“Your world is pretty terrifying.”
Summer of ’91 origins: THE TERMINATOR
The only review I’ve written of the original THE TERMINATOR was in 2007 – so out of date it was combined into a review of the “trilogy” and framed as a response to THE TRANSFORMERS. There are some good observations and funny lines in that review, but I’m a smarter person now and I think there’s way more to say about the movie. So I thought I should take another crack at it before we get to its sequel in this Summer of ’91 retrospective.
In the fall of 1984, director/co-writer James Cameron exploded into filmgoer-consciousness with a stylish and imaginative little sci-fi chase movie called THE TERMINATOR. Made on about a fifth of the budget of the recent hit GHOSTBUSTERS and released by outsiders Hemdale (VICE SQUAD, TURKEY SHOOT) and Orion Pictures (MAD MAX, THE HAND, ROCK & RULE), it nevertheless immediately announces itself as a force to be reckoned with. The quiet, world-establishing text, the nightmarish glimpses of futuristic combat between man and machine, the absolute all-timer of a theme by Brad Fiedel (JUST BEFORE DAWN) and the slow reveal of the logo (title design by Ernest D. Farino, who later did GODZILLA 1985, CRITTERS, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, ALIEN NATION, THE ABYSS and NEMESIS) all set the mood for a genre movie of unusual ferocity. Not bad for a guy who had only directed PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING.
Okay, I actually think that movie is better than its reputation. But I frame it that way because the majority of Cameron’s filmography since has been made up of some of the most ambitious, expensive and highest grossing movies of their eras. It’s hard to think of him as what he was at that time: a 29-year-old beginner trying to break out from the model workshop at Roger Corman Studios.
Admittedly, the $6.5 million budget (increased thanks to the participation of CONAN THE BARBARIAN breakout star Arnold Schwarzenegger) was gigantic compared to some of the other indie genre stuff playing in theaters at the same time, such as THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, MISSING IN ACTION and NIGHT OF THE COMET. But Cameron’s story of a war with the future also held its head high next to a range of more costly 1984 sci-fi releases: RUNAWAY ($8 million budget), ICE PIRATES ($9 million), FIRESTARTER ($12 million), THE LAST STARFIGHTER ($15 million), STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK ($16 million), THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION ($17 million), STARMAN ($24 million), 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT ($28 million), SUPERGIRL ($35 million) and DUNE ($45 million).
Some of its robot and war machine effects, done with miniatures, stop motion animation and mechanical puppetry, may seem goofy by modern standards, but they were ambitious for the time and budget. Cameron started from the idea of a skeletal robot with a skinny waist that couldn’t possibly be a man inside a costume, coming out of a burning tanker truck, and worked backwards to create the story of the skin grown over that skeleton, a deadly assassin sent back by machines of the future to kill the mother of the human who “taught us to smash those motherfuckers into junk.”
The mother, of course, is Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, TAG: THE ASSASSINATION GAME, CHILDREN OF THE CORN). The film first cuts to her after a shot of the Terminator’s finger pointing at the three Connor, Sarahs listed in the L.A. phone book. In contrast to today’s idea of the muscular badass Sarah Connor, she’s riding a scooter, wearing Guess jeans and a pink backpack, running late for her waitressing shift. She has a pet lizard named Pugsley and (in a jokey bit of irony for a dystopian future movie) sometimes wears a Jetsons t-shirt.
The T-101 Terminator played by Schwarzenegger (only four years after his 7th and final Mr. Olympia victory) is famously lightning zapped into ’84 butt ass naked, and obtains a menacing outfit thanks to bumping into three bullying punk rockers played by Bill Paxton (TAKING TIGER MOUNTAIN), Brian Thompson (two years before playing the Night Slasher in COBRA) and Brad Rearden (THE SILENT SCREAM). Paxton’s blue-haired, tire-print-face-painted character is considered “Punk Leader,” but it’s Rearden’s outfit (including studded and chained coat) that the cyborg takes for himself. I always wonder if a Terminator would end up in a ridiculous outfit if it was the first thing he could find. If not, like, a goofy hot dog vendor uniform or a t-shirt with iron-on letters saying “WHO FARTED?” then maybe something very 1984 specific like a “Where’s the Beef?” t-shirt or a Jacksons Victory Tour souvenir crop top. Arnold was in peak form, though. He’d probly make that look good.
