Lost in the Movies: The Terminator

The Terminator

The Terminator is well-served by its eighties setting - and not only because the very elements which dated it within a few years give it a fresh charm now that '84 is a quarter-century into the past. Its cold, metallic feel - the electronic music, the shadows-pierced-by-blue-light cinematography, the constant use of machinery - underscores its mood of dread, a fear that the unthinking, malignant machines really might take over, which is very 1984 - in both senses of the year. Indeed, looking back on the era in which I was born, it sometimes seems like the 80s were more futuristic than contemporary times. Technology has, in some ways, been domesticated and made friendly; popular music has gone through more "authentic" phases since perfecting the synthesized dance beat; and despite the focus on artificial intelligence, part of The Terminator's machine dread is a lingering aftereffect of the already-dying industrial age - whose ominous, imposing aesthetic still seems more "futuristic" than its sleek, downplayed information age successors.

History has, of course, added other ironies to The Terminator's legacy; how was James Cameron to know that Arnold Schwarzenegger was more likely to evolve into a governor than a killer cyborg (one thinks of another time-travel movie of the same period, in a slight paraphrase: "Who's the vice president? Eddie Murphy?!"). Here he shows the ruthlessness of the politician, though not the canned charm (nor the scandal-averse wisdom, as his full-frontal stroll through nighttime L.A. evidences). I've always preferred the original Terminator to the slicker, more complex sequel, in part because Arnold makes such a great villain, a role in which he was seldom used subsequently. (Terminator 2 was classified at the time as "kinder and gentler" than the original, 1991's Bush to 1984's Reagan).

One of the film's most terrifying moments comes about a half-hour in, as Sarah Connor waits in a nightclub for the police to arrive. Already we have seen the relentlessness of the terminating cyborg; we've secretly thrilled and recoiled from his ironically bloodless bloodthirstiness. Half the terror is in his ability to commit violence, but the other half - the more potent half - is the fact that he feels nothing while doing it, not even the pride of a job well-done. Rather than undercutting our fear of the machine, the fact that the killer ("murderer" doesn't sound right) looks human only heightens the paranoia - is this the direction humanity will go in, becoming colder, more like his machines? And so The Terminator works as an allegory of man's spiritual extinction, as well as his physical.

But anyway, that scene. Sarah is waiting at a table, 80s dance music is blasting, and the young and horny are displaying their unique fashion senses (Sarah herself wears a female mullet for much of the movie, though she still looks cute). Arnold enters the club, ignoring the pay desk and crushing the bouncer's fingers. He surveys the crowd, just missing Sarah as she ducks under the table to pick something up. When he catches her eye, he pushes through the cluster of dancers, the throbbing score displaces the club music, and then Sarah's rescuer rips out a sawed-off and fires at the Terminator, knocking him down. People scream, Sarah sits transfixed, and the killer lying on the floor is motionless for only a second before his fingers twitch and his eyes re-open (his mouth remains locked - never a smile or even a sneer; Arnold's range may be limited, but he certainly gives a controlled performance). We've seen indestructible foes before in movie history, but never one who was so undefeatable and yet so (close to) human. Within moments, he's back on his feet and a chill goes down our spine: this thing may be unstoppable, after all - it has all the advantages.

Except one: history (and the future) are on the heroes' side. They don't know that, and neither do we at first, but eventually as The Terminator's theory of time travel becomes clear, we know that past and future exist in an endless playback loop (the movie's catch-phrase could be, "haven't we been here before?" if it wasn't already the more succinct - and funnier - "I'll be back.") Sarah Conner will sleep with the man from the future, her son's protegee, and before dying, he will father her son, who will grow up, older than the young man he sends back to save his mother but also that young man's son. John, whose mission is to fight the terminators, only exists because a Terminator was sent back in time to prevent his own birth (instead, his birth is enabled by the Terminator's trip). And so on. This stands in stark contrast to Back to the Future's contemporaneous comic theory of alternate universes, but while that theory is imaginatively entertaining, Terminator time travel is far more compelling.

