The Terminator (1984)

Directed by James Cameron

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The Terminator is a lot more silly than I remembered.  It’s fun but not quite as exciting as I imagined, though I think I have a much stronger memory of the sequel, Terminator II: Judgment Day.

You can see the seams of this movie, as with most of the best 80’s action movies.  Like in RoboCop, with the stop motion animation, or in An American Werewolf in London, with the body transformation and wax figure-like molds of the actor’s face, the construction of the movie is on full display.  

If they’re trying to hide it, they failed, but I think it’s better that they don’t hide it, like with many CGI-filled movies today.  There’s a charm to the handmade quality of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plastic, eye-missing, face or to the stop-motion movements of the naked Terminator machine in the end.  

The other strength of the movie is the lack of sentimentally and restraint.  

The story concerns a Terminator (Schwarzenegger) sent back in time to 1984 Los Angeles to kill Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton).  She will be the mother of John Conner who is destined to lead the human rebellion in the future agains the machines which will take over the world.  As Conner’s efforts apparently yield success, the machines determine that the only way to win is to go back in time and erase him from history.  What they don’t know is that the nature of time in this movie is such that the events of this plot will that future into existence.  It’s all predetermined, where everything that has happened will happen, and any attempt to stop it will ensure that it fulfills what’s already been, let’s say, prophesized.  This is similar to the Disney show That’s So Raven and runs counter to stories like Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and, if I remember correctly, The Butterfly Effect in which each attempt to correct the past creates far-reaching ripples that create an alternate timeline.  In these stories there can be multiple presents and futures, but in The Terminator there remains only one.

So the Terminator shows up butt naked near Griffith Observatory.  He will run into a group of street punks, kill one or more of them, then proceed to a phone book where he looks up the addresses of every Sarah Conner and begins killing them one by one.  

The Sarah he’s looking for is third on the list, so by the time it’s her turn the police will already be tracking the case.  It also gives Kyle Reese time to catch up to her.  He’s the “good guy,” also sent from the future to protect her while the Terminator hunts her down.

They will go on the run together while the Terminator mows through anyone and everyone that gets in his way.  For a big Hollywood movie this story isn’t afraid of its own carnage.  The Terminator kills not only the first two Sarah Conners, but also a series of people at a night club and then most of an entire police department.  It’s necessary, I’d say, to make it clear just how much of an unstoppable force this thing is, but I’d also imagine a studio executive reading this script and asking if they could tone it down a little.

The Terminator is by now considered a classic, right?  But it’s also amusing because of how shameless it is about the appeal of sex and violence.  In addition to all the carnage there is one of the more over the top sex scenes I can remember seeing in a movie as mainstream as this.  It’s particularly over the top because, as we will learn, it’s the conception of John Conner, the aforementioned leader of the future resistance agains the humans.  His father, it is revealed though long implied, is Kyle Reese, the man who says he would die for him.  From early on this reveal that he’s the father feels somewhat expected, but it’s no less fun to think about, at least in that mind-melting trippy way.  The man he idolizes turns out to be his own son.  

It’s also interesting that he never really questions whether or not he should sleep with Sarah.  It seems he might wonder if he’s ruining the future by intervening.  Sure he’s there to save her, but it must occur to him that any intervention at all is a threat to John Conner’s existence.  After all, he only intervenes once the Terminator is a second or two away from blowing her head off.  He only makes his presence known when he has no other choice, but even then you’d think he would practice some kind of non-intervention policy.  

I suppose it’s like if you’re trying hard to budget yourself to save money.  You avoid spending a dollar here or there, and you’re proud of yourself for being so frugal.  Then you have no choice but to splurge on something, whether because of peer pressure or it’s some kind of emergency, and suddenly that dollar or two saved feels insignificant so you start buying Starbucks coffees and going to the movies like money’s no issue.  One slip up negates the impacts of others, or something along those lines.

The Terminator gets kind of sappy near the end.  Reese is killed by the Terminator, and Sarah has to finish the deed herself.  The action is wonderful, gory and charming in its own 80s way, but then the epilogue just feels a little too hammy.  

Still, it’s a fun movie, surely much more influential and visually striking for its time than I can understand from the vantage point of modern day.  The movie plays around with the idea of machines as our undoing, and it seems this was pretty early on for such a pessimistic, grim outlook of the future.  Nevertheless that perspective has been borrowed from and perpetuated many times since.  You have Blade Runner two years earlier, but I struggle right now to remember many other such grim imaginations of the future.  Now it’s commonplace and even uninspired to say, hey in the future everything’s going to suck and machines will rule our lives.  

Up Next: Singles (1992), Jerry Maguire (1996), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

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