When the second naked guy from the future, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn, HOG WILD) shows up he breaks into a store to steal a trenchcoat and Nikes. He’s human, so he has specific tastes, and he chooses well. Also steals a shotgun from a parked police car. That takes balls.
I’m not sure if I never thought about it this way before, or if I just forgot, but it occurs to me on this viewing that it’s designed to leave you thinking that Reese is or at least might be another threat. He’s following Sarah to protect her, but it seems like he’s stalking her too until the Terminator catches up to her at Tech Noir, and Reese fills it full of bullets and tells her, “Come with me if you want to live.”
Tech Noir is a hell of a location, by the way – the bar/dance club with corrugated metal walls and metal grate tables, lit by police lights. It’s a style and name that perfectly evoke the vibe of the movie itself and the aspects of 1984 aesthetics it exemplifies. And it’s fitting that it’s inside this future-themed hot spot that she meets an actual guy from the future and steps into the scary new reality that will be the rest of her life.
One thing that I don’t think ever occurred to me about THE TERMINATOR is how much it must’ve been influenced by another outstanding-indie-sophomore-directorial-effort-turned-smash-hit-and-cultural-phenomenon, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. I don’t think of THE TERMINATOR as a horror movie at all, but it pretty much is one. The Terminator is like Michael Myers in that he’s this quiet, inhuman killing machine, we watch him obtaining his clothes and weapons, searching and stalking his target [okay, Laurie being the target was retroactively added by the sequel, but just go with it]. And we keep cutting back to said target, a normal and even somewhat meek young woman living a normal life worrying about boys and jobs with no idea the crazy shit that’s about to happen. And when the crazy stuff does happen, the killing machine takes gunfire and other damage and keeps walking, or seems to die but then sits back up in the background.
Reese is a little bit like Loomis in that he’s a guy in a trenchcoat who’s the only one who really knows about the threat and is trying to find/stop it, and when he tells the cops his story they (understandably) think he’s crazy. Also, Reese’s classic line “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!” has kind of the rhythm and wonderfully melodramatic flair of Loomis dialogue like “I watched him for fifteen years, sitting in a room, staring at a wall, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall, looking at this night, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him off. Death has come to your little town, Sheriff. Now, you can either ignore it, or you can help me to stop it.”
Another parallel is that both get a whole atmosphere and power from a great, distinct synth score that’s not trying to sound like anything other than synths. Well, maybe clanging metal in this case. The styles are totally different, but they could maybe be distant cousins or something.
There’s one part in THE TERMINATOR that is straight up slasher movie tropes. Almost everything with Sarah’s roommate Ginger (Bess Motta, an aerobics instructor who had played a nameless hooker in Boaz Davidson’s SEED OF INNOCENCE) could be lifted and placed into HALLOWEEN with no changes. Her goofball boyfriend Matt (Rick Rossovich, STREETS OF FIRE) mistaking Sarah for Ginger on the phone and talking dirty to her, Ginger having a date while Sarah’s got cancelled, Ginger telling her she deserves better – that’s all straight up Laurie-Strode-and-her-friends stuff. After Ginger and Matt have sex, Ginger goes to the kitchen to make a big sandwich, and because she’s listening to music, dancing and lip-synching, she doesn’t hear the Terminator killing her boyfriend in the other room. There’s even a fake out scare with Pugsley the lizard. It’s an exact duplicate of a classical slasher movie sequence, except with Michael or Jason replaced by a robot who carries a shotgun and throws people around with even more force than those slashers would.
And Schwarzenegger’s performance – which showed CONAN wasn’t a fluke and helped turn him into one of the biggest stars in the world – is basically a slasher performance. He does some robot talking but mostly it’s physical, all about posture, stillness, movement, and stunts. A great performance, but not yet a sample of the charisma or nuance that we’d see in future Arnold movies. (In the ‘80s and even ‘90s people would’ve laughed at saying Schwarzenegger or his movies had any nuance, but they would’ve been wrong. In some ways we’ve grown wiser.)
There’s also kind of a horror version of an action trope. The Terminator does self-surgery, like Rambo and so many others. But instead of just cutting out a bullet and/or stitching himself up, he slices his forearm entirely open with an X-acto knife and manipulates the skeletal mechanisms inside. Then he removes an entire injured eyeball. It’s gross!
