Directed by James Cameron
October 26, 1984
I think by now most of us know what the plot of this movie is but just in case you don’t a cyborg from the future (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent back in time to kill the unborn leader of the resistance against his machine master Skynet by killing this leader’s mother Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) before he is born.
This is such an amazing movie and demonstrates you can do a great film on a small budget. Do not get me wrong. I’m not against big budget films but sometimes it’s a good thing for a director not to be able to afford to put every idea up on the screen and to have to be creative to show what they want to show. It can be beneficial for a director to have to decide what is most important to tell a particular story. And Cameron made all of the right choices here.
Some say Terminator 2 is the better film, but I disagree. Terminator 2 is a fantastic sequel, one of the best sequels ever, but is not the superior film in the series. It has a much bigger budget and there were significant advances in special effects technology used in making that movie. T2 can offer you more “Wow!” scenes but in terms of story it is not nearly as really good. The story is much tighter and focused and the stakes are higher here. If John dies then humanity is lost and the machines win. Skynet has sent an assassin against someone who is completely unprepared and possesses no foreknowledge. In T2 if they fail in destroying Cyberdine and preventing the Skynet technology from being created then Plan B (John) will save the day in a few decades. Humanity will survive one way or another.
The Terminator was a much lower budget film than any of its successors, yet the quality of work here is amazing. James Cameron was an expert low budget film craftsman having worked for Roger Corman previously. He knew how to squeeze every penny from what he had to work with. All the knowledge he gained from working for The King of Schlock was used here to craft a high-quality film.
The majority of the effects shots still look great but that’s because they were kept to a minimum. In comparison to the later films there are not as many. The concept allows for them to show very little yet fully present to you their reality. The only effect that has not withstood the test of time is the scene where the Terminator is removing the damaged flesh in the mirror. I applaud their choice to use a puppet as repeated takes using makeup effects might have been just as bad but they lingered too much on the head. Even back when The Terminator first came out it did not look that good. Maybe some quick shots interspersed with shots of Schwarzenegger himself may have offset it. But that is the weakest special effects moment in the film. In fact, it is the only weak one.
Schwarzenegger taking on the role of the Terminator was a stroke of genius. It is my understanding Ahnuld was the one that made that choice rather than play Kyle Reese. I could not have pictured him as Kyle Reese. Michael Biehn was much more convincing as a future soldier. He looked rough. Schwarzenegger looked too healthy and fit to be a soldier from a future where humanity was hanging by a thread. With Schwarzenegger in the role, Kyle Reese would not have been fighting a killing machine from the future. Kyle Reese would have been a jacked bodybuilder looking forward to leg day at the gym.
I have heard that Schwarzenegger at the time did not think this was going to be a big movie for him. He picked what he felt was the better role for him, but he did not think this would be that big let alone career defining. I think he called it “A little shit film” in an interview on the set of Conan the Destroyer but as it turned out this was probably one of his signature roles. This is maybe one of two or three characters that you think of when you think of him. Not much else has had a similar impact on his career.
Michael Biehn was a good choice for the role of the savior of humanity’s dad. He was in enough shape that you could picture him as a soldier, but he was not so overly developed that he looked as if he had never experienced hardship. Michael Jai Courtney was the exact opposite of what they went with here. Why they thought he was a good choice for Reese in Genysis is something for another discussion.
And for Sarah Connor they wisely did not pick the most attractive woman they could. I’m not calling Linda Hamilton ugly, but she looks more like an every woman and not a model concerned over calories. She does not necessarily stand out in a crowd. She is an average person and drives home the point that these extraordinary events could have happened to anybody.
Lance Henriksen usually gets cast in darker roles. Usually the heavy or the slightly sinister character but here he was the affable sidekick LAPD officer Vukovich. I cannot reconcile this performance with just about everything he has done since. Vukovich is so light and comedic in comparison to 99.9% of his performances since. I have no idea how he does not get or did not get cast in similar parts to what he plays here. He is so very entertaining in what amounts to a small comic relief part. He has range that he never got to use.
What makes this story unique among so many other time travel movies up to that point was that they did not change the future at all. The Terminator comes back to kill John Connor but ends up creating John Connor because that cyborg’s mission necessitates Kyle following to stop it. Skynet not only ensured its destruction but Sarah because of where she finally stopped the Terminator ensured the creation of Skynet and of the machine that tried to kill her and of her meeting the father of her unborn child. It is a Mobius strip or time loop if you will. The heroes do not make for a better tomorrow and have a happily ever after. Sarah Connor at the end of the movie is worried about what tomorrow will bring because she has a glimpse of what is coming.
More often than not in a time travel movie the main characters fix the future in the present because the hero has returned or come to the present day and has knowledge of the future and he is able to alter that one event to make it all better but our heroes didn’t have that much knowledge of what the important events were in so they couldn’t. They just had to survive. That is another reason this movie is better. It does something different. It does not fix the future. It just ensures it. It ensures that humanity has it tomorrow. Not only does it create a solid story on a small budget, but it avoids the cliché of the heroes fixing the future.
The Terminator is a movie that is just as enjoyable today as when it was first released. It is a downbeat film but one that ends on some hope. Not hope that the future can be changed but hope that when the dark times come, we will survive them. If you have not seen this movie, why? Get out and see it right away. Watch it!