One of the benefits of my upbringing is that I had a mother who is a nerd. My Mom is a dyed-in-the-wool geek who loves fantasy, comic books, and science fiction. Because of that, I was introduced to these genres at a formative age. One of the first film experiences I can remember was seeing the TV version of James Cameron’s The Terminator. The image of an unstoppable killing machine hunting down a young woman stuck with me over the years. Having recently rewatched the original film, here are my thoughts.
The Terminator is one of those seminal 1980s films that everyone should see at some point in their life. On the one hand, it very much feels like an 80s’ movie, especially with the costuming, lighting, and big hair. Seriously, go back and look at Linda Hamilton in that movie and tell me that is not some magnificent 80s hair she’s sporting. The music choices also play into the 80s feel of the film, especially during the now-iconic TechNoir sequence where Sarah Connor, Kyle Reese, and the titular Terminator meet. It’s almost hard to imagine that this film was what we would now classify as extremely low-budget (at only $6.4 million). Despite the limited budget, the film looks excellent. While the stop-motion animations don’t hold up as well today as they did in 1984, Stan Winston’s props are still among the best put to screen, including the reveal at the end of the full Terminator skeleton.
While many people hail the film as a benchmark science fiction movie, the film feels much more like a horror movie to me. Yes, there are the science fiction trappings of the future war, the Terminator machine, laser guns, etc., but those are window-dressing for the core story. The core of The Terminator is a monster movie. Instead of Freddy Krueger stalking teens in their dreams, it’s a cyborg in a human skin-suit chasing down a frightened young woman and her male protector through the darkened streets of Los Angeles. It’s said that the initial conception for the film was a nightmare James Cameron had about a killing machine rising out of a fire. Given that idea as the basis, it’s not too far a stretch to say that The Terminator is a horror movie wearing a science fiction suit.
Speaking of the characters, the main focus is on Sarah Connor (portrayed by Linda Hamilton). Hamilton’s performance is nuanced throughout, with subtle nods to the change she makes near the end of the film. There’s a vulnerability to Sarah that Hamilton brings out through the first two-thirds of the film. Sarah is completely out of her depth and relies on Kyle Reese (portrayed by Michael Biehn in his first collaboration with James Cameron) to weather the increasingly terrifying situation she finds herself. Kyle also has hidden depths that are explored, primarily through his conversations about the future he comes from. There’s a wonderful deleted scene in the woods after the escape from the police station. Being surrounded by lush greenery when the only world he’s known is a bomb-out hellscape breaks something fundamental in Kyle, which Biehn carries well. It’s in that scene that we begin to see the emotional connection between Sarah and Kyle form, which makes their relationship late in the movie feel more real.
The absolute star of the film is Arnold Schwarzenegger as the titular Terminator. Robotic and precise, Arnold fills the screen with menace throughout the runtime of the film. It’s easy to look back now and think it’s a no-brainer to hire Arnold for this role but this was a gamble on Cameron’s part. Arnold was not yet the megastar he would become in 1984 when The Terminator was released. The early scenes where he is gunning down the other women who share Sarah Connor’s name showcase just how ruthlessly efficient this killing machine is. The gunfight in the police station stands out as the most violent sequence of the film. Without those scenes to sell just how outmatched Kyle and Sarah really are, I don’t think the film works as well as it does. There are also subtle moments infused throughout the film, though. At the beginning of the police station sequence, the Terminator tries to talk its way into seeing Sarah Connor. When that is rebuffed by the policeman clerk, you can see Arnold scan the surrounding entry way, assessing the structural integrity of it before moving on to Plan B. It’s a cold, analytical moment but it stands out to me as a great character choice on the part of Arnold.
Without a doubt, The Terminator remains one of my all-time favorite movies. If you haven’t taken the chance to watch it yet and have only experienced the more recent films, definitely take the time to go back and watch the original. It’s well worth it and it still stands up as an excellent film on its own.
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