Friday, May 15, 2009

The Terminator (1984)

Part 1 of 3 Terminator Franchise Special.
Spoilers abound but you've had 25 years to see this picture...

"Tech Noir"
In March of 1984 when The Terminator began filming, the director James Cameron and the producer Gale Ann Hurd were no Hollywood heavyweights. Cameron was no one's idea of a visionary (except for perhaps his own) and had only one feature under his belt, Piranha 2: The Spawning -- auspicious beginnings! Hurd had learned the production ropes on B movies for Roger Corman. Cameron and Hurd intended for the dark, fast and cheaply made robot movie to be their calling card. Seven months later in October the movie premiered with only its deceptively simple premise (killer machine hunts woman) and Conan the Barbarian (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to sell it. The Terminator was an immediate hit, though not quite a blockbuster. It earned a Conan-like $38 million gross in its initial run (which I believe is something roughly in the ballpark of $90 million in 2009 ticket sales).

As a franchise it was a slow starter but as a stand alone movie The Terminator was anything but.

The movie begins with a bone crushing (literally) view of "The Year of Darkness", in which massive machines hunt humans in desolate post-apocalyptic ruins. Very quickly we're thrown back to present day Los Angeles ...present day in in the 80s at least.

The T-800 meets Cameron regular Bill Paxton (blue haired punk). Check out
the lengthy tongue accompanied stare his friend (genre movie regular Brian
) directs at the T-800's realistic looking man parts. Ha!

An electric storm begins and a naked crouching man rises from the clearing smoke. He proceeds to walk emotionless through LA and slaughters some punks for clothes. A second electrical storm follows dropping another naked man into downtown LA. The twin sequences are mostly wordless but already Cameron's story instincts are shining: The first man (we don't technically know he's a machine) is already embedded in the audiences mind as an cool collected deadly force to be reckoned with, the second Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) is, in contrast, a scurrying, less capable and frankly desperate looking man.

Kyle Reese's famously cold and harsh entrance. His arrival isn't pain-free
and before he even has his bearings "What Year!?!" he's being hunted.

In short, he's mortal. We don't know why he's there but his world is already merciless with him (damn that pavement smacks him hard). Soon both men are armed and searching for the same woman "Sarah Connor". A smartly recurring shot has all three lead players scanning the phone book for the name, followed the first time by an expository cut to the Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) we're looking for.

The large stone faced man quickly dispenses with the first two unlucky Sarah Connors. We learn that dogs don't like Terminators. We learn that the Terminator can mimic voices. The police realize someone is scrolling down the list and even Sarah Connor herself, the Sarah Connor, hears about the first murder. As she gets ready for a night out, we realize she's next... and that her roommate is probably done for, too, even if the remain ignorant to the bad omen the first murder portends.

Check out the 80s fashions! Sarah's a simple waitress, not a fashionista. Earlier
in the film she wears a Jetsons t-shirt. Is it a fun nod to the sci-fi genre?

All of this happens very swiftly, sometimes with almost inhuman proficiency (thank the sharp editing by Mark Goldblatt) like the brutal unfeeling demise of the first Sarah. In its early sequences, The Terminator has the timber of a slasher movie. It's over in a flash. Cameron wastes no time in his calling card film. Would that more action filmmakers would have learned from his economy. He doesn't stop to explain. He just shows with clarity and moves on. His films are so precise that sometimes I think he's a Terminator himself, a T-Auteur2000.

Next comes the pivotal plot braiding sequence as all three lead characters are finally threaded together at the brilliantly named dance club Tech-Noir. This leads to possibly the most brilliant shot in the movie as the T-800 stands firing his heavy artillery in front of the blinking sign. Tech-Noir, indeed: He's a futuristic machine and this movie is pitch black with menace.

The night club sequence ups the ante considerably. We're finally shown, without a shadow of a doubt, that Schwarzenegger's character is, in fact, a machine. He rises from what should be death and we get our first shot from inside his head as he targets the fleeing Sarah and Reese. We're nearly 40 minutes into the movie before Cameron finally stops and lets us breathe a little, letting the exposition in. Reese tells Sarah what the T-800 is, putting the sci-fi threat in all too human terms
It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity. Or remorse. Or fear. And it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead
Reese and Sarah are caught by the police after a high speed chase with the T-800 and in the police station the psychiatrist also gets to restate the franchise plot and laugh at the absurdity of it all.
This computer thinks it can win by killing him before he's even conceived. A sort of retroactive abortion?
Apparently, in the 80s you could say the word "abortion" onscreen. How far we've regressed.