Another great horror-meets-action moment: the tanker runs straight over the Terminator (like the hitchhiker in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE), and the cyborg holds onto the bottom of the truck (like Indy in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK).
But it seems less like a slasher and more like sci-fi action when the action climax is also a special effects extravaganza. Schwarzenegger as the Terminator is blown up with the tanker, the movie could be over, except his metal skeleton emerges, still alive, to continue the battle. The effects were provided by Fantasy II Effects, who had done SILENT RAGE, The Powers of Matthew Star, SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE and GREMLINS. Stan Winston (makeup artist on GARGOYLES and DRACULA’S DOG) was catapulted to legend status with his creation of the full sized Terminator robot. (His Cameron association continued with ALIENS and T2 and he also directed the movie ride T2 3-D: BATTLE ACROSS TIME.) The stop motion version of the robot was animated by “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow, an animator for Gumby, Davey & Goliath, the Pillsbury Doughboy and Chuckwagon dog food commercials who by the way was also an original member of The Flying Burrito Brothers and played pedal steel guitar for Frank Zappa, Stevie Wonder and many others.
I sincerely think it’s beautiful and inspiring to know there was a guy named Sneaky Pete who animated Gumby and the Terminator and played steel guitar on Songs in the Key of Life. They don’t teach you that in school.
The puppet was very hard to animate because it was two feet tall – only four inches shorter than Chucky. (I think it could take him.) It was built by fellow Gumby veteran Doug Beswick, who later did stop motion for A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3 (iconic scene), EVIL DEAD 2, BEETLEJUICE and CABIN BOY.
The incredibly believable tanker truck explosion was actually a 7 foot long miniature blown up in the company’s parking lot by Joe Viskocil, who had done similar work on STAR WARS, EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and GHOSTBUSTERS, and would soon do the nuclear explosion for RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD.
Cameron seems to have thought of the Terminator as sort of an anti-authority or nihilistic wish-fulfillment figure, telling Cinefantastique in 1985 that “it has great cathartic value to people who wish they could just splinter open the door to their boss’s office, walk in, break his desk in half, grab him by the throat and throw him out the window, and get away with it. Everybody’s got that little demon that wants to be able to do whatever it wants, the bad kid that’s not gonna get punished.” But I think he also taps into the fear of police when he has the Terminator impersonate them. One shot starts on the painted motto “To care and protect” on the side of a police car, then pans across to show the Terminator driving; Sarah seeing the police car in her rear view mirror reminds you of that “oh shit, are they coming for me?” feeling.
The actual police aren’t much help. Their psychiatrist Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen, 9 TO 5) is an unprofessional prick who yawns while meeting Sarah, has a beeper go off while interviewing Reese, makes fun of Reese to his face, brags about being able to exploit him, and joins officers in laughing at a tape of his interview. Poor Sarah sits in a room with four men who are wrong, and tries to convince herself they must be right.
Lieutenant Traxler (Paul Winfield, TROUBLE MAN, DAMNATION ALLEY, WHITE DOG) seems serious and sincere, and I love Winfield’s little bits of actorly business – obliviously stirring his coffee inches away from an officer grappling with a suspect, asking for a cigarette while he’s already smoking one – but he fails to stop the Terminator and only interferes with Reese. As an example of how unequipped for the situation Traxler is, he tells Sarah she’ll be safe at Tech Noir because she’s visible in public, then the Terminator storms right in and shoots at her in front of everybody. Later Traxler tells her she’s “very safe” at police headquarters because “we got 30 cops in this building,” then the Terminator comes and shoots pretty much all of them. This leads to what a news report calls the largest law enforcement action in California history trying to find the guy, but it’s still Sarah and Reese (and ultimately only Sarah) who have to take care of everything.
When Sarah gets the Terminator into a hydraulic press that will finally stop him in his tracks, she says “You’re terminated, fucker!” Personally I would’ve waited until after he was flattened before saying it, but obviously she knew what she was doing. Anyway, I bring it up because that’s a line Arnold would say – except not at that point, right? Either Arnold one-liners came after Sarah Connor one-liners, or she travelled into the future and saw COMMANDO.
