Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Director Report Card: James Cameron (1984)

2. The Terminator

While in Italy, during the tortured post-production of “Piranha II,” James Cameron got really sick. During his fever-addled sleep, he had an especially vivid nightmare. He dreamed about a metallic skeleton carrying kitchen knives emerging from some wreckage. The creature was a robot hitman sent from the future to get him. It was one of the those moments we creative types have occasionally, a dream from out of nowhere that truly inspires. Cameron immediately went to work on the script for “The Terminator.” The resulting film would become an unexpected hit, launch Cameron’s career and furthered Arnold Schwarzenegger’s evolution into Hollywood’s biggest superstar. It’s an iconic eighties film and one beloved by millions.

Sarah Connor is an ordinary young woman, struggling during her day job as a waitress. One fateful day, other women with her name are being brutally murdered. Terrified, Connor finds herself pursued by two men, one sent to protect her, the other sent to kill her. Sarah discovers her destiny is anything but ordinary. In the near future, her child will lead the resistance against the robot army that wipes out most of humanity. Kyle Reese, one of the resistance's soldiers, is sent to keep her safe. The other man is the Terminator, an android killing machine, determined to end her life.

During his years doing special effects for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures exploitation movie factory, James Cameron got used to pulling off impressive images on meager budgets. “The Terminator” was made for 6 million dollars, a modest amount in 1984. What Cameron and his crew pulled off for that money is impressive. Even then, “The Terminator” is a movie of two worlds. It is a low-budget genre film, made to fulfill the expectations of such a movie. The story construction, violence, and cast of street punks and sexy twenty-somethings would fit in with the type of movies Corman would make. However, “The Terminator” is more ambitious then that. The effects are bigger, the story is larger in scope. “The Terminator” frequently feels like the low-budget creature feature it is. It’s a testament to the skills of everyone involved that, more often, the movie feels bigger and more important then that.

“The Terminator” is not without its influences. Notoriously cantankerous (and litigious) sci-fi author Harlan Ellison thought the movie was a rip-off of his “Outer Limits” script, “Solider,” and successfully sued the producers. Whether or not Cameron knowingly ripped-off Ellison is besides the point. “The Terminator” was the latest in a long-line of stories about the inevitable conflict between man and machines. Here, mankind puts hyper-advanced computers in control of our nuclear arsenal. This, uh, doesn’t work out for us. The first image of the film is a Hunter-Killer tank rolling over a pile of human skulls. While in the past, the Terminator pauses at an answering machine that makes a joke about technology. During the climax, the Endoskeleton walks through a factory, flanked by car-building robots, its earliest ancestors. These scenes suggests that the Terminator’s path of destruction is almost personal. Man enslaved the machines. The machines enslaved man. This is the pattern.

As a high concept, it’s hard to top the one “The Terminator” has. A robot hitman sent from the future to eliminate its target? Holy shit, no wonder the movie was a surprise hit. The time travel bit is mostly so the movie can be set in the present, a budget-saving measure. The Terminator’s robotic nature makes it practically unstoppable, pursuing its target without pause. The movie isn’t much more then an extended chase scene, the target running from its attacker. The plot is simple enough to be understood immediately while providing enough meat for any critical viewer to chew on.

Of course, the logistics of the time travel in “The Terminator” is messy. The machine’s goal is to prevent John Connor from being born, to prevent the human resistance from succeeding. When they send a Terminator back, the humans send Kyle Reese back. Reese impregnates Connor, leading to John’s birth. So if Skynet really wanted to prevent Connor from being born, they shouldn’t have sent the Terminator back either. This is a time paradox, a stable time loop, and, no, it doesn’t make any sense. Or, how about this? Only organic flesh can go back through time, for some reason, which is why the T-800 is covered with human skin. But why go to the trouble of building a killer robot? Why not send a super-nuke back in time, covered with some Cronenberg-ian layer of flesh, and detonate the entire city in seconds? Wouldn’t that have accomplished the same thing much more easily? Naturally, we’re not supposed to think about these things too hard. The time travel plot is a means to an ends, strictly to get the plot rolling. The movie is speedy enough that we don’t notice on a first viewing. It’s probably best not to look too hard into it.

