In 1984, the world watched a lethal cyborg sent back in time to kill a young woman before she could give birth to the future saviour of mankind.
Nevermind that the cyborg technology seen in the film offers a real glimpse of our very real and very near dystopian future as per Elon Musk’s proposed head chips/duty of authority vs humanity/sociopathy of applied authority figures… I’m pretty sure nobody in the audience knew what a cyborg was until the ruggedly handsome plot device Kyle Reese, played with nervous energy by the brilliant Michael Biehn, explained it to us… and the less said about awful 1989 Jean-Claude Van Damme movie ‘Cyborg’ the better!
We’ll assume that everyone knows the vague plot of The Terminator; robot sent back from the future to prevent the victory of mankind, blah blah blah.
We here at TBG love the original Terminator movie (some of us controversially prefer it to the sequel) and it is still surprising that the film even got made. It’s a far-out sci-fi time-travel concept, born from a half-remembered episode of the Twilight Zone and a fever dream by James Cameron (whose only work at that point had been some design work and then writing/directing Piranha 2), with a central paradox that melts the brain; John Connor, to save himself and his mother, sent back his own father who then dies in the past? HOW DOES THAT WORK? Argh!
Michael Biehn, as mentioned above, played the role of the human sent back to protect Sarah Connor as someone who has lived through the horrific events and future war the viewer only gets brief flashes of. He is a bundle of raw energy; a plucky street rat hardened by conflict and willing to do all it takes to fulfil his mission, even self-sacrifice.
He is so good in the role; there is a moment where, not trusting his insane story, Sarah bites his hand. He barely flinches but, grimacing, calmly tells her that “… Terminators don’t feel pain. I do.”
It’s his role to be Mr Exposition, explaining everything for Sarah and by proxy the audience, but he does it with natural charm and intelligence. The determination in his voice and his eyes really sells this bonkers concept. Sarah, as do we, can’t help be drawn into his desperate pleas. We watch her experience the terror of the Terminator in the nightclub (a delightfully neon and brilliantly named Tech Noir) and as she sees the killer rise to his feet after being shot, point-blank, she knows that everything is horrifyingly real.
Let’s talk about that cyborg, shall we?
The Austrian Oak was being courted to play the Kyle Reese role but, due to a canny insight and knowing audiences may have trouble dealing with his accent, he was more interested in playing the bad guy. His sheer size, unlike anyone else in mainstream movies, was intimidating and awe-inspiring and combined with a stoic performance he was the breakout star of the film. Even though he only has seventeen lines in the entire movie, he fills the screen with his presence and you can’t imagine anyone else in the role (go away, OJ Simpson).
Let’s talk about that accent; a thick, guttural Germanic accent that had been influenced by years spent training in American gyms, it somehow managed to fit the Terminator role perfectly. It sounded wrong, somehow, and really gave credence to the character. We could believe it was a machine attempting to sound human. Schwarzenegger wisely chose to lean into his own natural cadence and allowed everything to come out flat and neutral and it was a perfect fit. His conversation with a gun store owner (hi, Mr Futterman from Gremlins, released the same year) is a prime example of his matter-of-fact delivery as he reels off a list of weaponry and decides not to pay. Later, in a cheap hotel room and sitting on the bed after taking care of a damaged eye, his delivery of a dismissive insult to a janitor is so deadpan became legendary in playgrounds across the land. “F— you, asshole.”
The film itself is fantastic; it’s essentially a chase movie, and the pace becomes more and more frantic as the stakes are raised. The scene where the Terminator shoots-up a police station as he searches for his quarry is gripping and we’re hiding with Sarah as she cowers behind a chair, watching the shadow of her hunter pass by a window.
There is a tender moment between Sarah and Reese that is hugely important for the plot of the film but is done in a soft-focus eighties way and it gives the audience a moment to breathe before the last portion of the film bursts into life and we finally see the Terminator for what it truly is. As we think the film is over, with the Reese having blown up the truck the Terminator was driving (and giving reason why the truck scene in Terminator 2 is so striking), the camera settles over the shoulder of an exhausted Sarah and we watch as something stirs in the wreckage. Emerging with skin and flesh burned away, the metal endoskeleton strides forward and our hearts race as the action begins again. It’s a fantastic moment, showing the amazing design work of James Cameron and the stunning effects of Stan Winston. A combination of life-size models and stop-motion, it’s nightmarish in movement and the lack of facial features adds to the sheer menace. This is truly a machine designed to kill.
Sarah Connor is an incredible character; from waitress to warrior, her arc feels genuine and she isn’t there simply to be rescued by the male hero. She holds her own, saving him on more than one occasion, and her steely determination reminds the viewer of Ellen Ripley from Alien (1979). To see that kind of role for a woman in the eighties was still rare and for that Linda Hamilton should be applauded.
At the end of the film, as Sarah heads off into an uncertain future, there is a storm coming. It’s a chilling, and clarity-providing moment, and yet somehow the anti-nuclear weapons message of the film is always missed when people discuss it. Coming after the release of War Games, the videogame-centred film that talks about thermonuclear war, that fear was a very big worry in the eighties and yet here it never really went away. The Terminator showed us a dystopian future, one we’d not really seen in film before, and it was terrifying. Thankfully the events of the film and it’s sequel happened in years we’ve long since marched past. Hopefully, we’ll not make the same stupid mistakes. Once again, we need only look at developing technology to see that these things aren’t as far-fetched as they at first seem…
I’m an old man and, in 1984, I was seven years old.
I was a weird kid and had a weird family. As such, I’d already seen and loved Conan The Barbarian and had watched Pumping Iron several times and so was very aware of who Arnold Schwarzenegger was. Face it, he was hard to miss. He looked incredible, unlike anyone else I’d ever seen before. There were other bodybuilders, of course, but he just had something about him that grabbed your attention. For me, as a kid, he was someone to idolise. Look, I was seven, shut up. As I’ve always said, him and Sylvester Stallone and the action stars of the ’80s were our superheroes! We didn’t have your Marvel/DC CG-filled action movies. We had cheaply made action films with huge explosions and men called Cobra waving knives around. It was only with 1989’s Batman that the world changed for me. More on that another time.
Anyway, in 1984 Disney re-released The Jungle Book in cinemas.
My Mum picked me up from school one day and, as a lovely surprise, took me off to see it. I can still remember walking through the foyer, wondering if I would get bought some popcorn or maybe a little tub of vanilla ice cream, and then suddenly stopping because I’d seen something incredible. There, on a wall, was a poster for a new Arnold Schwarzenegger film.
It was, of course, The Terminator.
“I WANT TO SEE THAT!” I yelled, pointing excitedly and tugging at my Mum’s sleeve. “It’s Arnold!”
“It’s an eighteen,” my Mum smiled, pulling me away. “You’ll have to wait.”
We went in and watched some cartoon animals sing with a floppy-haired boy and I spent the entire film sulking because I wanted to see why Arnold was half-human, half-robot. This, understandably, is why I hate The Jungle Book (thankfully, it wasn’t long after that my Uncle John got his hands on a VHS copy of the film and I watched that but shh, I needed a title for this post).
Before we go, a quick shout out to the late great Bill Paxton for being only the second actor ever to be killed onscreen by the Terminator, an Alien and the Predator!
Name the other actor and you can have ten geek points…
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