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THE TERMINATOR (1984)

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"Listen, and understand: that Terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop – ever – until you are dead."

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The TerminatorDirector: James Cameron

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, Bess Motta, Rick Rossovich, Earl Boen, Dick Miller

Screenplay: James Cameron, Gale Ann Hurd and William Wisher, based upon works by Harlan Ellison

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Synopsis: In Los Angeles, in 1984, a strange electrical disturbance occurs in the middle of the night. A naked man (Arnold Schwarzenegger) appears from nowhere, and strides off down the road. He encounters three punks, demanding their clothes. They pull knives. The stranger disposes of two of them, bloodily. The third hurriedly strips…. A second disturbance occurs, and a second naked man (Michael Biehn) materialises, shaking with pain. He steals a pair of pants from a wino, but attracts the attention of the police. One cop chases him, and is overpowered. The stranger points the cop’s own gun at him, and demands to know the date, the year. Before he gets an answer, more policemen arrive, and the chase resumes. The stranger runs through a department store, grabbing a coat and some shoes, then slips out via the fire escape, stealing a shotgun from an unmanned police car. He finds a phonebook, ripping out the page showing the listings for the name "Sarah Connor". The first stranger enters a gun shop, acquiring some heavy firepower and then killing the owner (Dick Miller). He, too, looks up the name "Sarah Connor" in a directory. He goes to the first address listed and, when the woman living there confirms her identity, shoots her. Across town, a coffee shop waitress (Linda Hamilton) is disturbed when she hears that someone with the same name as herself has been murdered. The second stranger steals a car from near a construction site. The sight and sound of the heavy machinery conjures up memories of a devastated post-war world, and a desperate battle between man and machines…. Police Detective Vukovich (Lance Henriksen) tells his lieutenant, Ed Traxler (Paul Winfield), that a second woman named "Sarah Connor" has been murdered. The third Sarah and her roommate, Ginger (Bess Motta), get ready to go out. Sarah’s date stands her up. She goes to a movie, unaware that she is being followed…. When Vukovich is unable to locate the third Sarah, Traxler goes public, hoping that she will get in touch with them. Sarah hears the broadcast in a bar. Leaving, she realises someone is tailing her. She runs into a dance club to hide. Meanwhile, the killer has found Sarah’s apartment, where he murders both Ginger and her boyfriend, Matt (Rick Rossovich). The phone rings. The answering machine message reveals that the wrong woman was killed. Furthermore, the caller is Sarah; she gives away her whereabouts. At the club, Sarah finally succeeds in reaching Traxler, who tells her to stay put while a car is sent for her. She obeys, but the killer has tracked her down. As he aims his gun, there is a shotgun blast: the second man is there, too. A bloody shootout follows. Sarah is trapped under a dead body, at the mercy of her assailant, when the second man shoots him repeatedly, blasting him through the club’s front windows. Sarah stares in horrified disbelief as the killer rises to his feet; then she and her rescuer flee. As they drive away, the killer throws himself onto their car, smashing his arm through the windscreen and grabbing Sarah. He is finally shaken off, but steals a police car and pursues them. Sarah’s companion introduces himself as Reese, Techcom Sergeant #DN38416, and tells her he’s been assigned to protect her. He explains that their pursuer is not a man, but a cyborg known as a Terminator. When Sarah objects that this is impossible, Reese reveals that both he and the cyborg have travelled from the future. He tells her that in a few years, a nuclear war will devastate the world; that in its aftermath, mankind will be driven to the brink of extinction by the very machines they invented; and that their one hope is a man called John Connor – Sarah’s son….

Comments: And resume normal transmission in....five....four....three....two....and - action!

Well, I think we're finally back in business. Sorry for the silence - and thank you to all those who e-mailed, whether the message was concerned ("Are you okay? You haven't updated in ages!") or just impatient ("WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU!?"). It's always nice to be missed.

