Back in 1984, a budding director named James Cameron was working on two projects almost simultaneously, both of which would go on to become some of the most successful sci-fi franchises in history. These were the time-traveling cyber-thriller The Terminator and the long awaited sequel known as Aliens. And not only were they well received at the box office, both went on to become classics in their own right, earning a cult following and spawning even more sequels. Yep, the guy could write and direct back in the day, before success and fame went to his head and he got all… Titanicy! Fans of said movie might disagree, but I think it just went downhill from there! I mean, Avatar? C’mon people, that was just a rehashing of Titanic and Aliens with a whole lot of Pocahontas ripped off and plastered on.
But that’s neither here nor there (I’m so gonna trash that movie later!). Right now, I wanna talk about the movie that started it for James and turned Arny from a champion body builder and B-list actor into an A-list movie star (Which reminds me, at some point I got to review Conan, his other break-out hit!) And a warning, you can’t get into this movie without talking about Arny, a lot! So plenty of biopic info will be coming up throughout the course of this review, be warned! So without further ado, let’s get to reviewing this baddest of bad-boys!
In truth, Arny was first approached by the studio to play the role of Kyle Reese. However, after reading the script, he said he would rather play the role of the murdering cyborg. After meeting with Schwarzenegger, whom he had no intention of casting in the role, Cameron became convinced. And it worked! Anry’s presence, his bad-guy face, and his imposing demeanor sold people on the Terminator. Even his accent, which was still pretty thick, seemed believable coming from a synthetic human. And while it got mixed reviews at first because of its violence, many critics saw unmistakable quality in it, hailing its tense pace, its cool action, and its storyline. In time, these positive reviews would become the general consensus, and Cameron was inspired to make the sequel. T2 did better at the box office, but compared to The Terminator‘s modest budget and overall gross, the original’s performance was far more impressive. He would NOT be involved in the later movies, which was good for him. They did not hold a candle to his original creations!
The movie opens with a brief intro showing us the post-apocalyptic world of Judgement Day, explaining that there’s been a nuclear holocaust and that machines are waging a war on all those humans who still remain. Its just a taste of things to come, nothing long or drawn out. And then, we move to modern-day LA. There’s a big burst of light, and Arny standing naked in the street. He has a run in with some thugs, the leader of whom is Bill Paxton (or Hudson, as he was known in Aliens), and deprives them of their clothes. He even brutally kills one of them just to make his point: don’t mess with evil-Terminator Arny! Simultaneously, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn, Hicks from Aliens. Holy recycling actors Batman!) shows up and is going through the same motions. Like Arny, he is in a rush to find clothes, weapons, and the whereabouts on one Sarah Connor. Yet somehow, Reese seems to be having a harder time of it. Funny how being a cybernetic powerhouse who’s not afraid to brutally kill makes life easier! In fact, after visiting a gun store and making only one gaff about plasma cannons, Arny ups his body count to two! But seriously, what was up with that line: “phased plasma cannon in the 40 watt range”. Really? Wouldn’t a Terminator be programmed with what weapons were available in 1984; them detailed files Arny mentioned in the second movie? Ah well, comic relief before he blew the unsuspected store owner away, I guess.
We also get to see Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), who for all intents and purposes seems like a regular, run of the mill lady. Naturally, we are wondering why Arny is out to kill her, and what Reese wants with her. But one thing we are sure of, Arny DEFINITELY wants to kill her. The way he is tracking down and murdering anyone named Sarah Conner in the greater LA area would seem to indicate that. As for Reese, his intentions become abundantly clear when the three of them – him, Sarah and Arny – finally come together in a barroom shootout. I can attest to the fact that this scene is one of the most tense in the entire movie. Arny comes in, Kyle shoves his way through the crowd as soon as he sees him, Arny levels his gun at Sarah’s head, she is frozen with terror, and Reese brings his gun to bear. The sound is faint for much of this… but when Reese fires, the sound returns! BOOM, BOOM, BOOM… and Arny drops! Naturally, he doesn’t stay down, and Reese has to unload what’s left of his ammo into him before he can reveal his true purpose. He makes this abundantly clear when he bends down to grab hold of Sarah’s arm and says the classic line: “Come with me if you want to live!” Naturally, she does. And in the course of fleeing from Arny, Reese fills her in on the whole situation.