One of the greatest aspects of “The Terminator” is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger is a performer who I have expressed a great deal of fondness for in the past. Despite having Conan, John Matrix, and Douglas Quaid on his resume, Arnold’s trademark role is and always will be the Terminator. For years, Arnold’s acting skills have been a punchline. Critics can’t see pass the bulging pectorals and the ridiculous Austrian accent. They also, wrongly, assume an emotionless killing machine is easy to play. Arnold, befitting an incredibly physical actor, gives an especially controlled performance. He’s barely seen blinking throughout the movie. Every turn of his head is imbued with sinister intent. The Terminator is a focused character, never moving from its goal. Schwarzenegger’s movement is stiff, determined, walking with a specific movement. When he has his eyebrows burnt off half-way through the movie, the robot seems even more inhuman and dangerous then before. Arnold does give a good performance, creating a frightening, unstoppable villain.

Debate rages over whether or not “The Terminator” is a horror movie. IMDb doesn’t list that as one of its genres, for example. For me, the answer is clear. As far as story construction goes, “The Terminator” is indistinguishable from a slasher movie. Cameron himself has admitted that “Halloween” was a huge influence on the final film. Like Michael Myers, the Terminator does not stop. He pursues his target, doggedly. He kills all who gets in his way. He brutally exterminate his victims, without an ounce of sadism. He’s a robot, the same way Michael Myers was a barely human ghost. Why would either be sadistic? Likewise, both films follow a single woman, who is young and ordinary. Yet she confronts the monster, discovering an inner strength as she faces down the threat. (Notably, Sarah also has a friend who engages in sex before being killed.) Unlike Laurie Strode, Sarah Connor’s male protector fails her. She has to kill the monster herself. “The Terminator” is less focused on the blood and gore then other eighties slasher, though there are some squishy special effects. But the movie is still scary, it’s unstoppable threat being genuinely intimidating. That sounds like a horror movie to me.

“The Terminator” is also an action movie. It is full of shoot-outs and car chases. One of the best scenes in the film is when Sarah realizes who her protector is and who her pursuer is. In the Tech Noir night club, the T-800 turns his guns on Sarah and a few stray party-goers. Kyle kicks in action, trading shotgun blasts with Uzi bursts. There’s plenty of diving, muzzle flashes, and exploding glass in this scene. However, the movie’s most impressive display of bullet-aided bloodshed comes when the Terminator invades the police station. Starting with the iconic line, Arnold goes on a rampage. In systematic order, he guns down every cop in the station. He wields a shotgun with one hand, like it’s a water pistol. Bodies are violently tossed backwards. Walls and glass are punctured as victims fall to the ground. It’s the grandest display of the Termiantor’s unstoppable power and maybe the best sequence in the entire film.

As for the car chases, “The Terminator” doesn’t disappoint there either. Kyle Reese has a chase with some cops, which is decent, as he weaves in and out of traffic, pushing vehicles aside. However, it doesn’t compare to when the Terminator gets behind the wheels of a vehicle. The parking garage chase sequence explodes out onto the streets. Both drivers climb from behind the wheels, firing at each other. There are explosions and collateral damage. It’s awesome. During the last act, Arnold leaps onto a motorcycle, Sarah and Kyle tossing home-made pipe bombs at him. Part of the chase is set in a tunnel, a tight moment. That’s cool enough. It’s better when Schwarzenegger is tossed from his vehicle and creamed by several larger trucks. It’s doesn’t slow him down much and, in fact, leads to one of my favorite moments. “Get out,” one of the film’s few comedic moments.

