Believe it or not, the first Terminator is classed as a cult film so fuck it, I’m running with it.
Terminator (1984) is one of those films that everyone has heard of, some may not have seen it (savages) but they know what it’s about. That one little film that cost just under $7 million to make rocketed into popularity and spawned a franchise. Just like all franchises, it’s has it’s ups and downs so with out further ado, I will review 4 out of the 5 films as I haven’t seen Salvation and I will explain why later. As I’m reviewing all of the
films, I’ll have to split this up into parts.
The idea for the first Terminator came from director James Cameron who had a dream about a metal skeleton with no legs dragging itself from an explosion. This idea was then expanded into a sci-fi, cyber-punk action-y, thriller-y type thing that was called ‘Terminator’. Everyone he knew told him it was a bad idea but being the radical young director that he was, went ahead and did it anyway. And it made him boat loads of cash. Not as much cash as he was about to make but enough.
In the casting process, several hot young actors were considered for the role of the Terminator including Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone and even O.J Simpson but the role went to bodybuilder turned actor Arnold Schwarzenegger whose main role to date was as ‘Conan’ in ‘Conan the Barbarian (1982)’. Arnold’s second portrayal of Conan was in ‘Conan the Destroyer’ which was released the same year as Terminator. Arnold was
initially brought in for the role of Kyle Reese but his role was changed to the Terminator because both Mr Cameron and Arnie felt that he would be better as the Terminator. Originally, the Terminator was meant to be an ‘infiltration unit’ which was meant to blend in to it’s surroundings in order to successfully find it’s target. This changed when Schwarzenegger was cast as his physical presence gives a different spin on the concept.
He looks like something that would have been built to fight in a war, he’s brooding and quite menacing which would intimidate the humans who he was built to terminate. At that time, Mr Schwarzenegger was not as proficient with guns so in preparation for his role, he spent around three months training with guns until he felt comfortable.
Speaking of Kyle Reese, this significant role went to the right honourable Michael Biehn. When he auditioned for the role of Kyle Reese, he gave the best reading of all the actors but he read it in a southern accent. James Cameron didn’t want an accent for Kyle Reese because the character was from a post-apocalyptic future where specific regional accents probably didn’t exist anymore. As it turned out, Michael Biehn didn’t have a southern accent but had done a reading for a stage production of ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ the morning of the audition for Terminator and hadn’t shaken off the accent. He came back in and read in his normal, beautiful voice and he was cast as Kyle Reese.
For the film’s lead female role of sweet, vulnerable but head strong Sarah Connor, the role went to Linda Hamilton after Cameron had seen her performance in the 1984 horror film ‘Children of the Corn’ which was an adapted Stephen King short story.
A couple of other top class actors appear in Terminator. The late Bill Paxton played a street punk at the start of the film when the Terminator is looking for clothes, Lance Henriksen played police sergeant, Hal Vukovich, the late Paul Winfield plays police lieutenant, Ed Traxler and Earl Boen plays Dr Pete Silberman and is the only actor (apart from Arnold Schwarzenegger) to appear in the original trilogy before Salvation ruined everything.
When watching it for the first time, it might seem that Terminator is an above average 1980’s action film that has taken on a sci-fi twist what with science fiction becoming more popular at that time with the release of ‘E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)’ and ‘Tron (Also 1982)’. Even science fiction films with a more action-y twist were being developed such as ‘Escape From New York (1981)’ so there was an audience building for this
kind of film. All it needed was the right characters and the right setting and if you look deep enough, that’s what you’ll find.
On the surface, it looks like a basic film plot. Bad guy wants to kill good guy, bad guy dies, good guy wins… sort of but we have to look deeper to find the gold that’s running through this film’s veins. We are told through an exposition dump by Michael Biehn that in the future, there is a nuclear holocaust that is caused by a computer defence system called ‘Skynet’. The machines have taken over but the humans are fighting back. That is what we are told but the images of the future are slowly drip-fed to the viewer. Most of them are dream sequences and flashbacks of Kyle Reese before he was sent back in time. I assume that this was not only for the benefits of the story but also to save money. Such as the convenient plot line that when a soldier travels through time, they can’t bring any laser rifles with them as it will just disintegrate. This is also pointed out by Dr Silberman as to why Kyle can’t prove that he’s from the future because he can’t bring anything back with him. He also can’t wear any clothes but then how would I be able to salivate uncontrollably at Michael Biehn’s very tight body. It’s a shame that he has to wear hobo pants for the rest of the film but anyway.
