The Terminator, while revolutionary at its time, feels like it would be a hackneyed concept if anyone pitched it in Hollywood nowadays.
James Cameron: “Ok ok, so get this. Humans and machines are at war with each other, right? And the leader of the human resistance in 2027 is John Connor, but back in the 80s he hasn’t been born yet. So the machines send a machine to kill his mom and stop him from being born, right? But the humans send their best human to protect her, but in turn, falls in love with her, impregnating her and starting John Connor in the first place. Cool stuff, right?”
“Thanks for dropping by Mr. Cameron, the door is out to the left. ”
Don’t get me wrong, The Terminator is an awesome movie, but time travel and evil A.I. narratives have been misused and overused at this point in our current Hollywood landscape. Back then, though, Terminator was revolutionary, both for its fully-realized AI world-building, made possible by Cameron, and its conventional but mastered action elements, particularly the thrilling car chase sequences. Cameron said an inspiration was Mad Max 2: Fury Road and that definitely shows, with characters engaging in dueling-car battles as if LA were some sort of automotive, violent Wild West.
The special effects elements are still astounding, especially everything we see in future LA where machines dominate the world. The only point where the film loses our sense of belief is when Schwarzenegger is remedying a broken eye in the mirror. A humorous, prosthetic face is used instead, and as we watch fake-Arnold dissect his fake-eyeball, our sense of disbelief has become fake as well. To be fair, this was back in the 80s, Cameron had a small budget and few technological advancements had been made in facial prosthetics. But, the movie would be much better without the scene all together, just to keep us sustained a bit longer.
The performances are outstanding, with Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese, Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course, as the Termintor. Hamilton evokes an unshaking sense of paranoia, we tap into her fear of consistently being watched by her aggressors, or not being watched enough by those trying to help her. Biehn’s madcap energy as Reese is infectious and also a bit humorous, it’s a joy to see how panicked and concerned he is at nearly every moment, how devoted he is to his cause that hasn’t even manifested yet. And of course, Arnold, statuesque, emotionless, uncompromising, always walking rigidly and with deadly intent.
There are more enticing, captivating themes here too than what we see on the surface. Connor must ultimately use another machine to kill her machine, she lacks the ability to do so on her own. The climax also proceeds in a reverse evolutionary cycle. They first move by car, then by bike, then by running, then by limping, then by crawling, and then eventual death by Reese, while his unborn son will crawl, limp, run, and as we find out in Terminator 2, then by bike.
It’s gritty and its raw and plays by its own rules. While not as satisfying on a complete storytelling level as its successor, The Terminator was revolutionary both in its ability to tell a new kind of story with a new kind of special effects, one that shaped Hollywood for the better.