The Terminator, the film that launched the careers of Arnie and James Cameron, and one of those films that i was always a little embarrassed to admit i had never seen. I’ve heard it described as being one of the greatest of all time, so i thought it was about time.
In the near future the planet is ruled by machines and supercomputers intent on wiping out mankind, but a human uprising led by an inspirational fighter named John Connor is threatening their power. The machines, in an attempt to alter history, send a cyborg Terminator back in time to try and kill John’s mother Sarah Connor before she can give birth to their future tormentor. But the humans send back a fighter of their own, Kyle Reese, with the mission to protect Sarah from the Terminator, and ensure John Connors existence in the future.
As Reese attempts to track down Sarah, The Terminator begins systematically killing all Sarah Connor’s listed in the phonebook. But with a bit of inside knowledge Reese manages to get to Sarah first, and the Terminators hunt begins. Its ruthless efficiency and intelligence reminded me a little of Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men. It kills whoever it needs to without the slightest hint of emotion. There are some dark, heartless killings and the action never stops as a succession of car chases and shootouts rage through L.A.
Schwarzenegger is the perfect choice to play the Terminator, a role ideally suited to his limited acting ability, physical attributes and voice. We don’t have to watch him awkwardly try and express emotion or deliver lines with any intonation. He can just concentrate on walking about looking mean, shooting people (he must kill about 20) and delivering the occasional badass zinger, which to be fair he does very, very well. If ever an actor was born to play a role, this is it. It wasn’t Brando in ‘On The Waterfront’ or one of the other great Oscar winning lead performances, it was Arnie in The Terminator.
Despite this though it’s Michael Biehn as Reese, the resistance fighter sent back to protect Connor, who has the more important role. He’s the storyteller here, explaining everything to the audience as he tries to convince Connor that he’s a time-travelling freedom fighter and not a manic loon. It’s not an easy role to play, the explainer, and still come out looking good. It’s therefore a credit to Biehn and the writers that he pulls it off without looking ridiculous.
As the chases, shootouts and running and hiding continue the film seamlessly slips between the present and future. As Reese looks at a JCB or machine he is reminded of the war torn, desolate future he has come from and slips into a flashback…to the future. The shots of a war torn L.A. in 2029 are fairly impressive, but they lack scale. It does look as though the war is taking place in a studio, not the remnants of a vast city. We see human survivors living like rats in underground complexes and hear stories of the machines keeping teams of humans alive to work as slaves at body dumping grounds. It somehow manages to be very dark, very grim and also quite cheesy all at the same time.
As you’d expect looking back on an 80’s action film there are some very contrived moments and at times the dialogue is pretty clunky. An example is the final scene, which I found pretty painful. It’s a real shame because the preceeding 20 minutes is action filmmaking at its best, exciting, tense and fun. There is the iconic scene of the Terminator, reduced to its robotic skeleton, rising from the flames with its red eyes piercing through the darkness. Some of the effects are genuinely brilliant and seem to have defied the ageing process. Others, namely the stop motion model sequences of the Terminator following Sarah, do look pretty dated. I do believe though that these non-CGI 70’s and 80’s films such as Alien, Aliens, The Thing, The Terminator and Labyrinth are going to age a lot better than the CGI reliant films that are released today. ‘Aliens’ in particular is a testament to the power of models, elaborate suits and human puppets, but that’s an article for another day.
Overall The Terminator is an impressive action film that also requires you to think a little and can generate some discussion. Is it one of the best films of all time? Absolutely not, but it’s damn good fun. I’m looking forward to seeing the sequel which i’ve also heard described as one of the best of all time. All I can say is that if it’s anywhere near as good as Cameron’s third film ‘Aliens’, i’ll be happy.