'Come with me if you want to live have sex.' Kyle's aim is true.
Nine months later Sarah will give birth to new savior of the human race.

Speaking of regression... in the 80s action/horror hybrids were rated R (It's called The Terminator. It needs to be violent and scary) and women were usually naked when they had sex instead of leaving their bras on or rolling around in strangely adhesive sheets. It's true. I'm not trying to be a horndog by why shouldn't Sarah Connor be naked? We're visualizing the conception of our savior J.C. (John Connor) and that's important. If The Terminator were made today they would cut out the goriest bits and make Sarah wear a bra during her world-saving orgasm.

But I digress... in the last half of the film we basically morph from a sci-fi horror film to a chase picture, as Sarah and Reese run from the increasingly robotic looking killing machine and fight him when they have to. Unless there was a heroic woman in Piranha 2 (I haven't seen it) this 1984 classic also gives us our first ultra satisfying taste of James Cameron's respect for powerful women. When Reese is finally put down by the big bad machine, there's no prince to rescue Sarah Connor and she takes matters into her own hands.

You can see her pooling her strength to help Reese and then herself in the last intense fights in the movie. The damsel in distress within her has to die. She's her own savior. And she's the killer now.
You're terminated, fucker
The Terminator gets uncomfortably close to Sarah Connor's sweating face. I like
to think that David Fincher stole this shot in homage for that famous
Alien³ moment when the alien breathes on a terrified Ripley

Sarah Connor crushes this machine but the story isn't over. Storm clouds gather in the sky as she drives away to Mexico and the credits roll. A

The first poster for this 80s classic referred to the original T-800 as "something unstoppable." It was a rare case of marketing as prophecy. The Terminator wasn't a critical sensation and received no Oscar nominations (not even for that brilliantly metallic and frightening theme by Brad Friedel, something like the The Jaws of sci-fi). It started life as a mid-sized hit but snowballed into a massive one on home video in the following years, eventually becoming a billion dollar avalanche of a franchise.

What a calling card The Terminator turned out to be.

PART TWO: "Model Citizen" Terminator 2
PART THREE: Terminator Salvation Discussion


Katey said...

There's such a beautiful simplicity to the sci-fi elements here that no modern movie would bother with. Yes, there's a future with machines and the humans are fighting them-- what more do you need to know?

Also, Michael Biehn-- what a hunk. Why'd he drop off the radar?


well Cameron tried with him (Biehn). He was also in THE ABYSS and ALIENS

not sure why other filmmakers never really bit though. at least in a substantial way.

but then again the action heroes in the 80s were usually more cartoonish (Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Lundgren) and not as much on the everyman front as they are today with the LaBeoufs and others. So maybe Biehn just wasn't in the right "window" so to speak.

he was good in GRINDHOUSE recently.

wordsworm said...

Quite honestly, I thought the first movie was the best. Though T2 was great, and T3 was only good with the partially nude shot of the female terminator which lasted only a few seconds. The rest of it was a painful cliche.

Greg said...

not even for that brilliantly metallic and frightening theme by Brad Friedel, something like the The Jaws of sci-fi)...

Thanks for mentioning that. I have always thought the theme for Terminator was outstandingly effective, which should be a requirement for nominating a piece for musical score but of course then it wouldn't be the Oscars.


Greg... so true. I think they're basic criteria for music is along the lines of "sounds pretty and melodic" and "is used a lot in the movie"

sometimes those things are deserving... other times you gotta go with something that elevates a movie -- even if it aint pretty.

wordsworm T2 is my favorite (i'm just about to watch it again) but your T3 highlight made me laugh. I remember virtually NOTHING about that movie so it should be interesting to rewatch. at least for the first few minutes.

Wayne B. said...

Great write-up on a classic! Never thought about how the story is structured before. I thought the first two movies are more about Sarah Connor's story/arc than John's. I love it when she becomes Reese's crutch: "On your feet soldier!"