In short, on Aug. 29th, 1997, a nuclear holocaust will take the lives of 3 billion people, in an event known (appropriately) as Judgement Day. The culprit is a machine known as Skynet, an AI created by humans that turned on them and spawned an entire race of machines that were designed to hunt down and destroy all human life. They are known (also appropriately!) as Terminators. Most survivors were herded into camps for what Reese refers to as “orderly disposal”, echoes of the holocaust. But one man rallied them turned them into the Resistance. His name: John Connor, Sarah’s unborn son. Shortly before Reese traveled back in time, the Resistance had broken into the machine HQ and destroyed Skynet. Hence, the machines sent a Terminator back in time to kill John Conner before he ever existed. What makes this semi-believable is the fact that at first, Sarah doesn’t believe him and tries to flee. There’s none of this “you saved my life and your we have obvious chemistry… so sure, I’ll go with you” crap. But Reese’s insistence plus the sheer unbelievability of his story manages to convince her. Cyborgs created a time machine so they could travel back in time, from the post-apocalyptic future, and kill the woman who will give birth to the boy who will lead humanity to victory over them. Hell, you can’t make shit like that up! Unless you’re James Cameron… The fact that he’s protecting her while a homicidal Arny will stop at nothing to kill her might have been an added push.
What follows in some more tense scenes where Reese and Connor attempt to flee from the Arny bot. Both he and Reese are wounded in one exchange, forcing Arny to cut out one of his synthetic eyes and wear shades. The look was born! But then Reese and Sarah Conner are arrested, Reese is charged with kidnapping, and Sarah is told that he’s a psycho, and not to listen to him! The chief also tries to allay her fears with what immediately becomes some famous last words: “There are thirty cops in this building. You’re safe.” Arny of course find them, enters and gives HIS famous words to the clerk who tells him visiting hours are over: “I’ll be back!” And boy was he ever! After driving his car through the front doors, he whoops out the artillery and proceeds to murder seventeen officers. That’s ballsy for any bad guy, lord knows the only policemen who are allowed to die in an action movie are the ones who are three days to retirement! But in the carnage, Reese manages to escape and pulls Sarah Connor out. They both then double-time it out of town.
Then, with a little privacy and some trust established, we get to see the relationship that’s taking root between Reese and Connor. Cameron also takes this opportunity to give us additional glimpses of the future. Up until this point, this was done through Reese having flashbacks and nightmares. At this point, it takes the form of Reese conveying everything John Connor told him to share with her, which includes anecdotes about the war. This is important since she will give birth to the future commander of the resistance and he needs to be prepped! Some cool temporal paradox stuff happening here. But wait, it get’s better! Eventually, Reese confesses that he always loved Sarah – well, not so much her, but the idea of her. Her picture is something he’s kept, its a little worse for wear, but still manages to capture her determination and beauty (keep this in mind, it comes up later!). Then, they have sex, and Sarah gets pregnant with – drumroll! – the future John Connor! Yes, as it turns out, Reese is Connor’s father due to this same temporal paradox, whom he will meet and become the protege of in the future. So in addition to this being a post-apocalyptic, time-travelling sci-fi thriller, it comes complete with a big twist! And not just one…
Back to Arny, who must get creative in order to find Connor again. This he does by finding her mother and takes her call when she does the obligatory good daughter thing and calls just to let her know she’s all right. He then gets the address of the hotel where they’re staying. Luckily, Connor and Reese are on top of things. Like good soldiers, they were ready to mobilize, even did some shopping so they could build some homemade plastic explosives. Another car chase ensues, Reese gets severely wounded this time, and Arny gets unseated from his motor bike, hit by an 18-wheeler, and has more of his face ripped off. The look evolves! We also get famous one-liner number two when Arny commandeers the 18-wheeler. After tossing the driver, he turns to the passenger with a half-revealed cyborg face and says… “Get out!” Of course, the guy does! When a killer cyborg steps into your vehicle with half his face missing and tells you to move it, you don’t say no! Shortly thereafter, the 18-wheeler crashes and they think Arny is dead. But no! The fully revealed Terminator crawls from the flames (symbolism moment here, harking back to the intro!) and advances on them.
