WFTB Score: 17/20
The plot: From the final throes of a future war, two soldiers arrive in present-day Los Angeles with opposing agendas: the first, an imposing cyborg hell-bent on killing Sarah Connor; the second a man called Kyle, sent by Sarah’s son John to protect her at all costs. Neither Sarah nor the police believe a word of Kyle’s story – until evidence arrives with a bang.
2029 is a dismal age for the human race, subjugated by sentient war machines which rain death upon the embattled resistance. Mankind’s one hope is John Connor, a leader of men who’s close to destroying the machines; so the machines send one of their number, a model 101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), back through time to kill John’s mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) before he’s even born. Hard on the terminator’s naked heels is Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), dispatched by John to keep Sarah alive, and the pair race to locate the right Sarah Connor first. With two namesakes brutally slain, Sarah sees the wild-looking Kyle and, assuming he’s the serial killer, calls weary cops Traxler and Vukovich (Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen) to help her; but then she encounters the terminator, armed to the teeth and seemingly invulnerable to shotgun rounds. Kyle rescues Sarah, only for them both to be taken in by the unsurprisingly sceptical cops, who (equally unsurprisingly) prove no obstacle to the damaged but still formidable terminator when it comes for his prey. A frantic chase across country ensues, Kyle preparing Sarah for the nuclear war he knows is coming, whilst the machine continues its relentless pursuit even when its skin is burnt away.
James Cameron has been called many things* – you can’t howl “I’m King of the World!” at an awards ceremony without getting a bit of flak – but it’s hard to knock his skills as a storyteller. However lacking in originality or subtlety Titanic and Avatar are, the involving storylines brought people to the pictures in their droves and redefined the meaning of box-office success. The Terminator shows that Cameron possessed these skills from the very start of his career (though I’ve not seen Piranha II: The Spawning!); what’s more, it’s a better film than either of his enormous blockbusters, offering not just an enthralling story but a perfect combination of sci-fi geekery and thrilling action.
Looking at the geeky stuff first, there’s plenty to get excited about. From the opening glimpses of the war in 2029 to the world seen from the terminator’s data-filled point of view, from the running repairs ‘he’ makes to his arm and eye to the scary reveal of his final skeletal form, The Terminator looks and feels completely plausible. Sure, some callow youngsters will poke fun at the fake Arnie face or the occasionally clunky stop-motion work in sections of the movie, but I guarantee they’ll be bricking themselves as the film winds up the tension, and by and large it’s only the haircuts that pin the movie down to the mid-80s. There are also the usual time travel conundrums to wrestle with, if you choose (without giving the whole game away, the terminator can’t succeed because if he does he will never have cause to travel, therefore Sarah will live, therefore the terminator will have to travel, but he can’t succeed…); however, they’re all part of the fun of this sort of caper and the film acknowledges its paradoxes – “You can go crazy thinking about it”, Sarah says, as much for us as herself.
Well-executed though these elements are, The Terminator is essentially and exhilaratingly a chase movie; not one long chase, but a series of compact, taut chase scenes in vehicles or on foot, punctuated by insights and exposition – brilliantly, the film trusts our intelligence enough to hold back on explanations until about half way through. The final act is a sensational piece of high-drama film-making, as the terminator shows just how far it will go to fulfil its mission. The casting of Schwarzenegger as the unemotional pursuer, something that can’t be appealed to or reasoned with, is inspired. He doesn’t have to speak much and Cameron (or director of photography Adam Greenberg) films him in an eerie, half-alien light. Overall, the film is dark, atmospheric and bloody, with only the thinnest slivers of equally dark humour (“Machines need love too”, says Sarah’s answerphone message). If I’m not singing the praises of Hamilton, Biehn, Winfield or Henriksen, it’s not because they’re not good – indeed, the normality of the police station is important in establishing how nutty Kyle’s story sounds – it’s just that there’s so much other good stuff to mention. And of course, Cameron’s movie has been profoundly influential: look, for example, at any given costume, location or scene in Highlander and count the similarities.
The Terminator isn’t perfect: I’m not bothered how much Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd’s screenplay was ‘inspired’ by two of Harlan Ellison’s Outer Limits stories, but I presume Ellison’s tales didn’t contribute to the details of Sarah’s ordinary life – waitressing, glamming up with her unfortunate housemate – which slow things down; other scenes could also have been trimmed to make the movie as tight as a drum (the 2029 infiltration scene doesn’t do it for me). However, this is a trifling complaint in a film which is as good a sci-fi action film as you could hope to see, except for – and this is perhaps the most amazing thing of all – its own sequel.
NOTES: I’ll gloss over what many of his actors/colleagues/wives – and there’s an interesting Venn diagram – have called him.