The Terminator Retrospective
By John Hussey.
Without a doubt James Cameron had a great idea on his hands when he conceived The Terminator, which was far ahead of its time. The whole apocalyptic future, the dominating effect of machines, mankind fighting to survive, and of course the notion of changing history are all great concepts and Cameron put them together in the most unique way possible. The film’s universe became about a super-computer, called Skynet, which would ultimately go on to become intelligent enough to act against its creators. This resulted in Skynet causing a nuclear holocaust that rendered humanity near extinct and its machine army the rulers of Earth. Humanities last hope came through John Connor as he led the last of humanity against the machines.
I absolutely love the films concepts and themes. They all worked to create a universe that was believable and completely engaging. What made this universe so interesting was that it is entirely possible. The film’s entire franchise showcases an important moral about humanities greed of discovery and that ultimately this can become a downfall when something is created that cannot be controlled. We could potentially give birth to something that is superior, rendering us no longer the dominant life-form on Earth. Then there’s the fantastical element of changing fate, something that plays on everyone’s mind. The concept of time travel grants everyone the possibility of changing something, usually a mistake that could make history better. The Terminator does just this, only it is instead Skynet that attempted to alter the course of history by preventing John Connor’s existence by assassinating his mother before his birth. The narrative was driven by this struggle of maintaining the timelines and balancing out history.
The film was a gritty, science-fiction thriller that had an innocent woman, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), thrown into the middle of mind-bending scenarios in which her life was threatened by an unstoppable force. The core principle of the original film was survival. This was shown perfectly through the notion that the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) was an indestructible creation that would stop at nothing to complete its goal. Throughout the entire film we saw this creature constantly being ruthless, showing no remorse for its actions. Upon arrival the Terminator took out two punks, with the leader played by Bill Paxton, and rendered the third submissive. Later the Terminator went to a gun store and after deciding upon its choice of weapons it killed the owner (Dick Miller). The Terminator then went onto crossing off each Sarah Connor from the phonebook, regardless of whether or not he was terminating the correct target. Upon reaching the third, and final, Sarah Connor upon the list the Terminator killed Sarah’s friends Ginger (Bress Motta) and Matt (Rick Rossovich) before moving onto his real target. From their he pursued Sarah throughout the rest of the film without fail.
The protagonist Kyle Reece (Michael Biehn) became Sarah’s protector after he volunteered to go back in time to defend her on her son’s behalf. This became the opposite element within protecting history through the Resistance trying to maintain their victory in the future against the machines. The brilliant part about Kyle’s character was his hook for the audience, allowing him to become an information giver about the film’s core themes. His nightmares, flashbacks and dialogue dumps all served to grant the audience an insight into the war against the machines. Each time these moments happened we were thrown deeper into this harsh world of survival. Humanity was driven to the point of living like animals, scavenging to remain alive whilst constantly on alert against their enemy. These scenes were all directed perfectly, accompanied by the superb puppeteering from the special effects team, to create an immersed world where we, the audience, could feel the pain of Kyle’s struggle. It also served as a great juxtaposition within the present situation.
As mentioned above, the Terminator was portrayed as an unstoppable force and this was shown both through the writing and Arnold’s great acting. He really came across as a cold, unfeeling creature of logic and precision as it tried with every breath to complete its programming. Cameron, and co-writer Gale Ann Hurd, wanted to demonstrate that no matter where our lead characters were they weren’t safe against the Terminator. The creature would still come after them and wouldn’t let anything stand in its way. The police station scene was the greatest moment to demonstrate this as the Terminator charged in and killed every single police officer standing in its way, including Lance Henriksen’s character Hal Vukovich. This scene was brought about by the iconic moment of the Terminator announcing to the policemen at the reception, “I’ll be back”, before driving a car through the entrance.
