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A Look Back At James Cameron’s ‘The Terminator’

Week of Geek: Terminator Salvation

Since our prehistoric ancestors first learned how to use tools and then learned that those tools could also be used as killing implements mankind has always been at war in some form or another. From the battlefields of our nation and many others around the world to the pages of superhero comic books and the flickering lights of the silver screen, epic battles have been fought and fearsome adversaries have been encountered and either conquered or embraced as an ally. Sometimes the greatest enemies can be the ones we create for ourselves, stored in our active imaginations until they can be loosed on an unsuspecting world. Oftentimes there can be no greater enemies than the ones we become out of the necessity to feed our weaknesses and satiate our egos.

Enter James Cameron’s 1984 scifi classic The Terminator.

The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present. Tonight”¦

Once upon a time future, self-proclaimed “king of the world” James Cameron was screwed six ways to Sunday. It was only two years earlier when the former Kapuskasing, Ontario, Canada native was making his bones doing a variety of creative and technical assignments on movies such as Battle Beyond the Stars (art director and miniature designer), Galaxy of Terror (unit director), and Escape from New York (visual effects cameraman and matte artist), but a strange twist of fate had left the fledgling filmmaker trapped in a hotel in Rome, Italy, and confined to his bed with the flu. Cameron was in a battle of wits with Ovidio G. Assonitis over the final cut of his directorial debut Piranha II: The Spawning and he was losing big time. Under the influence of a soaring temperature one night (depending on what version of the story Cameron tells in interviews), he had a vivid fever dream where a gleaming figure of doom emerged from a fire; a metallic, skeletal monster with a rictus smile and burning red eyes usually afforded to minions of the Devil. James Cameron, meet your future.

“Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

The time is now. Two mysterious men emerge naked from a womb of electricity. Having arrived from more than three decades into the future both men have come for the same person. Several years from now a sentient supercomputer called Skynet will become self aware and will bring about a nuclear war leading to a takeover of the planet by murderous machines. Naturally this story might be a little hard to fellow if you’re a normal person such as Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a waitress working hand-to-mouth in Los Angeles. The two men are both after her. One, a soldier named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), has been given the crucial assignment of protecting her from the second, a hulking being called a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) that is classified as a cyborg — a deviant melding of man and machine — and has been sent from the future to assassinate Sarah not because of something she has done but rather something she will do. She is fated to give birth to a child named John who will one day grow into a battle-hardened warrior destined to lead the human resistance forces against the machines and ultimately be triumphant. Sarah is a bit reluctant to believe any of this story, but the Terminator is coming after her determined to accomplish its mission and nothing will stand in its way, except for Reese, who has a connection to Sarah that will only become clear as the story progresses.

“You still don’t get it, do you? He’ll find her! That’s what he does! It’s all he does!”

Harlan Ellison may have come up with the basic idea on which the story is based (and his credit is well deserved, don’t get me wrong), but the man who broke his back and plumbed the darkest depths of his imagination to create the classic of thought-provoking science fiction and pulverizing adventure that is The Terminator is James Cameron and don’t you forget it”¦ Mr. Ellison. Most ideas start out with original ideas and proceed to descend into a pit of unimaginative drivel and pointless scenes where lots of things blow up real good and very little makes sense anymore. Not this one. The Terminator may be packed with quotable dialogue and propulsive action sequences (including a lulu of a car chase), but Cameron never sacrifices spectacle at the expense of the story. At the core of the story is an interesting dilemma: what if someone once came up to you one day and told you that you were the key to mankind’s survival? What if there was something out there that could not be stopped and whose sole objective was to kill you? More importantly, how would you handle that? Could you? Would you freak out and run down the street pulling every hair out of your head or would you pull yourself together and tough it out? The future depends on you.

“Come with me if you want to live.”

Arriving out of nowhere with little fanfare in 1984, the year of Ronald Reagan’s re-election (and my sister’s birth), Cameron’s original The Terminator was a heady gut punch of future shock action and potent philosophical ideas made on a budget less than most of the so-called “independent” films that get made these days. The visionary writer and director allied himself with fellow New World Pictures and ambitious producer (and his future second wife) Gale Anne Hurd and took his project to rising independent studio Hemdale Pictures. The fruits of Cameron’s labors would be a sci-fi action classic, but he would endure more than his fair share of fresh hell before the movie made it to theater screens. His first choice for the titular cyborg assassin was his Piranha II star Lance Henriksen, and even though Henriksen went as far as to walk into the Hemdale office scarily made up to look the part, the higher-ups vetoed his casting. Cameron’s next choice was former gridiron great O.J. Simpson, but that turned out to be a pipe dream (and Simpson’s own future would hold many surprises). Backed into a corner Cameron was compelled to take a chance on a charismatic bodybuilder from Austria who had just gave a breakthrough performance as the title hero of John Milius’ 1982 film Conan the Barbarian. The gentleman’s name was Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Nobody goes home. Nobody else comes through. It’s just him — and me.”

Cameron loved him immediately but there was a slight hitch: Schwarzenegger was locked into a contract to headline the Conan sequel so the planned Terminator shoot, scheduled to take place in Toronto in early 1983, was pushed back to later in the year and the location was moved to Los Angeles, the city that would become identified the most with the series. Once the shoot began, Cameron worked tirelessly to put every single dollar of the estimated $4 million budget on the screen, one of his greatest strengths as a filmmaker. He had a hell of a cast and crew to help him achieve that goal. Henriksen may not have gotten the title role, but he still wound up with the consolation prize of a supporting part as a cynical L.A. detective and being partnered with veteran actor Paul Winfield was nothing to sneeze at. Relative unknowns Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton were cast in the major speaking roles. Future Cameron collaborator (and his fellow New World alum) Bill Paxton snagged a bit part as an obnoxious punk who has a fatal run in with the Terminator (fresh out of the future and still naked). Composer Brad Fiedel moved up from scoring exploitation flicks to provide the film’s unique musical voice, an pleasurable and atmospheric symphony of moody electronic sounds and pounding metal tones. Polish cinematographer Adam Greenberg was hired to give The Terminator a smoky futuristic noir look reminiscent of Blade Runner (and referenced in the name of a nightclub in the movie called Tech Noir), then only two years old. Mark Goldblatt, later to briefly flirt with a directing career of his own by helming the enjoyable 80’s movies Dead Heat and The Punisher (with Dolph Lundgren), performs a first class editorial job trimming off all the excess fat to create one lean, mean machine without a solitary dull moment.

“You’re terminated, fucker!”

But it’s the performances that really sell the potentially absurd story. Michael Biehn plays it for mucho intensity as the war-weary trooper on the most important mission of his life, but he never shies away from showing his vulnerability and the suppressed feelings he has for Sarah. It’s a fantastic performance, as is the one from Linda Hamilton, given the exact opposite task of playing a character who wears her emotional weaknesses on her sleeve and must bring her inner badass to the surface in order to survive. Arnold Schwarzenegger may have had to take more than his fair share of criticism for his thick Austrian accent and his questionable acting skills, but as the Terminator he has never been better. Sure the amount of dialogue given to his remorseless cybernetic assassin character is less than even some of the background extras and his performance mostly consists of blasting away everything and everyone in sight while looking like someone just keyed his Hummer, but the Mighty Oak manages to create a massive, memorable presence and communicate the inner mechanical and intellectual workings of his character through simple but effective body language. Ah-nuld has never been scarier or more physically intimidating than he has in the original Terminator. Without Arnold’s classic performance, the Terminator would never have become the iconic movie villain it has remained to this day. Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen make for an amusing pair of cynical police detectives who liven up every scene with their witty banter. Earl Boen would be the only speaking actor to appear in each of the first three Terminator films as the terrifically sleazy opportunistic psychiatrist Dr. Silberman.

“Your clothes… give them to me, now.”

The cutting edge visual effects still to this day look better than all the multi-million dollar CGI that clutters the summer event films now being thrown at us on a weekly basis. This was the movie where Stan Winston became a household name in the movie special effects realm. Working with a limited budget, he was able to bring the grinning metal and wire demons of James Cameron’s feverish nightmares to brilliant life. His work is effectively complimented by a stand-out team of effects artists headed up by the great Gene Warren Jr. of Fantasy II Film Effects.

“Some of us were kept alive… to work… loading bodies into dumpsters and incinerators. The disposal units ran night and day. We were that close to going out forever. But there was one man who taught us to fight, to storm the wire of the camps, to smash those metal motherfuckers into junk. He turned it around. He brought us back from the brink. His name is Connor. John Connor. Your son, Sarah, your unborn son.”

The best performance associated with The Terminator is that of writer and director James Cameron, the man who gave up years of his life and shed blood and tears to make this genre masterpiece. His direction is strong and professional and his writing shows his confident grasp of the challenging themes and character development that would make his future films stand out from most of the big-budget blockbusters being pumped out of Hollywood like so much soulless by-product. The best part is that he does it all on a budget that would barely cover the catering bill on one of the X-Men movies and makes it look like it was made for five times that amount.

The Terminator is a fantastic sci-fi thriller and will always be a watershed genre film. It’s one of my personal favorite films and if you haven’t seen it yet then see it now!


  1. This is a really excellent article.
    YOu can’t help but respect and love this film more and more after watching the newest one.
    It is truly a watershed film!!

    Comment by Jerry — May 21, 2009 @ 1:39 am

  2. A classic movie.. amazing design for an unstoppable machine.

    Best moment goes to Bill Paxton; “Wash day tomorrow? Nothing clean, right?”

    Comment by Devon — May 22, 2009 @ 9:58 am

  3. Actually Devon, that line was said by Paxton’s fellow punk Brian (COBRA, “The X-Files”) Thompson. But it is a funny line.

    Comment by BAADASSSSS! — May 22, 2009 @ 10:22 pm

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