Now, as you might remember (if your memories stretch back that far), at the end of last year I was writing a series of reviews examining what I felt to be some of the most influential of modern genre films. I hadn’t initially planned on including The Terminator in this set, not because I didn’t think it was influential, but rather because I hadn’t realised until quite recently just how influential. My eyes were opened during the B-Masters’ Secret Santa Roundtable, when because of some problems in getting hold of a copy of America 3000 (I eventually found one, of course – something I’m sure my readers are just as thrilled about as I am), I went to my favourite video store, trolling for some post-apocalyptic alternatives. What I discovered was that many of the films that looked like post-apocalyptica were really something else. Blurb after blurb after blurb described "mankind’s last hope" travelling back through time to the (cost-saving) present. Sometimes "mankind’s last hope" was an android, sometimes a human being, but his mission was always the same: to "prevent a nightmare future". Ten minutes of this was enough to convince me I’d found another candidate for "most ripped-off film of all time".

The Terminator is a rarity these days; a science fiction film that manages to be exciting and thoughtful at the same time. It is also a remarkably assured effort from James Cameron, considering that it effectively represents his directorial debut, his only previous stint in the chair having ended with him being removed from – ulp! – Piranha II: The Spawning. Actually, to call The Terminator "assured" is to sell it short; this may well be Cameron’s best film, with only Aliens and T2: Judgement Day truly challenging it for the title. Significantly, all three of these movies boast precisely the same virtues: they are relentless, hair-raising, seat-clutching action films anchored by an intriguing story and interesting characters. Another common factor is that all three are built around strong and courageous women, while never (thankfully) evincing that peculiar and distasteful need to punish their female characters that taints a number of the director’s later works, such as The Abyss and True Lies. (It is fairly clear that Cameron prefers his women to exercise their strength and courage in terms of their maternal instincts.) One of The Terminator’s main virtues is the evolution of Sarah Connor, who starts out as a bubble-headed waitress who "can’t balance her cheque-book", only to find unexpected resources within herself, and to grow into the stuff of legend. Sarah’s journey, from her initial, almost catatonic terror, to her ultimate acceptance of her own destiny, is handled in a clever and above all credible manner. Step by step, as circumstances dictate, she begins unconsciously to arm herself for the future, taking the wheel in high-speed chases, handling weapons, dressing injuries, preparing explosives. Finally, after Reese is killed and she herself is badly injured, Sarah must out-manoeuvre and destroy what is left of her almost unstoppable adversary, with nothing but her own intelligence and presence of mind to help her. In its brief glimpse of "future-Sarah", The Terminator achieves genuine poignancy. Remembering the photograph of Sarah given to him by her son, Reese describes the sadness in her expression, how he always wondered what she was thinking while it was being taken. The movie answers this question for us in its final moments, which are courageously downbeat. The screenplay offers no hope at all that the impending holocaust can be averted. We leave the pregnant Sarah confronting this nightmare future, accepting that, in spite of her knowledge, all she can do for mankind is protect herself and her unborn child. For the millions whom she knows are soon to die, she can do nothing.

The development of the character of Sarah is indelibly linked to The Terminator’s strongest and most absorbing aspect. One of the most enjoyable things about this film is that it handles the endlessly fascinating time-travel paradox as well as, if not better than, any other movie ever made. Most films that have attempted to shape their plot around this concept have ended up tying themselves in Gordian knots. (This includes, as it happens, the film’s sequel, as well as most of its countless imitations). The Terminator’s screenplay neatly dodges bullet after bullet, continually prodding the viewer into the mind-bending question of just what shapes our history, personal and collective. Is it true that each moment in time has a myriad of alternatives, each leading to an individual future? – or are our destinies set in stone, immutable, shaped by forces beyond the scope of our perception? The screenplay does suggest the former – when Sarah asks Reese if he’s "from the future", he replies, "One possible future" – but it wisely refrains from being definitive, leaving the audience to make up its own mind. Did the Terminator’s mission fail because it had to fail, or did it only fail in this particular time-stream? And what of Sarah’s progression from ordinary working-class girl to legendary warrior-mother? Did it happen because she was told it would happen, or would it have happened anyway? Best of all, consider the Sarah Connor/Kyle Reese/John Connor triangle, the screenplay’s triumphant cornerstone. The Terminator ends with Sarah debating with herself over whether to tell her son the truth about his father. We know that she does, because we are made aware of Reese’s romantic obsession with "the legend, Sarah Connor", something John Connor himself has been at pains to instill into his comrade (which is pretty damn ookie, when you stop and think about it….). This in turn ensures that Reese will volunteer for the time-travel mission, which ensures Sarah’s impregnation, which ensures John Connor’s birth, which ensures John’s indoctrination of Reese, which…. Ponder this stuff long enough, and you can feel your brain beginning to melt.