It also adds to the sense, simmering beneath the surface in The Terminator as it does beneath all dystopian narratives, that the future is really just an allegory for the present. Terminator actually takes this idea further than most sci-fi movies; as its opening title declares, "the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present..." And of course, the final battle is also the first shot fired (this becomes even more evident in the sequel, when it's revealed that the deadly technology of the future evolved from scientists studying the Terminator's detached arm, in other words the future result of what they would develop by studying its own future result, et cetera...). At any rate, by placing the final battle of the future in the present, The Terminator reminds us of the link between the two, a link which is further exemplified by its cold, metallic feel - the electronic music, the shadows-pierced-by-blue-light cinematography, the constant use of machinery, all of which underscores its mood of dread, a fear that the unthinking, malignant machines really might take over...

Wait a second, haven't we been here before?


The Film Doctor said...

Nice review, Moviemaker. I've always had great affection for this film, I think mostly because the Terminator is quintessentially remorseless, and so he becomes a delightful villain. None of that phony human compassion. As you point out, the cyborg simply doesn't care, and the film moves beautifully because of that.

Jason Bellamy said...

"The Terminator" was my first R-rated movie. My dad rented it, having already seen it, and we watched it together. At the time, he had to kind of explain to me while "I'll be back" is funny. I didn't get it.

I've kind of stayed away from the film ever since "T-2" came out. You identify the emotionless, tirelessness that makes the Terminator so terrifying a villain, and I like clinging to my memory of how scared I was watching: there was no question that Sarah and John were no match for what they were up against, and so I sat in constant fear that the cyborg would show up. And then what could they do but run?

I'll never forgive "T-2" for giving emotion to the robot and destroying everything that was memorable about the character.

Joel Bocko said...

I like Terminator 2 but The Terminator thrills me more, for the reason both of you have mentioned.

Alien was my first rated R, also watched with my dad - who had nightmares when he saw it back in '79, jumping up from bed to vaccuum the bedroom floor in a delirious half-awakened state, convinced that the alien which had popped out of his chest and was hiding somewhere under his bed.

PIPER said...


You been tagged.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

Funny guys, I think "The Terminator" may have been my first R too (it was either this or "The Hidden," a culty scifi romp with Kyle McLachlan that my dad loved). Ah, those were the days. Growing up in the suburbs of LA, where the only place to get dinner after 8:00 pm was Denny's. I only remember two things about that introductory viewing: 1) that my cousin, who was also present, put his head in his hands during the scene where the Terminator performs extemporaneous surgery on his eyeball; and 2) that my dad fast-forwarded the sex scene, which went completely over my head at the time. Call me crazy but a part of me longs for the days when I believed James Cameron films to be the apogee of cinematic sophistication...

T.S. said...

Thanks for the good review. I was happy the Library of Congress brought The Terminator into the National Film Registry this year, and your review does justice to a good film. I've always been on the fence about preferring either the first installment and its sequel; were it not for the same characters and events, you might think they were completely unconnected films. Anyway, I enjoy elements of both to a great degree. Perhaps you'll give us more in-depth thoughts on T2 down the line.

Joel Bocko said...

Piper, thanks - I responded over there and will put up my 9 resolutions after I finish writing this comment (thanks giving me an out-of-jail-free pass when it comes to writing one more post for the week!)

Though I tend to prefer older effects to CGI I have to admit that shot of animatronic Arnold fixing his eye, cut to the real Arnold putting on the sunglasses, really doesn't work.

I'll do a review on Terminator 2 if you write up the two, expanding on your thoughts here - though no promises on my doing so any time soon. Anyway, can that count as one of my 9 resolutions?

Jason Bellamy said...

Adding to Jon's comment ...

I'd just like to say that my dad, wonderful man that he is, did NOT fast-forward through the sex scene.

If it's as I remember it, there's a moment where Linda Hamilton is silhouetted, her breasts hanging down from her on-top position.

And if it's as I remember it, well, I've never forgotten it.

Oh, Linda. It's your fault that when I was in middle school I watched that "Beauty and the Beast" TV show.

Did I just admit to that? Oh, dear.

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