Should I Watch..? The Terminator
What's the big deal?
The Terminator is an action sci-fi film released in 1984 and is the first film in the Terminator franchise. The film would launch both its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and its director James Cameron onto the Hollywood A-list. Schwarzenegger would find himself forever associated to the role of an unstoppable cyborg assassin for the rest of his career while Cameron would go on to have phenomenal success with two of cinema's highest earning films ever made, Titanic and Avatar. The movie was not expected to be a hit by distributors Orion who even limited the film to a single preview showing for critics, fearing negative reviews. But the film became a surprise smash (making some $78 million against a budget of just $6.4 million) and as time has gone, its reputation has only increased - especially in light of later sequels that failed to match this film's standard. It would later be followed by Terminator 2:Judgment Day in 1991, one of the greatest action sci-fi films in history.
What's it about?
It's the future where humankind is struggling to survive in a war against machines which have risen up and all but wiped us out. The human resistance, who are led by John Conner, are proving to be stubborn opponents so the machines hatch a plan to send one of their elite units, a Terminator T-800 cyborg assassin, back in time to 1984 to locate and kill John's mother Sarah to prevent his existence. Ignoring the obvious paradox (if John Conner is never born, why does the need to kill him exist in the future?), John selects one of his men - Kyle Reece - to also travel back in time to protect Sarah from the Terminator.
With brutal efficiency, the Terminator begins his search while Kyle struggles to convince Sarah of the danger she unknowingly finds herself in. Unable to trust the police who don't believe them and unable to stop the machine with our primitive 20th century technology and weapons, Sarah and Kyle are forced to go on the run as the Terminator gets ever closer to them and fulfilling its chilling mission objective.
Lieutenant Ed Traxler
Sergeant Hal Vukovich
Dr. Ed Silberman
James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd *
Release Date (UK)
11th January, 1985
What's to like?
It's not hard to see why the role of the Terminator was perfect for Schwarzenegger and continues to haunt him today. As the relentless and largely silent killing machine, he makes an indelible impression in imposing leather jacket and sunglasses destroying all around him. He's so good that you might forget the efforts of Hamilton and Biehn opposite and in truth, neither really hold as much screen presence as Arnie. Hamilton actually does a pretty decent job as Sarah and you can see the evolution of her character from terrified waitress to reluctant heroine begin here (and obviously continue in Terminator 2: Judgment Day).
Given the age of the picture, the special effects actually hold up fairly well and particularly the unforgettable sight of the Terminator robot itself emerging from flames with glowing red eyes. Some of the model work is a bit crude but generally speaking, it looks far better than its modest budget might suggest. The film moves along at a cracking pace and even takes a few moments to remind us of our future - the scenes where we see machines today benignly working for us contrast starkly with the scenes of them working violently against us, a sea of human skulls turned into dust by huge caterpillar tracks. The action may takes its time arriving but it's more than worth it when it does.
- One of the tracks on the official soundtrack - the song Intimacy - was co-written by Joe Dolce, the famous novelty one-hit wonder in the UK with Shaddup You Face in 1980.
- With a horrible irony, OJ Simpson was considered for the role of the Terminator but turned down because the producers feared he was too nice to play an ice-cold killer!
- Producer Gale Anne Hurd bought the initial draft to the movie from Cameron for the princely sum of $1. She and Cameron would marry the following year.
What's not to like?
Given the film's small cast, it is somewhat disappointing that a principal cast member lets the side down a little. Biehn is no stranger to these sort of violent hero-types but he can't seem to make his mind up whether he is on top of the situation or not. Schwarzenegger and Hamilton feel much more planted in their roles, which admittedly are more clearly defined than Biehn's.
Of course, the film has dated badly in other areas as well - the soundtrack is a odd mix of cheesy 80s synthesizer and stark, minimalist chords that underline the bleakness of the future. Along with the fashions, the film itself is ironically somewhat out of its time nowadays but the biggest issue is the enormous plot hole in the entire series. I'm not a professional spotter of gaffes and goofs but even I can recognise that eliminating someone in the past automatically negates the need to arrange such an undertaking in future - I have a mental image of the other Terminators watching Arnie disappear, wondering why their plan didn't work and then collectively slapping their stainless-steel foreheads in realisation. But then again, they would have known the consequences of their actions beforehand. After all, it was left open for a sequel or two...
Should I watch it?
In the hands of a lesser director, The Terminator might have been a forgotten mid-80s shooter with a slight sci-fi twist. But Cameron's ideas and skill as a director were first evident here and he turns the film into a quality product with a genuinely terrifying performance from Schwarzenegger as the most famous cinematic robot in history. Ignore the temporal paradox and go with the flow - trust me, you'll be back!
Great For: Schwarzenegger's career, Cameron's career, action fans
Not So Great For: the squeamish, children, technophobes
What else should I watch?
Is the Terminator really the most famous robot in cinema history? I'm sure RoboCop would have something to say about that or even Robbie the Robot from cult classic Forbidden Planet. But neither would generate such a long series of films, although RoboCop would have given it a run for its money if the studio hadn't gone bust. The film that settles the argument for me is the landmark Terminator 2: Judgment Day which would bring together Cameron's ideas and blend them with cutting-edge special effects, incredible action sequences, Arnie in equally good form as a goodie this time and probably one of my favourite villains in any film, the liquid-metal shape shifting T-1000.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox