Hemdale Pacific Western/Orion Pictures
Directed by James Cameron
Produced by Gale Anne Hurd
Written by James Cameron/Gale Anne Hurd
Y’know how long it’s been since I last saw THE TERMINATOR? Long enough that I completely and totally forgot that Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen are in the movie. And no cameos, either. They both have substantial roles to play in the story. And I say substantial because even though they don’t have a lot of screen time they definitely use whatever time they have well. Thanks to the script and their acting, the characters of Lieutenant Traxler (Paul Winfield) and Sergeant Vukovich (Lance Henriksen) are living people and not just plot devices to move the story along.
So why did I watch THE TERMINATOR again after all this time? Well, I’d seen “Terminator Genisys” and in that movie there are scenes recreated from the original movie. And they do a good job of it, right down to Jai Courtney wearing the same Nike Vandal high-top sneakers with the Velcro ankle straps that Michael Biehn wears. So I got a hankerin’ to watch the original. And thanks to Netflix I did. And ten minutes into the movie I was just as engrossed as I was the first time I saw it way back in ’84 at the Metropolitan Theater in downtown Brooklyn.
The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a cybernetic assassin. His metal endoskeleton is covered in living, organic tissue so that it can pass for human to get close to its target: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). In the future, an AI called Skynet will achieve sentience and declare war on mankind by firing all of America’s nuclear missiles all over the world. The human race is saved by a man named John Connor who leads the resistance to victory. But Skynet sends The Terminator back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor before she can give birth to John. John Connor uses the same time machine The Terminator used to send his best soldier, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to protect his mother. Neither The Terminator nor Kyle Reese can return to their future time and will never know how the future turns out. But their final battle in 1984 will decide a war being fought in 2029.
Watching THE TERMINATOR after such a long time the one thing that struck me and what I really appreciated in the lean, economical storytelling. There’s not a thing in the screenplay that slows up the plot or is in there just to pad out the running time. The last three movies in the “Terminator” suffered from serious bloating of the plot and stopping the story cold to have the characters sit around tell each other stuff they already know.
Don’t get me wrong…I like and appreciate characterization in my movies as much as you. But James Cameron as a script writer and a director understands that in an Action Movie you can reveal characterization through action. Even in scenes where Sarah and Kyle get a few minutes to stop and catch their breath, they’re not just sitting there relating to each other. They’re always doing something that never lets us forget that these are two people on the run. Even the sex scene between Sarah and Kyle isn’t just thrown in there for titillation. It’s important to the plot.
I honestly don’t think this movie would be as well remembered and as highly regarded as it is (The Library of Congress has deemed THE TERMINATOR to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant) if Arnold Schwarzenegger hadn’t played the role. Do you honestly think we’d still be talking about The Terminator if O.J. Simpson had played it? He was the studio’s choice but Cameron wouldn’t have it. Arnold had made about a dozen movies before THE TERMINATOR but this role as well as Conan seemed to be tailor made for him. I even think his Austrian accent works very well in this movie as it did in his Conan movies because it sounds strange as if The Terminator is still working out the kinks in how to speak like a human being.
Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton are excellent here. Fifteen minutes into the movie and you buy their characters totally. Watching it today I was struck by the energy of their action. Biehn in particular is electric every time he’s on the screen and I couldn’t help but compare his turbo charged performance to Jai Courtney who walks through “Terminator Genisys” as if he’s half asleep.
THE TERMINATOR is one of those movies that I think every director and screenwriter who wants to do an Action Movie should be required to watch. It’s got a full-tilt boogie plot that never seems rushed. The only things in the story/plot is what needs to be there and no more. But that doesn’t mean that Cameron skimps, either. There’s a nice little motif of machines betraying humans dropped here and there. Sarah’s roommate is killed because she’s listening to her Walkman with the sound cranked all the way up and can’t hear her boyfriend getting his ass kicked by The Terminator in the next room. TV’s are constantly giving away information that they shouldn’t. Despite the fact that he had a limited budget, James Cameron made it work for him with imagination, compelling characters and a helluva good story that has mature ideas and themes. If you haven’t seen it in a while, go ahead and revisit it. THE TERMINATOR still holds up very well.