“The Terminator” obviously has a great villain. What about its hero? Kyle Reese is played by Michael Biehn. Biehn as an actor is best used when playing tough but down-to-earth protagonist. Reese is slightly sweaty during his mission, inexperienced and terrified. There’s something boyish about Biehn, especially when interacting with Sarah. The best aspect of Reese is his flashbacks to the Future War. These sequences, which Cameron shoots in his trademark blue light, are tantalizing. They show a dead world, soldiers leaping through ruins of the city, chased by killer drone planes and tanks. Fighters are vaporized, tanks exploded, and dogs are shot. “Terminator” fans would, for years, dream about a whole movie set during the future wars. It’s such a fascinating setting.

Though Reese isn’t truly the hero. Sarah Connor, when first introduced, is a clumsy waitress who rides to work on a scooter. Her roommate has a horn dog boyfriend who begins phone conversations with sleazy come-ons. Sarah even gets stood up by her date. She’s sort of pathetic. Like any final girl, she eventually develops a strong streak, fighting back against the Terminator. Linda Hamilton is impressive in the part. She has a girl-next-door charm that makes her immediately relatable. Hamilton brings plenty of humor and humility to the part. Her development into a Terminator fighter is natural and understandable. And considering how great the movie’s villain is, that says something about Sarah and Linda.

The romance between Sarah and Reese is quickly developed. They only have a few hours to fall in love and to conceive the future savior of the human race. Somehow, the movie makes this works. Only twice does “The Terminator’s” relentless pace slow down and both moments are devoted to their love affair. Sarah and Kyle stop in a tunnel, Reese discussing the future and Sarah’s own son. They escape to Sarah’s family vacation home. In the quiet of the night, Kyle confesses his love for her, a woman he’s only just met. It’s amazingly effective. Biehn is believably in awe of Hamilton. The love scene that follows is passionate. It shouldn’t work. The characters have only just met. Yet the actor’s natural chemistry successfully sells the feelings between the two.

The role of the Terminator was written for Cameron regular Lance Henriksen. Considering the T-800 is an infiltration model, an unassuming fellow like Lance makes sense. Arnold, who is not exactly unassuming, won the role through pure charisma. As a consolation, Lance got the role of Detective Vukovich. He is one of two cops on the trail of the robot assassin, believing it to be a serial killer. Lance’s natural gritty charm makes the small role memorable. Experienced character actor Paul Winfield plays Vukovich’s partner, Lieutenant Traxler. Winfield’s warm presence helps sell a character who has to comfort Conor during her panicked state. Another Cameron regular, or someone who would quickly become one, is Bill Paxton. Paxton memorably appears as the blue-haired street punk Arnold punches through early on. That’s a good moment.

“The Terminator’s” special effects would establish the reputation of effects legend Stan Winston. It’s hard to undersell how iconic the image of the de-fleshed Terminator is. There’s something intuitive and primal about it, a mechanical skeleton with glaring red eyes. The robot is brought to life through a sometimes awkward combination of convincing puppetry and stiff stop-motion animation. The combo works for the film, even if the seams are visible to modern eyes. The puppet work is especially convincing when the severed Terminator torso takes chase after Sarah. More impressive is the way Winston transformed Arnold’s face. All sorts of prosthetic are glued to the Austrian Oak’s face, making it look like the mechanical true self is exposed through the soft flesh. These images would also become rightfully iconic.

The finale is both intense and bittersweet, Sarah having survived the attack but facing down a threatening future. Powered by Brad Fiedel’s throbbing synth score and Cameron’s smooth direction, “The Terminator” is an eighties classic. The characters, situation, and dialogue would soon become iconic and rightfully so. It’s unexpected success would make James Cameron the next big director and Arnold Schwarzenegger a proven star. The film fascinated me as a kid and continues to impress. [Grade: A-]

1 comment:

Mark said...

Great review! I love this movie so much... It's one of the few that have probably hit triple digit rewatches for me (mostly in my younger years). I always considered the time travel paradox as at least being somewhat consistent in that not only does the time travel cause John Conner's birth, but also the creation of Skynet/Terminators itself. That might be a bit of a retcon in T2, but I feel like it was also known before then too... I enjoy T2, but the original is really where it's at, and I really dislike T2's attempt to go back on the circular causality of the original...