But I’ve always said that low-budget pictures are worth investing your time in as they don’t have the money to spend on fancy-pants special effects and are always more character focused. And there’s no shortage of characters on display.
The film has two major focuses, the most obvious being the Terminator continuously hunting down Sarah Connor but the other is the growing relationship between Kyle and Sarah. When Sarah first meets Kyle through the haze of blood and bullets, she is obviously sceptical about his claims but as the film goes on she finds herself falling for him with it all coming to a head in the motel room which is my favourite scene. I would now like to give Michael Biehn several million honorary awards for his performance in this scene and that’s not because he’s topless. Throughout the film, he has been the action-man, the protector, the defender but in this scene he shows his true vulnerabilities and makes a truly heartfelt confession to Sarah but straight after, he toughens up once again. It’s impossible not to melt at the words that he speaks to Sarah or at the look in his eyes. He puts forward that he’s never spoken those words to another human being or have felt that way before. The only feelings he has ever felt are pain and misery but this is his moment to feel something good but straight after he regrets it, fearing the consequences. Luckily for him, the consequences are good.
I am in no doubt that James Cameron wrote a wonderful script and he definitely knows his characters or more specifically how to do character development and significant arcs. Sarah Connor is a prime example. Before she meets Kyle, she is a normal girl with a normal job in a diner but when she finds out that she will give birth to John Connor who will one day save the human race, she is overwhelmingly sceptical and in extreme denial. Time after time when the Terminator attacks, Sarah becomes more dependant on Kyle but during the final confrontation, specifically when the endoskeleton chases Sarah and a grievously wounded Kyle into a factory does her strength finally come to the surface.
Her final test comes when Kyle blows up the metallic skeleton, killing himself in the process. Sarah is faced with a legless skeleton that is now really pissed off. She manages to lure it into a hydraulic press and delivers that great line, ‘You’re terminated, fucker!’. And a hero is born. Sarah now knows her destiny and more importantly, what is to come in the future. She is carrying both Kyle’s baby and the last remaining hope of mankind. I think my favourite part of the final scene is when she promises to tell John who is father is as a gift to Kyle for saving her life and this is down to Linda Hamilton’s performance. After everything that had happened throughout the film, I definitely got the sense that her character had changed and the most significant change was yet to come.
Once the film wrapped, a number of bits were shot afterwards, the most important being Kyle being zipped up in the bodybag and the Terminator’s head being crushed in the press, specifically the shot of the red light going out.
The make-up effects on the film were created by the late Stan Winston who whilst undoubtedly did fantastic work with Terminator, went on to receive several Academy and Emmy Awards for his work on various films. Whilst working with James Cameron, he received two Oscars for Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup on Terminator 2 in 1992 and he won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for Aliens (1986) in 1987. He was nominated for and won several more accolades over his career and it’s no surprise.
This film is definitely a classic and today has earned the privilege of being on several top movie lists and a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It also spawned a number of memorable lines which are still quoted and referenced today such as ‘I’ll be back’ and ‘Come with me if you want to live’. But Terminator also gave way to a conversation about something that we can only really appreciate in this day and age which is just how reliant we are on technology and the prospect of Artificial Intelligence taking over our lives. The plot line in James Cameron’s script is not an entirely unthinkable scenario and which the technological advancements that have been made since the 1980’s, machines are quite literally taking over and it’s up to us to make sure that we know where the line is. Even Stephen Hawking agrees and who are we to argue with the smartest man in the world?
With a budget of $6.5 Million, Terminator (1984) took in $78.3 Million but had not yet become a cult film. That happened after the film was released on VHS in 1985 and began playing on television. When that happened, the film began to gain a fan-base and the call for a sequel became louder. Ask and ye shall receive.