What I also liked was the design of the Terminator. It wasn’t just a machine but a cybernetic organism, allowing two layers of the creature to unfold. We had Arnold’s character on the outside, serving as the flesh for the machine underneath. The cyborg could blend into its surroundings and learn to behave like a human in order to get close to its targets. As the film progressed we slowly got to see the machine underneath, first through the iconic scenes of the Terminator fixing itself up within the apartment. Those scenes are unsettling whilst proving mesmerising due to the superb effects involved. I find the Terminator becomes rather disturbing, and unnerving to watch towards the end of the film as it becomes almost like a zombie with its pale skin and torn flesh revealing the machine underneath.
Then came that glorious scene where the full metal endoskeleton was revealed rising from the wreckage of the truck. To this day the creature’s design is still outstanding. Through both animatronics and stop-motion capture we saw one of the greatest achievements of the 80s through these heart-stopping scenes where the Terminator itself chased after Sarah and Kyle through the factory. I feel uneasy by its appearance. There’s something about it being a metal skeleton staring at you with those red eyes and evil looking smile that makes me feel quite frightened of it. You almost want Arnold to come back in order to grant the Terminator some human qualities back into it. The disturbing factor comes with the Terminator’s final onslaught when it stalks Sarah after Kyle’s sacrifice. It’s in those final moments that you feel truly scared for Sarah’s safety because she was alone and totally vulnerable and despite the creature’s damages it still pursued and wouldn’t stop in its mission to terminate Sarah.
One of the factors that made this film so incredibly clever was its paradox effects throughout. The entire film’s narrative relied on the concept of paradox in order to establish events. John’s very existence came out of Kyle being sent back in time by himself along with the factor that Kyle turned out to be his dad. That was the factor that made the film challenging to watch and indulge in the clever imagination of both Cameron and Hurd. Knowing that Kyle was his father, John gave him a picture of his mother within the future in order to begin his love interest with her. Kyle admitted to Sarah that he idolised her through looking at the picture of her and that he travelled through time to be with her. This revealing scene led to Sarah accepting him as the ‘one’ and the two of them conceived the Resistance leader. This all became ironic because Skynet’s attempts to change the future inevitably created the very chain of events that brought about its enemy’s existence in the first place. It lent to the idea that changing fate is impossible.
Similar to Cameron’s Aliens, Michael Biehn played the role of a soldier that was combat trained and tried protecting the female lead that wasn’t. The chemistry between Sarah and Kyle was the best part about the film. From their first meeting, all the way up to Kyle’s noble sacrifice we saw one of the best love stories within film history. Fate brought them together and through the darkest journey imaginable they found each other and fell in love. It’s made more poetic through Kyle admitting he broke the boundaries of time to be with her. Considering that Sarah didn’t trust him at first, believing him to be crazy, there was always a connection between them and it continued to cement as she witnessed Kyle risk everything to protect her. His death in the factory was the saddest moment of the film. Though it was slightly predictable it didn’t alter the fact that you wanted these characters to be together, especially after everything they’d been through, and how far Kyle went to be with her. His death was made even more emotional because the Terminator still survived; meaning Sarah was left alone to fend for herself.
Going back to my comparison with Aliens, Biehn eventually became weakened in battle and relied on the female lead to step up and take charge. This was the point that served as the greatest development of the film because Sarah evolved from being a damsel to being the hero. It was shown through her keeping Kyle going. After his death she continued his mission to stay alive by constantly moving, despite being injured during the explosion. The pay off of the film was her confronting the Terminator, staring it dead in the face before she killed it by crushing it. This was aided by her brilliant line of, “You’re terminated f**ker.” Fate had found its way and the film’s end showcased Sarah accepting the destiny in front of her and prepared for the coming storm by training her son to defend humanity during its darkest hour.
I can’t go without showing my praise to Brad Fiedel for composing the music for The Terminator. His music added in a new layer of tension, suspense and grittiness that accompanied the imagery Cameron created perfectly. It made the thriller aspect stand out and also delivered a unique mechanical feel, something Fiedel wanted to give to the film. Also The Terminator theme is just legendary.
The Terminator was a solid film that still holds up today. It granted us Arnold’s infamous character and also a fantastical storyline that formulated a new standard within the science-fiction world. It brought about a unique story filled with a great cast, direction and score.