The Terminator’s vision of the future is, however, less well handled. In many respects, the work of James Cameron is deeply akin to that of Michael Crichton – or at least, to that of Crichton in the early part of his career. His films are almost always infused with a sense of ambivalence about man’s creations, being generally built around either the discovery that the technology he put his faith in isn’t up to the job (in this context, the word "unsinkable" must have acted on Cameron like a red rag on a bull) or, worse, that it works a little too well; that it is bigger, faster, smarter than he is – and out of his control. The Terminator is Crichton-esque not only in respect of the particular nightmare that it conjures up, but because it ultimately overreaches itself. The time-frame in this film is all wrong, even allowing for the development of a super-computer that achieves sentience. Granted that this thing was somehow developed; that it had the capacity to think for itself; to plot the obliteration of mankind; to out-think its creators to such an extent that it could conceive and design the Hunter-Killers, the cyborgs, and finally the time-displacement equipment that gave it the capacity to alter history--- Granting all that, the question remains: who built all this stuff? Reese makes brief reference to "automated factories", but that’s not good enough. Who built the factories? Who supplied the raw materials? Processed them? Transported them? Put them all together? Let’s not forget, after all, that all this is happening a mere forty years into the future, and after a nuclear war. The computer itself may have been protected against such an eventuality (presumably it was, or it would hardly have initiated it), but what of all the other machines? It is not only human beings that would have been obliterated in such a war. The script tries to get around these problems by having this Defense Network Computer described as "hooked into everything", as being "trusted to run it all", but unless this is absolutely literally true, that every single aspect of human technology and manufacturing was under the system’s control, the scenario is an outright impossibility. And even if it were so organised, surely many of the systems it was hooked into would have been damaged beyond repair by the very war it started? Ultimately, I’m obliged to point out here what I pointed out while reviewing The Brain From Planet Arous: that being the supreme intelligence isn’t enough; you must have the physical capacity to back it up. Oddly, The Terminator’s screenplay never suggests the obvious: that mankind was pressed into the Computer’s service; that human beings were needed to build what it could conceive and design. We learn, on the contrary, that the Computer’s only thought was the eradication of the human race. The few people that survived were put to work, but only for the disposal of their dead (and why would machines care about such a thing?). In insisting upon such an extremity of vision, The Terminator is finally far less credible than a film such as Colossus: The Forbin Project, in which a similar all-powerful computer system takes over the world, but keeps man and his useful opposable digits around to do its dirty work for it. (Of course, Colossus also joins up with its Russian counterpart. No suggestion of such a thing here – not a very mid-eighties concept, I guess! – but the film’s whole scenario is nevertheless deeply informed with a feeling of unease reflective of its era’s politics.)

And there’s something else troubling about the particular vision of the future presented in this film: the idea that the human race could – would – become extinct but for the leadership of a single man. I can’t help thinking back to all those World War II films where a leader of the resistance, usually played by one of the Pauls (Lukas or Henreid) would shrug off a threat of death with an assurance that he himself was unimportant; that another man would rise to take his place….and another, and another…. Yet in the future of The Terminator, the life or death of just one man controls the destiny of humanity. This premise, of course, forms the basis for The Terminator as a suspense film, but it is nevertheless rather disturbing, with mankind’s survival seemingly less dependent upon his courage, his tenacity and his intelligence, than it is upon a trick of fate.