And of course, Reese sacrifices himself to blow the thing in two, but Sarah is forced to deliver the finishing blow by crushing it in an hydraulic press! But before she does, she gives her own big one-liner: “YOU’RE TERMINATED, MOTHERFUCKER!” Hey, Arny can’t get em all! The movie then cuts to several months later, with Sarah, now pregnant, driving through Mexico. She’s making a recording for her John, and a small boy comes and snaps her picture. Remember that photo Reese had of her, the one that made her fall in love with him? Yep, this is it! And as we will learn in the movie that’s to come, the remains of the Arny bot were recovered… the seeds of Skynet’s creation have been sowed. The paradox is complete! And Sarah drives off into a coming storm, which is both literal and metaphorical. Yep, good line to end it on. “There’s a storms coming,” says the Mexican man. “I know,” says Connor. Cue apocalyptic music and roll credits!
All throughout this movie, there is a tension that in undeniable. Whether its Reese’s painful flashbacks, the Terminators constant pursuit, or the fact that the police are pursuing them as well, there’s a pace and a tempo that never lets up. It’s downright uncomfortable, the feeling of danger and impending death always there. Though the sequel was arguably more fun and a lot more impressive in terms of effects, the original was a lot grittier and emotionally honest. In a way, it kinds of like Alien and its sequel, the former being packed full of terror and claustrophobia, the latter being a big-ass thriller that relied more on action. Unfortunate that Cameron was only involved in the creation of the latter, otherwise you could say there was a clear pattern. The original sets up the plot and has a deliberately harsh tone, the latter finishes it off and is entertaining in the process. And while the latter might have overshadowed the former in terms of box office gross and overall impact, the former remains the more critically acclaimed cult-hit because its arguably smarter, if less flashy. Not to mention that from top to bottom, the feel, music and direction of the original are faithful to its central themes. One really gets the feeling throughout that this is a movie about the apocalypse and a horrific war that is yet to come. Not only that, but the time travel stuff is intriguing and thoughtful. As Sarah says at one point to Reese: “You keep speaking about things I haven’t done yet, past tense!” She is abundantly clear on the fact that she’s not comfortable with how Reese and people from his time see her, as some kind of hero. But in the end, she has to find the strength to become what she needs to be, something which she passes on to John Connor, a sense of terrible purpose.
In any case, it made for a good movie. But the real points came in the form of the plot, which was a compelling story about fate and free-will. The future is happening because of what happens in the past. They are trying to prevent the machines from altering the future, but in the process, they end up creating it. Cool, and virtually seamless. Because, as I’m sure I said in my Terminator: Salvation review, the good guys not only ensured the birth of John Connor (and hence their eventual victory over the machines), they also ensured the existence of the machines in the first place. Funny how that works, temporal tampering has the power to give and the power to take away. The real genius of it, and the thing that always bakes my noodle, is the notion that the future we know is the result of all our actions. That might seem like fatalism, but its actually far more complex. Fate implies that the future is set, when in fact, things don’t happen in spite of what you do, but because of it. Oy, I just went cross-eyed! These plot twists also set up the plot for a sequel very nicely. Now that John Connor’s existence is assured, he must prepared for the future. At the same time, he and Sarah must see what they can do to prevent it. And of course, with the war still on the horizon and the rise of the machines still to come, we can bet our bottom dollar that they will make another attempt to kill Connor before they lose the war.
And like I said, this movie set Arny and Cameron up FOR LIFE. Cameron would go on to make Aliens before directing his big-budget action-packed sequel, and Arny would land role after role in the big action line-up of the 1980’s. Funny too how that worked out. Arny had all kinds of difficulty getting work at first because of his accent and, amazingly, his name! Director’s initially thought it was too long and hard to pronounce, and that his speech would always be a stumbling block. But thanks to The Terminator, Arny went on to be famous and all those agents and producers who doubted him were left eating crow! And of course, when it came time to make the sequel, Cameron would bring Arny back and give him a chance to reprise his role, this time as the good guy, which was in keeping with Arny’s true character. Linda Hamilton would be back too, reprising her role as Sarah Conner and raising the stakes by becoming the ultimate female bad-ass!
More on that in my review, T2! Like Arny, I too will be back! (Sorry, I had to!)
Entertainment Value: 8/10