“Nice night for a walk”
There are films that, if you are part of my generation, define your childhood, such as Jurassic Park. There are also films that may define your childhood in spite of their Rated-R nature, such as Total Recall. The first two Terminator films were as much a part of my childhood as the Power Rangers or Hero Turtle toys. That being said, how can I possibly review The Terminator (a film that I must watch at least once a year) without being twisted by my childhood memories. My answer was to watch it with my fiancé, who has never watched it before. Seeing a thirty year old film through someone else’s eyes (not literally, of course!) was not the answer, however. The Terminator will always be one of my most-loved films of all time, regardless of the criticisms she threw at it!
The plot, for those not in the know, is fairly simple. In the future, self-aware machines have almost wiped out mankind. However, one man by the name of John Connor, leads the resistance against the machines. At the point of defeat, the machines send back one of their Terminators in time to kill John Connor’s mother, therefore stopping his birth. The resistance manage to send back a human to protect Sarah Connor. It’s just a matter of which one would reach her first…
Right from the star, we are hurled into the action as two men appear from nowhere, one after another in different places. One simply rises up and looks out onto the L.A. landscape (trying to reconcile his knowledge of the future L.A. to what’s he’s seeing at the time? Or just surveying the landscape that he will destroy to kill Sarah?). The other appears next to a homeless guy in an alleyway in visible pain, his back full of scars. There’s no explanation of who or what they are, just their pursuit of Sarah using public phone books (how very 80s!).
“Come with me if you wanna live”
What follows is a taut and tense elongated chase scene, bolstered by one of the greatest villains of movie history in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, The Terminator of the title. He consumes the screen, utilising his small number of lines to terrifying effect. He’s totally convincing as a machine that will pursue his mission until it’s done, without remorse or pity. In the words of the human sent back in time, Kyle Reese, “it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” The T800 embodies our fear of machines turning on us in an exemplary way. A robot built especially to kill humans, it’s something straight out of a horror movie.
Exposition is set at a low, given to us in splurges during the quieter moments of the film. It doesn’t distract from the chase scenes, but gives meaning and purpose to them. There’s no point where the talking is boring or slows the pace down, as everything is vital to the story. It’s also a result of the main characters being very well written. Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor aren’t cardboard characters created to endure the action scenes, but palpable beings whose humanity make us fear for their lives. Michael Biehn plays the tortured hero to perfection. Driven by nightmares of our future/his world, a place where man can never rest in fear of being exterminated (a laser scan on his arm is a notable parallel to the Holocaust, for example), he’s as relentless in protecting Sarah as the T-800 is in pursuing her. Connor slowly morphs into the mother of the great leader that Reese knows of only as a legend; he sees the legend become reality.
It’s a film full of iconic moments and lines. “I’ll be back” will haunt our screens whenever Arnie is on it, but here it’s signals a calm before the storm. The whole ‘Tech-Noir’ scene had my toes twitching at the sheer intensity of it all, even after watching it countless times. Surely it’s the greatest night club scene in film history? ‘Burnin’ In The Third Degree,’ Reese sat in the corner, the T-800 entering (“Hey, that guy didn’t pay!”), Connor avoiding the T-800’s line of sight…all moments etched into my brain.
“He’ll find us, won’t he?”
I’ve always seen the Terminator as rough and ready; James Cameron was Terminator-like in his determination to complete his film. At an age of over thirty years, The Terminator’s effects are creaky and unconvincing at times, as my fiancé was delighted to point out. She found it hard to look past things like the future war sequences, the Terminator’s eye self-surgery and the reveal of the robot T-800. They do look poor, that’s true. But, as I said to my fiancé, in thirty years from now, the films of today will look shoddy (especially due to their over-reliance on CGI). It’s the story and the characters, not the effects, that matter.
In that regard, The Terminator fully succeeds. It’s an extended chase movie with just enough thought-provoking questions and themes to get the brain ticking. The T-800 is the ultimate villain. It’s relentless nature, in turn, only emphasises the stature of our heroes as they claw and scrape to evade it. The effects may look terrible today, but it’s easy to look past them and see the terrible beauty of the brilliant chases, the villain that we all fear (especially as A.I. is coming closer and closer to becoming a reality), and a streamlined sci-fi horror that never lets up in tension.
VERDICT: 10/10. The Terminator is one of the greatest films of all time. It encapsulates our fear of machines in the face of the T-800. It’s essential viewing!
(Click here for my review of Terminator 2: Judgement Day)
(Click here for my review of Terminator: Genesys)