This review is a little bit delayed. Normally I review a film a day or so after watching it for review purposes. I watched the original Terminator film way over a week ago, literally right before seeing Terminator Genisys. So yeah, I took my time getting this done. I hadn’t seen the film for a couple of years. Terminator is one of those films I grew up with back in the days when parents gave zero shits what their kids watched. Oh the 80s was a grand time. So, how does James Cameron’s (second) first film hold up today? Really fucking well actually. Click below for wordstuffs.
As an experiment let’s see how long it takes me to explain the plot of Terminator. Terminator Genisys took me 2 paragraphs. On the Critapocalypse Podcast last week it took Matt nearly 5 minutes to summarise what happens over the course of the film, and also spoil the entire thing for everyone. So, let us see how long this takes and compare shall we?
A killing machine, called a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from the future is sent back in time to 1:52AM 1984 to kill Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) before she can give birth to the leader of a resistance fighting, and winning, a war against the Terminators in 2019. Her future son John Conner has sent back a soldier called Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to protect her and help defeat the Terminator.
That’s it. Simple. Uncomplicated. Efficient. The biggest twist in the film… and I don’t think it’s spoilers to mention this 31 years later, is that Kyle Reese is John Conner’s father. That fact creates a nice causality loop which helps give the film a little extra layer and mythos to play around with. Nothing has been made complex for the sake of it. It’s clean and brilliant. Sometimes you just need a premise and a few different characters and you’ve got a film. You put a target in the sights of a stalker and give that target person from a different background to help them along and you’ve got the set up for a simple series of conflicts that makes a solid story. The Terminator could have been a hitman and Kyle Reese could have been cop and you’d have the same basic set up. Except with less time travel. The sci-fi/horror side of The Terminator is what makes it stand out. At least it did stand out until every direct to video film in the 80s tried ripping it off. But for a while it was quite unique… well… unless you count that short story Cameron may have ripped off… but never mind that.
Terminator is, in my opinion, Cameron’s best shot film. It’s moody and filled with foreboding dread and tension. He utilises stylised lighting in a way he’s gradually forgotten over the years to give the film a comic book style without stepping out of a dirt covered reality. Everything in the film is messy and cluttered. The first shot is of a refuse truck. Shortly after Kyle Reese falls ingloriously into an alley next to a homeless man, whom is soon missing his trousers. The first encounter Sarah has with The Terminator and Kyle is in a sweaty nightclub. Other than one trip to a suburban street, where the Terminator crosses one Sarah Conner out of the phone book, every single location is a place covered in grime where, ideally, you’d probably not spend your evenings. Assuming you’re not being chased by a robot from the future, of course.
Pacing is slow and deliberate until it almost literally explodes in the final act. There’s a precision to how well Cameron keeps the film moving from scene to scene. He provides everything you’d want in terms of action but also takes time to show the Terminator’s process of literal elimination. The first moment of exposition is franticly sandwiched in a short breather between Terminator encounters. We’ve just had a big action beat that came after some excellent tension building and now the first moment we get an explanation of exactly what is happening it’s as the two leads protagonists and huddled in a care knowing they could be found at any moment. Sarah is scared and not sure if she can trust, let alone believe the stories of, Kyle Reese whilst he is fully aware that he is out gunned and has very little time to win her confidence. He knows what a Terminator can do. We don’t fully yet. He explains what’s happening and we get another action scene to hammer home how screwed they are. That is perfect plotting and handling of expository dialogue crafted to maintain the pace without ruining the tension.
I honestly feel like it’s hard to fairly fault this film. Some effects are really showing their age, but this was made in the early 80s and on quite a tight budget. It also involved a sequence of stop motion animation with was always time consuming and very much falling out of favour at the time. I still maintain that the stop motion Terminator skeleton effect is pure magical brilliance. The more recent version of the film have a pretty damn good sound mix, which is worth noting as the film originally had a mono only mix and some pretty ropey Foley work. I’d say most issues you can take with the film are just issues of the time the film was made. Technical aspects that have aged over the years.
I’ve always loved how Terminator is shot. How Arnold plays a robot… not a robot, a cyborg, in a manner so iconic that it’s pretty much shorthand for similar roles today. People knock Arnold’s acting all the time but watch how he paces his movements here. It’s so precise. His line delivery is stilted, a by product of how rough his English was at the time, but it fits the role of a man power by a 1980s envisioning of a computer brain perfectly. The way Sarah gradually accepts her fate and steps up to the action plate in the final act is superb and manages to avoid the trope of a woman needing saving by a man expertly. She even has one of the most iconic one liners in a film starring Schwarzenegger. That’s kinda unheard of. Lance Henriksen and Paul Winfield play a pair of cops with such cool chemistry I’d probably watch a buddy cop film just about them. Probably a bit late for that now… what with Lance being, like, 400 and Paul Winfield being quite dead.
In the end The Terminator is still my favourite film of the series. It’s pure and simple. A nice sci-fi horror stalker tale with a simple causality loop and smatterings of expanded mythos to build on. And build on it they did. Multiple times. Just over and over. Now the Terminator franchise is wobbling about, barely able to keep upright under the weight of all it’s plot additions that only serve to create excuses for more elaborate but oddly weaker Terminators. The T-1000 was the only good new model. I’ll get to terminator 2 someday, a damn fine film in it’s own right. Got a feeling I won’t bother with Salvation and Rise of the Machines though. One thing I’m sure of is that I will be revisiting the first, and best, Terminator again and again. It’s a bonafide classic of 80s cinema.