The anti-establishment themes, and many other aspects, will be elaborated on in subsequent Cameron films. For example there are numerous ties between THE TERMINATOR and his next film, ALIENS: cast members Paxton, Biehn and Lance Henriksen; little orphan girls in the future scenes who could be auditioning to play Newt (I love that one is watching flames inside an empty TV frame); the Terminator robot cut in half and its torso still crawling around like will happen with Bishop; even closeups of a yellow dumpster-lifting garbage truck that must’ve inspired Ripley’s power loader. More substantively, Ripley tries to tell the authorities about the threat of the xenomorphs, they don’t take it seriously, all the guns and swagger of the know-it-all professionals get completely decimated, Ripley handles it on her own and is left solemn but hopeful as she drifts into an uncertain future.
I think ALIENS was Cameron’s first perfect film, but THE TERMINATOR was his first great one, and it only took him six or seven years to get there – half as long as the gap between AVATARs 1 and 2. After seeing STAR WARS in 1977, Cameron quit his job as a truck driver and made Xenogenesis, which has been described as a short, but seems more like a sales pitch for a feature.
It’s about a large scary robot on tank treads that seems to be accomplished with a combination of mechanical puppetry and stop motion animation. Meanwhile he built up his skills working as a P.A. on ROCK ’N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, building models for Corman, doing visual effects for ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and designs on ANDROID, being art director of BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS and production designer of GALAXY OF TERROR. First hired to do effects for PIRANHA II, he took over for original director Miller Drake (who later did visual effects work for THE ABYSS, T2 and TRUE LIES) but the movie was taken away from him by the producers, and he had a stress nightmare that inspired THE TERMINATOR.
As I discussed in my review of RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, Cameron actually sold THE TERMINATOR and then wrote RAMBO and ALIENS for money while waiting to film it. Before anybody even knew this movie was gonna work! I don’t know if it was that it-boy status that did the trick, but he got along with the producers this time. He told Cinefantastique that he’d rejected a suggestion to give Reese a robot dog, but followed one about emphasizing the romance between Sarah and Reese because he thought it was a good idea. Sure enough, there’s a pretty involved sex scene set to a piano version of the main theme. In narration at the end Sarah says that she “loved a lifetime’s worth” in her few hours spent with Reese. (For more information see the deleted scene “Tickling Reese.”)
Producer Gale Anne Hurd (who was married to Cameron at the time) had also been a p.a. on ROCK ’N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, and then assistant production manager on BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS. She’d had gigs on HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, SCREAMERS and ALLIGATOR before co-producing SMOKEY BITES THE DUST. After her TERMINATOR success she produced three more Cameron classics plus ALIEN NATION, TREMORS, RAISING CAIN, ARMAGEDDON, HULK, THE PUNISHER, HELL FEST and The Walking Dead. She’s credited as co-writer here, but otherwise has not worked as a screenwriter. (IMDb says she will for a live action Aeon Flux tv series she’s producing. Time will tell.)
Even after having sat with Reese’s description of the future for a while, Sarah asks “Are you sure you have the right person?” Just yesterday she was being talked down to by rude customers at the diner, and she can’t picture how tomorrow she could be a mom training her kid how to overthrow our future mechanical oppressors. But there she is in the epilogue, pregnant, gun in lap, dog in the back seat, driving a Jeep Renegade through Mexico, looking for a place to set up shop, seeming like a new woman. You never know what you’re capable of, what you could accomplish, where your life could go, or how good of a sequel you could star in in seven years. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.
June 24th, 2021 at 2:05 pm
This is such a good movie. I still remember seeing it in the theater in ’84. At the time, Escape from New York was only a few years old but The Terminator followed in its footsteps with a bleak sci-fi setting populated by memorable characters and a threat that was both monumental and potentially world-ending, but also very personal for the protagonists involved.
Linda Hamilton is so good, taking her character from overworked waitress to toughened survivor over the course of the film. She wasn’t the bad-ass that she would become in T2, but you could see the foundation of that character emerging by the end of the first film. It was really excellent casting all around, though. I do think Schwarzenegger is much better here than he is as Conan. In that film he pretty much portrayed a bodybuilder with a sword, but here he was menacing and a real presence on the screen.
It’s always fun to revisit this one. I’m going to have to watch it again this Summer. I’m just afraid that when I do I’ll now have a nagging voice in my head asking, “How the hell did Starman cost $24 million?!!”