Michael Biehn was actually in this cheesy horror movie I liked back in the day called "Cherry Falls" starring a pre-overexposed Brittany Murphy where the VIRGIN high schoolers are the targets. He plays yet another sheriff in that one.


wayne -- i've actually seen that one (i was a Brittany Murphy supporter. but sadly... like many starlets before her something went awfully awry and it felt like something she contributed to. sigh)

goatdog said...

This is a really great review, Nathaniel. It captures everything that was great about Cameron before he thought he was a visionary. I wish he'd forget and just make another bare-bones thriller. He was born for that, which is nothing to be ashamed of. And T2 is possibly the best sci-fi/action movie of all time, if Aliens doesn't hold that title. God, he was so good.


I think Aliens does hold the title but i lurve T2 as well. That one is coming up (probably Monday)

Agent69 said...

Now you made me want to watch it again. It is amazing how rewatchable Cameron's movies are.

Glenn said...

That's the thing with Cameron. He's just an incredibly good director. It's like he instinctively knows what to do. He doesn't NEED to be flashy, either, because what he tends to work with is eye-popping enough. Simple, effective and to the point. Brilliant.

T2 is my favourite - I'd rank it very very high on a personal canon - as it was a movie I grew up with and I didn't even see the original until years later. I also very much liked T3, which I felt was far better done than many other action movies of the time. The crane sequence was particularly thrilling on the big screen (and, yes, The Dark Knight's truck flip was taken directly from it - but the fanboys don't want to admit that.)


y'know i vaguely remember that being the best scene inthe movie but i don't remember a truck flip ;)

but i'll be watching it again soon for this retro so i am now more eager.

Chris Na Taraja said...

What a great flick. I like T2 a lot, but I'm kind of in love with T1. Guess it was the naked men falling out of the sky. I wonder if the song "It's Raining Men" was an inspiration for James.

"I'll be back"

Anonymous said...

Nathaniel @ 4:40 p.m. - I know what you mean; I'm starting to feel that way about Evan Rachel Wood. Hopefully "Whatever Works" is inspiring.

SusanP said...

Great write-up, Nat. The Terminator is one of my favorite films of all time. I love T2 as well, but nothing compares to the gritty, bare-bones original. Part of that is Biehn, who was probably my first really huge cinematic crush. I loved seeing him in Grindhouse.

CrazyCris said...

Great recap and review here!

It took me a looooong time before I was able to watch this film... I think I must have seen T2 at least 3-4 times before I ever got hold of this one. For some reason T2 was on TV regularly in the 90s (and I watched it almost every chance I had) whereas T1 I had to go out and look for it to rent in a video store when it dawned on me that I'd never seen it!

T2 is THE Terminator movie in my mind, probably due to my having seen it at a highly influenceable age... but having seen all 3 recently (in prep for the upcoming T: Salvation) I think T1 is probably the better film story-wise. (so much of what was meaningful about T2's message got lost when they brought about T3: you write your own future? HA! you can't avoid fate! T3 totally contradict's T2's message)

I look forward to reading what you have to write on the other two installments! It will help tide me over until Salvation hits the screens here in Spain... not for another 3 bloody weeks! grrrr

Tracy Staedter said...

Hi everyone. I produce a website for Discovery Channel called Discovery Tech and this week I have a personality quiz that Terminator fans might be interested in. It's called "What Terminator Movie Character Are You? It's inspired by the first movie that set it all in motion. Thanks!

squazellcolt said...

i spend almost 1 year just to find T1 , but i saw T2 on cinema . after i saw T2 i know i have to find T1 . but was shock to find that arnold play the bad robot ( terminator ;p).
wait a few years ( almost like forever ) then T3 show up . love the visual effect but still T2 was the best . then the sarah conor came ,soon T4 came ( salvation ) . man , from T2 to T3 is long enough but T3 to T4 feels abit soon . T4 is good but not compare to T2 ( T4 beat all series in Visual effect ) . but Dont you think the Oversize robot of terminator looks just like the one from transformer

rievans57 said...

The Terminator is one of the greatest screenplays ever written. The dialogue is taught but direct. The characters all have a goal in mind and they pursue their goals with incredible passion and desire. This creates tremendous tension and conflict which leads to incredible drama. The screenplay for this film should have received an Oscar nod.

Chris said...

Considering Cameron had about a buck and a half to make this movie the old school special effects he came up with (which still look pretty good today) speak volumes about his fundamental knowledge of film making. In my opinion easily the best terminator film and a precursor to his true masterpiece, Aliens.