Sci-Fi Movie Index

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The Terminator , 1984. Directed by James Cameron. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, Earl Boen.

Synopsis: Two time travellers appear in 1984 Los Angeles. One is a cyborg assassin--a "terminator"--tasked with killing a woman named Sarah Connor in order to prevent her unborn son from leading a war against the machines. The other is a soldier sent to protect her, though whether he can do so effectively with the tools available is a dicey proposition, especially once he's apprehended by the police after a nightclub shootout. Sarah, on the other hand, must find resources within herself to survive The Terminator's murderous pursuit...

Transcending Expectations: I originally saw The Terminator the night it opened. Jesus, that was more than two decades ago (where does the time go?). I saw it with some high school buddies, and none of us had high expectations. My buddies mainly wanted to see action, and I can't say that I didn't want the same, but I knew that this was made by the guy who made Piranha II: The Spawning, which I had endured a few months before on cable, so I just prayed that it wouldn't suck too much. I mean, really, a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (fresh from Conan the Destroyer) as a killer robot? I think that all of us came out of the movie looking like we had been hit in the forehead by a two by four. This is a movie that laid the lumber to the audience like no other film in the marketplace at the time. It was unrelenting. I can even pinpoint the spot where I knew the movie was going to kick my ass: the scene where the terminator pops his eyeball out with an X-acto knife, revealing the electronic eye behind it.

In any event, I hadn't seen the movie in over a decade. Some perspective creeps in with time. One thing that is immediately apparent in retrospect is how much the "look" of the film is in line with other sci fi exploitation films from the same period. It looks very similar to Escape from New York or Galaxy of Terror, and, of course, there's a reason for this. This look was more or less authored by Jim Cameron when he was working as a special effects man and art director on many of these films. The other thing that I noticed about the movie was how bad the performances by its principles are. Cameron has never been a particularly capable director of actors. Both Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton are servicable and both of them are blown off the screen by Schwarzenegger, in spite of the fact that Arnold has a mere 16 lines of dialogue (the film is arguably stolen by two cameos: the redoubtable Dick Miller as a gun shop owner and Bill Paxton as a punk). It's also apparent that much of the film's forward motion is the result of creative editing, rather than elaborate set-pieces, a nod to the paucity of resources available to the filmmakers. Like the best low budget films, The Terminator is a sleight of hand act, conjuring a harrowing experience out of shadows and fog (sometimes literally).

The arc of the movie's plot has the most in common with slasher movies: we have an unstoppable killer rampaging through the cast until we are left with only the final girl to confront him. There's even a hint of the moral universe of the slasher movie when Sarah Connor's slutty roommate and her boyfriend are killed by the terminator. Thematically, however, the movie most resembles Frankenstein, which Isaac Asimov once described as the story of a robot that turns on its creator. From a purely cinematic point of view, the lumbering injured terminator at the end of the movie recalls the Monster from the old Universal Frankensteins (especially Son of Frankenstein), and the electrical effects throughout the movie should be a dead giveaway. To an extent, this is the living end of the Frankenstein story, in which our creation and our hubris brings about a heavy metal apocalypse. And this, more than any other element of the movie, is what strikes a chord.