a critiQal film review The Terminator (1984)

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Plot: In a post-nuclear war future, giant super-computers dominate the planet, and are set on destroying the remnants of the human population. To destroy man's future by changing the past, the machines send a nigh-indestructible cyborg (Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Hamilton), the woman whose unborn son will be mankind's only hope.

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  • ...much more a slasher pic than any of it's sequels, this Cameron-directed sci-fi classic is starting to show it's age.

With the release of Terminator Salvation (2009) this past summer, I’ve been wanting to go back and re-visit the beginning of the series. However, due to some time constraints, I haven’t had the chance.

Although I was hoping to go see Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) in theaters, I caught a bit of a bug, and didn’t feel up to making it to theaters. Instead, I decided to finally re-visit The Terminator, and see if it had been able to stand the test of time (since it’s celebrating it’s 25th anniversary this year).

Back in the 80’s and early 90’s, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the king of the action hero genre. But back in 1984, he wasn’t that well-known as of yet. Sure, he’d garner some fans with the Conan series, but he hadn’t quite achieved the huge success he would later go on to. His role in The Terminator helped change that, although it’s hard to see why when watching the film nowadays.

Sure, he’s not bad as a ruthless killing machine, and embodies the character quite efficiently, but it’s not like it really gives him a chance to act a whole lot. After all, with less than 20 lines of dialogue (among them the now famous “I’ll be back”) throughout the whole film, he spends most of his time on-screen lumbering towards the hero. And since the folks who have played Jason in the Friday the 13th (1980) films and Michael Myers in the Halloween (1978) films aren’t exactly household names, it’s a wonder The Terminator did anything at all for Schwarzenegger’s career.

Trying to stop the unstoppable cyborg is fellow time-traveler Kyle Reese, played with an edgy toughness by Michael Biehn. Biehn would later go on to achieve a bit more success with films like Navy Seals, but would then disappear for years, only to show up again in a – nearly identical – bit role in The Rock (1996) before vanishing again, but Kyle Reese is still his most memorable role. He’s solid, if somewhat stoic, in his performance, playing the tough guy savior with a grittiness that befits a survivor of the horrors he has supposedly been through.

Linda Hamilton, who would later go on to toughen up quite a bit for The Terminator (1984) (and marry director James Cameron), spends most of this first film cowering in fear as Sarah Connor, letting Kyle Reese play the hero. This actually works as well, since the events of the film are so obviously nowhere near her normal experiences. As the film goes on, the viewer can see a certain toughness to the character, a quality that is eventually forced to the forefront by the end of the film – and easily blends into how the character evolves into the next film. It’s a decent performance, although the beginning is a bit too sappy and overplays the whole “damsel in distress” bit.

Despite being a sci-fi classic by this point, the film actually plays out a lot like an early Friday the 13th (1980) film, with the unstoppable killer chasing after the ineffective damsels. By adding in a bit of a time travel plot and providing a protector for the damsel in Kyle Reese, James Cameron’s version of the thriller film manages to stay a step ahead of the norm, and eventually spawned a slew of sequels – but most of the series’ future success can be attributed more to Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) than to this first film.

While the special effects in the film were groundbreaking and mind-blowing back in 1984, not all of them have withstood the test of time. With CGI effects now the norm in action/thrillers, watching the (sometimes obvious) puppetry at work in The Terminator a bit of a letdown. True, most of the effects still work, but there are occasions where they don’t, and that’s probably the moments viewers are likely to remember most.

Overall, while it’s a decent sci-fi flick, I’m hard-pressed to figure out why this one has stood the test of time so well. With it’s age showing visibly on occasion, and it’s slasher flick homage, it’s not what one would think of as one of the best movies of all time.

Re-watching The Terminator nowadays, however, does have one benefit it didn’t previously – the realization that a lot of these actors ended up going on to more promising careers. Arnold Schwarzeneger, of course, became Governor of California; Lance Henriksen (a police detective in the film) would later go on to famously play a cyborg himself in Aliens (1986); Linda Hamilton, of course, would go on to show viewers her tough side in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991); Bill Paxton would go from being a punk leader (near the beginning of the film) to take on a Twister (1996), and his punk co-hort, Brian Thompson, would recover from getting gut-punched and go on to play an Alien Bounty Hunter in “The X-Files” (TV).

Aside from the “spot the future stars” game one can play with almost any film from the 80’s, The Terminator, while showing it’s age, is still decent fun if you’re in the mood for a sci-fi slasher flick. With very little humor and a lot of bleakness, The Terminator is more a survivalist film than any other film in the series so far. If Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) hadn’t totally changed the playing field, it’s not as likely the series would still be thriving today.

But if you’re in the mood for a slasher flick, The Terminator could be right up your alley. After all, how can weaklings like Jason, Freddy or Michael Myers compete in the fright category with a metal Arnold Schwarzenegger packing enough heat to start his own small war?

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