by NIR SHALEV
In the year 2029 A.D. an apocalypse is in motion. The supercomputer Skynet was originally intended for military intelligence, but it began assassinating certain government and military officials, ones it thought did not need to exist; ones that could possibly have opposed Skynet’s intentions. A nuclear war has started and machines, big and small continue to destroy what is left of mankind in a grim, ash-laden landscape.
John Connor is the leader of a nationwide resistance that fights against the machines. Skynet sees fit to get rid of him even before he exists. Using available technology, it transports a killing machine, a cyborg back in time to the year 1984. That cyborg, Cyberdine Systems Model 101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), is referred to as a Terminator. Its mission is to assassinate John Connor’s mother, Sarah Connor before he is born. Thus begins the first paradox in writer/director James Cameron’s sci-fi/horror classic.
If Conan the Barbarian (1982) did not put Arnold Schwarzenegger on the map, then this movie quickly did. Predator (1987) simply reassured that he was the real deal but his role here as The Terminator is life altering. 6’2” and weighing around 240 lbs, Arnie plays the Terminator as a cold, calculated killing machine. It appears in the past, in a storm of lightning, entirely naked. It has its sole mission and nothing will get in its way. The idea is frightening: this machine cannot feel and it will not stop killing until its mission is complete, and because it has a titanium skeleton nothing will phase it, either.
Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) is transported to the past also, awaking nude in the streets of L.A. He is John Connor’s right hand man and bodyguard in 2029 A.D. and now is the protector of his mother. His task is to destroy the Terminator but it is a difficult one because of the man versus machine aspect; titanium versus flesh and bone.
Sarah Connor is shown as an ordinary waitress in a bar and that her life is mediocre; the last thing she needs is killing machine on her tail. Because the Terminator does not know what Sarah looks like, his brilliant strategy is to look up every Sarah Connor in the phone book and visit them at their homes, assassinating them. When the Terminator finds the real Sarah Connor in a dance club she is also met by Kyle and the chase begins.
Sarah, at first, is shell-shocked because a killer is chasing her and Kyle. And when Kyle tells her that it’s a synthetic machine that has a titanium skeleton and blood and muscle underneath its flesh, she finds it very hard to believe. As I imagine we all would. She eventually sees the flesh chip away from its face and its titanium skull leer at her, and realizes that the truth is not far from what Reese had told to her.
Nothing is squandered in this screenplay. Every introduction is connected to a recurring theme but what stands out the most is the second paradox: once alone with Reese, Sarah falls for him and they make love. Thus resulting in John Connor being Kyle and Sarah’s son even though originally he was not related to Kyle at all. Yet the future is not changed to such a degree that everything becomes different and that makes one wonder as to whether Kyle always was John’s son. The answer is no.
The philosophy behind time-travel is that what happens in the past must remain the same throughout time because otherwise the future will be rewritten and changed; and if the future is changed, than the past must be different from what it was too. But the future, being yet to come, cannot change the past resulting in a paradox. A paradox is a contradiction that may seem to make sense but overall cannot. It makes for great storytelling and has been used in the film media for many decades. This film is exceptional in its use of multiple paradoxes that seem to make sense while you’re watching it. But when the film is over you end up whispering, “wait a minute….”
Car chases, fire fights, Molotov Cocktails, and sticks of dynamite are used throughout. The film carries a full-on adrenaline rush but also maintains the horror aspect due to the idea of the indestructible killer. At one point in the film the Terminator loses the use of an eye in a fire fight with Reese and later in a dark motel, removes it surgically. It is a self sustaining machine that adapts to its environment. When a knock is heard at the door to its room and the landlord is yelling at it, it scans through various data it had acquired during its stay in L.A. and answers back with a few curse words. It’s comical but also serves the plot. The Terminator is frightening in its ability to adapt.
The special effects are fantastic as well. They are entirely practical (i.e., no CGI is used, at all) and nothing looks fake, even though the budget was around ONLY $6 million U.S. The moments most remembered are the futuristic machines, shot with forced perspective and composited from miniature models. They fire lasers which are rotoscoped in post production, they tower over everyone, and they trample over mountains of carcasses and skulls. And most notable is the special effects makeup on Arnie. When shot at his clothes collect holes and his face loses its synthetic skin. He walks around the streets of L.A. at night with a metal skull protruding and red LCD eyes. When almost entirely destroyed, the titanium skeleton walks around, still intent on accomplishing it mission. A combination of puppetry and stop-motion animation was used to create the skeleton of the Terminator. Kind of like when the first Star Wars (1977) film came out; the special effects were entire practical. But there was a significant difference in budget.
Perhaps the most memorable sequence in the film takes place inside of a police station. Sarah and Kyle are detained and they try to explain to the cops that a machine is what’s trying to kill them. Kyle spills the beans about the future, and Skynet, and the cyborgs. The cops, obviously, think he’s crazy. That’s when Arnie enters the police station, asks about the whereabouts of Sarah Connor, and delivers his famous line “I’ll be back.” He crashes his car through the police headquarters’ front wall and begins to fire at everybody in sight with an M-16 semi automatic rifle and a shotgun. What an imagination!
The electronica soundtrack in the film is reminiscent of the 80’s in general. It reminds us of the material world and of club life. But also it signals us, even today, that this is the 80’s. It reminds me of Vangelis’ work (Blade Runner soundtrack) to a certain degree. The Terminator is a science fiction film, it feels like it and it sounds like it.
This film is often remembered, sadly, because most believe its sequel is far superior; I do not believe so. I believe that Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) is one of the best action films that I have ever seen in my life but because it reprises the same ideas explored in the first film it CANNOT be better. The budget in the sequel also was far bigger. The Terminator is a low budget film, but it doesn’t look like it.
I can only hope that many people refer back to this classic film before viewing the new one, Terminator Salvation (2009). People need to see this film as a point of reference, a great paradoxical tale of hope, and as an example of moviemaking in a time period when practical special effects were the better choice.