(Another questionable touch is the screenplay’s insistence upon the virginity of John Connor’s father. Granted, Connor is presented as "the savior of mankind", but that’s pushing it a bit too far, don’t you think?)

Speaking of WWII, it is quite possible to interpret The Terminator’s concept of "man vs machines" on a rather less literal level. In war-time propaganda both distant and recent, the enemies of America have almost always been depicted as "cold-blooded", "emotionless", "automaton-like"; in short, as not-quite-human, a quality that would inevitably contribute to their downfall when confronted by American heart and guts. The machines in this film can therefore be read as whichever enemy the individual viewer prefers – although James Cameron’s own interpretation can perhaps be found in the "bar-code" that Kyle Reese carries upon his wrist….

So you can keep all this stuff in mind while you’re watching The Terminator; or you can forget about it entirely, and enjoy the film purely on its most overt level: as a simply breathtaking action movie. From the moment the Terminator and its pursuer drop into the streets of Los Angeles, the pace of this film barely slackens. It’s exciting, it’s violent, it’s suspenseful, it’s funny….and it belies the restrictions of its comparatively low budget at every turn. I know that some people prefer the big-budget excesses of T2, but I like the raw energy and inventiveness of the original, and the preponderance of its Stan Winston-crafted mechanical effects. But action scenes and special effects mean little (at least, to me) if they’re not built around something solid, and The Terminator succeeds because of the care that went into its script and its acting. There is actually an enormous amount of information thrown at the audience throughout this film, but it is broken up so cleverly that the story never bogs down in its delivery. All of the film’s exposition comes from Reese, of course, but any sense of repetition is avoiding by the screenplay finding four different ways for him to convey the necessary details. First, we have his shouted, confusing explanation to Sarah as the two of them try to out-drive their pursuer; and then his futile attempt to explain what is happening to the police psychiatrist (who gloats that he could "build a career" on Reese’s paranoid delusions). The third chunk of information comes in the form of a flashback---er, flashforward, when we see Reese’s ravaged world rather than hear him talk about it. At last, however, he is allowed merely to speak. It is this scene that ends with Reese’s declaration of love across the decades to Sarah, and with the two of them – ensuring the future survival of mankind. (I’ll say this for The Terminator: this may well be the only "man and woman on the run for their lives nevertheless take time out to have sex" scene in the history of motion pictures that actually has motivation. Other than, you know, the obvious.) Apart from all this serious stuff, there are some wonderfully funny and knowing moments in the film: Ginger’s recorded message, "Ha, ha, you’re talking to a machine", for instance, or the revelation of the Terminator’s "response menu" when it is hassled by a hotel janitor (scrolling down, it selects, "Fuck you, asshole!") There’s also the gun-shop owner (Dick Miller – yay!) who in all seriousness recommends an Uzi as "ideal for home defence!" seconds before being blown away by his own merchandise. (At least – I hope that was a joke. Although it did occur to me to wonder how this film’s story might have played out in a city where you can’t just wander into any given corner store and arm yourself with heavy artillery.) The film also, it must be said, offers a few unintentional giggles, being a tad more the product of its time than today’s viewers are likely to be comfortable with. I plead guilty to this myself. It’s petty, it’s childish, but I can’t help it: whenever I watch Linda Hamilton and Bess Motta turning themselves into a walking definition of "mid-eighties", then announcing, "Better than mortal man deserves!", I go into a giggling fit that lasts a good ten minutes. (And then there’s that dance club. I tell you, it just makes me go Belinda Carlisle all over!) Finally, for better or worse, this is the film that gave the world the line, "I’ll be back" – which is memorable chiefly because it operates in isolation; something that seems to have been lost upon subsequent writers of action films, and their relentlessly wisecracking "heroes".

