the benefit of hindsight — never managed to match it, let alone surpass it.  The only one to rival it would prove to be its sequel.

* * * *

Rated R/18A for frightening scenes, language, nudity, and violence

108 minutes

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