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Dissecting the Classics – The Terminator

March 30, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
The Terminator

I apologize in advance for the below par images. Surprisingly it’s hard to find large, quality pictures from this movie.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

The Terminator

Wide Release Date: October 26, 1984
Directed By: James Cameron
Written By: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd and William Wisher, Jr.
Produced By: Gale Anne Hurd
Cinematography By: Adam Greenberg
Edited By: Mark Goldblatt
Music By: Brad Fiedel
Production Company: Hemdale, Pacific Western Productions, Cinema ’84
Distributed By: Orion Pictures
Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator
Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor
Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese
Paul Winfield as Lt. Ed Traxler

What Do We All Know?

The Terminator is a 1984 science-fiction action film that put writer-director James Cameron on the map as a talent to watch, gave Arnold Schwarzenegger his most iconic role, and propelled itself into pop culture ubiquity almost immediately. Produced on a modest $6.4 million budget, the film made nearly ten times that amount at a box office, making it a genuine hit before it found an even larger audience on home video. The film’s no-nonsense screenplay, hard-R action, quotable lines, heart-pounding score, striking visuals and surprisingly effective sci-fi mythology made it one of the preeminent dark sci-fi movies of the era, and its effect on numerous industries can still be felt to this day.

With all of that going for it, it feels a little strange for me to say that I consider The Terminator to be kind of underrated. I mean, nobody is questioning the huge impact it’s had on pop culture; the Terminators are still probably the best shorthand for the potential dangers of artificial intelligence, and a former United States governor is still probably better known for this movie than any of his policies (except maybe to Californians). But with a beloved sequel that often gets touted as one of the landmarks of the action genre and two of Cameron’s other films being the most financially lucrative movies ever made… is the original Terminator a bit lost in the shuffle?

What Went Right?

Strip away all of the science fiction elements and The Terminator is a simple, straightforward story about an assassin, his target and her bodyguard. Inspired by Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween, James Cameron made his own movie about an unstoppable killer. To justify that creative decision, Cameron decided to go the science fiction route and make his bad guy a literal killing machine; a robot from the future that could hide behind human skin. Extrapolating from this, we get the backstory of a war between robots and humans. The Terminator is sent back in time to kill the mother of the human’s leader John Connor, who sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother Sarah. It’s a premise perfectly suited to an action movie that always wants to keep constant forward momentum.

If I had to sum up what makes this movie a great piece of entertainment, those three words “constant forward momentum” would do the trick. The Terminator wastes almost no time, with every scene us tension, thrills or a chance to catch our breath. It’s amazing how much information Cameron gives us in such a short amount of time and how the movie never feels like it’s slowing down to accommodate it. Kyle and Sarah have most of their expository dialogue on the fringes of shootouts and chase scenes, and when they have their two big rests to really develop, they are earned and feel natural. Despite its R-rating, their sex scene is really tame, relying on the performances and the score to sell the passionate tryst.

Speaking of those elements, The Terminator is mostly about three characters, and the performances they give are memorable. Linda Hamilton’s character has the same basic arch as a final girl in a slasher, and she pulls off Sarah’s transformation from innocent girl-next-door to badass survivalist very well. Michael Biehn has an urgency in his performance that makes him easy to sympathize with. The movie helps his case by showing us backstory, but even if we didn’t see Reese arrive from the future, we would probably want to believe him. And as for the title role? Arnold Schwarzenegger was never versatile enough or talented enough to survive past the 1980’s action era, but he was the perfect casting for this. His size and charisma are accentuated, while his limitations are hidden by the fact that he’s playing a robot. This movie and its sequel are why Arnold is an iconic movie star instead of a flash in the pan.

Arnold isn’t the only thing iconic about this movie though. Hell, James Cameron excels at delivering “iconic”. Special effects artist Stan Winston took Cameron’s robotic design and made the definitive scary robot from the future. Brad Friedel’s spectacular score is instantly recognizable, filling one with dread or excitement with just a few tweaks on one percussive melody. The Terminator says less than 100 words and almost all of them are highly quotable, the ending scene is so good that it elevates an already great movie, and the robot apocalypse is one of the great mythologies of American movie-making. The movie even manages to accidentally be a retelling of the Nativity Story and most people barely notice. That’s an impressive feat.

What Went Wrong?

The Terminator is basically a perfect movie of its type. No, it’s not the kind of movie that’s going to be nominated for Oscars, although I think the Academy should have recognized its score and visual effects. But for a modestly budgeted, R-Rated sci-fi action movie from 1984, the movie holds up astonishingly well. Hell, I actually think it holds up even better than T2 if I’m being completely honest. By being so lean and barebones, it barely has time to do anything other than be awesome. The only meaningful criticism I could give is that some of the effects don’t hold up, and that just isn’t that type of column.

And In Summary…

Not belabor a point, but The Terminator is practically perfect as far as I’m concerned. What flaws it does have are inconsequential compared to the ideas it brings to the table and the excitement of its story. It’s a brutal action movie, an epic sci-fi parable, an unlikely sweet romance, and at times a downright chilling horror movie. And while it can be overshadowed by the success of its immediate sequel or tarnished by the mediocrity of the other three films with it’s name, The Terminator remains an iconic, masterful action movie that may be the creative highpoint of James Cameron’s career. If you haven’t seen it, see it. And for those who have, see it again, because it will never disappoint.

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Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense

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