Wow. What a debut. Okay, I know this wasn’t quite a debut for James Cameron, but Pirhana II hardly counts, right? Terminator is perhaps the best example of a talented young director producing a large-scale action movie on a miniscule budget. I’ll provoke the disdain of many a film buff out there when I declare I have a very slight preference for the sequel Terminator II: Judgement Day, but the first two movies are some of the best examples of action movies from the eighties/nineties. Hell, they are both some of the best examples of any action movies.
Okay, I’ll be honest. The original movie has dated some. Not least of which, the ambient electronic score, which just screams “eighties!” at full volume, while back-up singers repeat “somebody got a synth for Christmas!” in the background. It’s noticeable in several places (mainly the early action sequences, though the finale features a restrained and dignified soundtrack), and ages the movie more than anything else, to be entirely frank. However – at least to me – that’s the only really glaringly distracting fault with the movie, with shrill notes of terror sounding like they’re being provided by a guy with a skinny tie, a dodgy moustache and three keyboards layoured on top of each other.
It’s strange, because Cameron otherwise manages to make a lot out of what was a tiny budget. Notwithstanding the fantastic stunts in the modern-day action sequences, the movie features seral extended jumps into a post-apocalyptic future which actually hold up quite well, despite the fact that many seventies and eighties (and even nineties) movies have taught us that post-apocalyptic futures can look quite dated rather easily. It helps that Cameron keeps his vision of the future simplistic – sure, there are ray guns, but most of his imagery is symbollic (skulls crushed under tank treads, machine graveyards).
Similarly the effects work is still impressive. Of course, you’re not entirely convinced that the obviously mechanical head you are looking at is Arnie as he pops out a damaged eye, as it just “feels” wrong (there’s a theory about the “uncanny valley” which might explain why), but technically the model is impressive. Equally impressive (though I accept this is likely a highly subjective thing) is the stop-motion used to convince the audience that the iconic “skeletal” Terminator is moving. It looks almost like something out of a Tim Burton film (particularly when you compare it to all the revolutionary effects work that Cameron would do later in his career), but it is more than effective. I quite like the weird “off-kilter” feel that these sequences provoke, lending the creation an almost alien feel.
And then there’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s fun and fashionable to mock his acting – he’s no Lawrence Olivier, to be sure – but he’s is surprisingly effective as a remorseless killing machine. It’s easy to crack jokes about how it must be easy to come across as emotionless (given how actors ‘emote’, so not emoting must be relatively easy), but Schwarzenegger nails it. He convinces you that he is a remorseless killing machine, perhaps moreso than the special effects do. As a piece of trivia, did you know that O.J. Simpson was considered for the role, but was turned down because studio executives could buy him as a remorseless killing machine? It’s a funny world.
Sarah Connor probably deserves a page in “The History of Feminist Action Heroes”, perhaps as a follow-on to the inevitable chapter on Ellen Ripley. In a way, his work with Connor here somehow prefigures Cameron’s work on Ripley in Aliens. After all, despite the groundwork laid by Alien, it was ultimately a fluke that Sigourney Weaver’s character survived for the sequel – it was arguably Aliens that defined her as an action hero more than the original film. But that’s an item for another day. In the meanwhile, let’s consider poor Sarah Connor, who is put through the proverbial wringer. At the start of the movie, she’s a put-upon waitress, a stereotypically feminine twenty-something – stood up by her rich lover like an afterthought and living for nothing but the night out after work. And then she discover’s she is so much more. Of course, the film shrewdly initially suggests that Kyle Reese is empowering her, a standard masculine fantasy – the knight in shining Nike runners, saying “come with me if you want to live”. She’s initially suggested as a sort of mindless Reese and the Terminator to fight over, while Reese shows her the ways of the world. Of course, the film subverts this. He didn’t inspire her, she inspired him. He had a picture of her even before he was sent back in time. She was always the hero of the story, she just didn’t know it yet.
Even ignoring the sheer skill with which Cameron executes this saga (and there are hints of the heavy-handedness which would follow him later in his career, but here they are more nuanced and carefully applied with restraint), it’s an action movie with brains. Cameron toys with the notion of free will and destiny all this, not quite answering one way or the other. Could Sarah Connor have ever been killed, or did sending the Terminator back to kill her ultimately cause the fall of Skynet? Cameron’s answer here is somewhat different than the one he would offer in the sequel, but there’s plenty of food for thought.
Terminator remains a gold standard for independent action movies, which holds up even today, if you can handle a little ominous synth and accept the wonderful style of special effects used.