If a movie I’ve seen at least a dozen times (maybe more) since its release in 1984 can still get my heart racing and my palms sweating when the steely endoskeleton rises from the infernal wreckage of an 18-wheel fuel truck, I know that I am experiencing a great work of art, tested by the passage of time and an 80’s perm: a true classic.
Nothing delivers the punch quite like The Terminator directed by James Cameron. A rare combo of action, sci-fi, and horror, it is the perfect movie with something for everybody, including a convincing and heart-felt romance. Okay, I admit the cliche orgasm hand grasp and slow-mo release is corny, but still…it works. My God! It all works.
Let’s break it down.
A machine human hybrid (flesh and metal) not a robot, a cyborg assassin—I’ll let Reese explain what that is
travels from the future through a lightning producing wormhole to murder the unlikely leader of the resistance, Sarah Conner, at the time a college-aged kid riding a moped (I had one) and working at a diner. Life sucks, but she is taking it all in plucky stride. Plus, she’s got great hair. She will be, Kyle informs her, the mother of John Connor, a soldier fighting against the machines of the future.
The film is non-stop suspense from beginning to end. The terminator lands in L.A. naked like a newborn babe (but one with very developed muscles), then proceeds to kill or beats the crap out of everyone he encounters, as he relentlessly goes about his mission to kill Sarah Connor.
Kyle Reese enters through the wormhole. I like how he, being only flesh and blood, pays a physical and emotional price for the journey in contrast to the terminator’s smooth entry. All these details make for great visual storytelling, and Michael Biehn is wonderful as Reese. His surfer boy 80’s haircut softens his taut, somewhat manic, intensity. He’s cute even when he’s making pipe-bombs, but he never loses his soldier for the good-fight persona. He, like Linda Hamilton as Sarah, is the right blend of strength and vulnerability. By the end of the story the couple has merged (in more ways than one) into a believable love story that you genuinely root for and feel the tragic pain of its demise. It’s tough for an action movie, or any movie, to successfully pull that off.
Of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger steals the show as the cyborg assassin. His head movements (taken a bit from Yul Brenner in West World perhaps), his shifty eyes, even his accent, all work to make him a believable, fascinating, and truly frightening character. Paul Winfield adds fatherly gravitas as the police chief.
Writers, especially screenwriters, would be wise to follow the story’s simple through-line. The will the monster kill the girl? question sustains the drama from start to finish, and even sets it up nicely for a sequel. Just when you think you’re safe, he’ll be back.
I have no interest or knowledge or guns, but I was impressed with the use of weaponry in the film. The gun-shop scene is informative, if harrowing. It not only shows the terminator arming himself to the hilt, it reveals that he is a cold-blooded killer. That early scene stays with you. Again, I’m no expert, but the actors, especially Arnold, appear to have done research on how to handle real weapons. In so many films, weapons are just silly props. Here, they’re a serious and essential part of the story from the police station shoot-out to the pipe-bombs.
For all its glorious 80’s-ness, including a kick-ass techno score, the major theme of the film—the power and potential threat of artificial intelligence is relevant now more than ever. The age of the machines may not look like The Terminator (not yet), but it certainly has arrived.
FILM RATING: 5 stars! Classic status!