The performances in The Terminator are uniformly good. Linda Hamilton is entirely convincing as Sarah, and between this film and T2, creates an indelible character. It’s a shame that she was never given much of a chance outside of these two films to show what she could do; watching her in movies like King Kong Lives is just painful. Hamilton is matched all the way by Michael Biehn, whose edgy, I’m-just-about-to-crack persona has never been better exploited; Reese comes across as both hardbitten and vulnerable. Amongst the supporting cast, there are welcome appearances from Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen, as the cops who find out the truth of Reese’s "delusions" just a bit too late, and enjoyable turns from Earl Boen as the psychiatrist, and Bess Motta as Sarah’s doomed roommate, Ginger.

And then, of course, there’s Arnold.

You know, it’s easy – perhaps a little too easy – to make fun of Arnold, who as an actor undeniably suffers from some very severe limitations. Nevertheless, when he stays within those limitations, there’s no disputing that he can be extremely effective. I’m inclined to declare his performance in The Terminator his best. As the remorseless, relentless, robotic killing machine, he is nothing less than terrifying. Despite the nature of the role, this is not a performance without nuance: his movements, his behaviour are all calculated to keep as aware that the Terminator is less than human, while at the same time making us accept its infiltration of human society. (And there is, perhaps, a tacit criticism of that society here, inasmuch as it can be so easily mimicked by a robot.) From the cyborg’s first appearance, when it unhesitatingly slaughters two of the punks who unwisely harass it (including a blue-haired Bill Paxton!), the audience is utterly convinced of the magnitude of the danger confronting Sarah and Reese – and by extension, the human race. What makes the Terminator so frightening is the automatic nature of its violence – the crushing of a hand, the slamming of a head, when a push to one side would do just as well. This is often a brutal film. The slaughter at the police station is an unforgettable sequence, with cop after cop blown away not because they pose any real threat, but simply because they get in between the cyborg and its object. Equally cruel are the killings of the first Sarah Connor, and of Ginger and her boyfriend. (Cameron lets his B-movie roots show a bit too clearly in the latter two. Not only – surprise! – have they just had sex when they’re killed, but their deaths are unnecessarily protracted.) Still, good as Schwarzenegger is, he gets a lot of help from the film’s makeup and lighting guys. One of the moments that always stays with me is the shot of the Terminator seeking its prey while driving through the city, its head moving slightly from side to side as if triangulating a signal, its face – not quite right. I don’t know what they did here, but it always looks creepily like Arnold’s had a botched face-lift. And then there’s the wonderfully gruesome scene when the damaged Terminator must perform a repair job on itself – in the course of which, it plucks out its own eye and wipes out its eye-socket. (Eww!! Eyeball stuff, you see? – gets me every time!)

Memorable as Arnold’s performance is, equally so is the film’s final depiction of the Terminator, when it rises from the ashes of a massive explosion stripped down to its very framework. I love this skeletal horror with its evilly grinning head; and I love even more that it is realised through a combination of mechanical and stop-motion effects. (I swear, if I hear one more person call these effects "cheesy"…!) This technophobic film’s climactic scene is also its crowning irony, taking place in precisely the kind of automated factory that Reese has spoken of so ominously, and with Sarah being driven to use technology in order to defeat technology. The Terminator doesn’t end there, of course, but with Sarah driving off to face "the coming storm"….an ending that simply sits up and begs for a sequel. And naturally, one eventually appeared; bigger, louder, and enormously more expensive; yet somehow less satisfying, less involving. Unlike its predecessor, T2 is an effects-driven movie, sacrificing story and character for visual shocks that, stunning as they are in their own right, don’t stay with the viewer the way the original’s clever scenario does. And as for the idea of turning the first film’s terrifying killing machine into a kinder, gentler Terminator in touch with its own feelings---well, what can I say except - big mistake.

Footnote: One consistent point about American post-apocalypse movies – something that every film from The Terminator itself right down to dreck like America 3000 seems to be guilty of – they all fall into the habit of confusing "America" with "the world", "Americans" with "mankind". In these types of films, we’re never given any idea whether anyone outside of the United States has survived or not; the inference seems to be, well, why would anyone care? The Terminator manages to go this convention one better, however, by failing to inform the audience whether anyone has survived not just outside of America, but outside of California….

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