In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1994 and six from 1984. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
Bullets, fire, pavement and glass chip away at the T-800’s fleshy exterior, whittling the cyborg’s “human” face and skin into hard, sharp edges. Is it damage? Yes, but it’s also an incremental series of upgrades meant to discard superfluous features on this machine sent back in time to 1984 from the year 2029 — an erosion to essential parts: a bone-crushing steel skeleton; a soul-piercing red diode glare; and an objective to kill the mother to Earth’s eventual savior from machine enslavement.
Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) is a warrior simultaneously sent back to stop the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Damage? It’s all he knows. His present, our future, is a world of nuclear desolation instigated by artificial intelligence. Tanks trample skulls into genetic gravel, and survivors live under constant threat. By necessity, Reese is as single-minded as the machine he’s hunting, using his disconnection from pain as an evolutionary advantage. He tempers any love he may feel, for it can only mean weakness, vulnerability, damage. But it comes to be the crux of his journey.
Then there’s timorous pushover waitress Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). She’s an easy mark for bratty kids and bad daters. How can she possibly survive a metal-bound murderer from the future, let alone knowing mankind’s sell-by date is 13 years away and it’s up to her to mold a man who’ll shepherd those left? However, if Sarah is to raise a child who saves the world, she must save herself … at the cost of a damaging Cassandra complex that will swallow her whole. (“A person could go crazy thinking about this,” she says, painfully unaware of those words’ weight.)
Physical damage. Emotional damage. Collateral damage. Every frame of The Terminator is dotted by damage — a painfully familiar concept to James Cameron throughout his career. His life is littered with creative-collaborator ex-wives, long hours in unenviable shooting conditions, actors whom he has reduced to tears, self-styled king of the world hubris, stars who have refused to ever work with him again and tales of taskmaster bastardry too specific to simply be apocryphal sour grapes.
But you can also argue Cameron has used all of this damage as a sort of immediate-feedback R&D — to always dream bigger than in his previous film, to make, as Steve Jobs would say, “a dent in the universe.” True to that form, cinematic technology has often needed to play catch-up to Cameron’s wild visions. But in The Terminator, he created a classic even flying by the seat of his skinflint pants — one so endlessly influential and embedded in our culture it feels like we’ve had it more than 30 years.
First and foremost, The Terminator is the granddaddy of modern-day sci-fi technology paranoia. Its world is one accustomed to the drone of large, whirring machines. Although it precedes pocket gadgetry, the film suggests we’re no less desensitized, or beholden, to technology in a sensory capacity. It’s also fraught with a jangly, bones-deep unease about the cost of fully automated everything. Brad Fiedel’s score drives that angst — a mournful, martial burble of syncopation, synthesizers and staccato percussion in a purposefully slippery time signature.
The film’s interrupting beepers, its loud Walkmans, even the flashing lights at TechNoir (a portmanteau suggestive of the film’s genre as well as a key setting). All of these are bright, shiny distractions. Rather than date itself with era-specific technospeak, “The Terminator” cuts right to a timeless fear — that mankind has no real agency but than to annihilate itself one way or another. But rather than a tut-tut advocacy to unplug, The Terminator suggests healthy skepticism and, at the end of its 1991 sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a great deal of hope. (Although not entirely terrible, other sequels not directed by Cameron largely, and sloppily, ret-con all of this simply for a return on investment.)
The Terminator is also a stalker film about a remorseless, relentless boogeyman; Jason Voorhees could tag in during a scene where the T-800 murders Sarah’s roommate and her boyfriend, and the visual parlance wouldn’t need to change one bit. And when the cyborg reveals its true appearance, its claw-and-scrape determination ranks it with any classic movie monster.
Then there’s the its fleet-footed chase action. The movie is so defined by this momentum that it even consumes a curious cop played by Paul Winfield, the Oscar-nominated actor cast to class up what was then simply a B-picture.
And ultimately, it’s a tragically noble romance, as it turns out Kyle is actually the father of Sarah’s day-saving son. Like Back to the Future a year later, The Terminator cuts through confusing time-travel paradoxes with clarity of emotion. Kyle may be detached from pain, but it’s not as if he feels nothing. Cameron carefully establishes Kyle’s humanity in flash-forwards to 2029 so it makes sense to see it in 1984. If anything was unfairly scrapped from the final film, it’s a deleted scene in which Kyle grows overwhelmed by the beauty of a garden we take for granted and that his world will never know. Here, too, you’ll hear the mantra of T2. (As for Hamilton, she’s good as a woman who stumbles into heroics, but fans know her revelatory turn came seven years later.)
In the grimy grindhouse economy of scale, you have to pick your grace notes. (The Terminator comes in at a lean 108 minutes, and it’s certain to be the shortest feature film of Cameron’s career.) Regardless of length, Cameron has long prided himself on bang for the buck — driven both by his fertile imagination and the osmotic instruction of Cameron’s legendary showman mentor, Roger Corman.
Cameron has always excelled at blowing things up, and The Terminator is no exception. Its miniature and matte-background work may feel dated, but it still thrills thanks to judiciously aggressive editing. But you can’t call Cameron a fetishist or a cold, clinical tactician, not outside of True Lies, anyway, which is still an immensely enjoyable lark. His boundary-pushing collateral damage is always awesome to behold. But he’s often equally fascinated with the outer limits of emotional damage, and finding measures of grace in its endurance. We exhale — finally, deeply, loudly — at the end of such films as Aliens and The Abyss because we’ve accompanied their characters to absolute extremes of fury and fragility, and emerged on the other side.
In both The Terminator and T2, Cameron exploded society’s anxieties about suppression, obsolescence, extinction, and, at a more interpersonal level, the fear of loneliness, insignificance and failure. The franchise eventually contorted into a convoluted commodity that continues to churn forth beyond Cameron’s control, with another Schwarzenegger-starring installment next summer. But for a film formed in the throes of food poisoning, The Terminator has one hell of a legacy.
Coming up in Corman’s ranks honed Cameron’s efficient, effective aesthetic. He worked first as a production assistant, then created miniature models and directed the special effects on Escape from New York before getting a last-minute call as a replacement director on Piranha II: The Spawning — a two-bit sequel to the Corman-produced 1978 cult hit. As the story goes, Ovidio Assonitis, Piranha II’s producer, hijacked the project after Cameron fell ill. (Contractual obligations kept Cameron’s name on the credits, but he considers The Terminator his first film.)
The billion-dollar upside? A dream Cameron had while under siege from the sickness about a metallic torso dragging itself from an explosion holding kitchen knives, which became an indelible image of the movie’s third act. In the film, Cameron maintains the heedless, non sequitur pace of a nightmare without resorting to cheap tactics. The frights of our nightmares, those cracked reflections of reality, hardly feel manufactured or inauthentic. Neither does The Terminator.
Cameron collaborated on the screenplay with William Wisher Jr. (who also co-wrote “T2”) and Gale Anne Hurd. A fellow Corman cohort, Hurd became Cameron’s producing partner, and he sold her the movie for $1 on the condition that he direct it. Hurd also became Cameron’s second of five wives and a person he’d later argue performed “no actual writing at all” on this film. (She gets a “with” credit on the screenplay here, and Wisher an additional dialogue shout-out in the closing scroll.)
Although The Terminator opened at No. 1, it didn’t even crack that year’s top 20 films — sandwiched between Red Dawn and City Heat, and bested by, among many others, Breakin’. Its production was also a notorious clash of personalities.
The star and the director famously squabbled over the semantics of “I’ll be back.” Schwarzenegger, of all people, assumed the hardline linguistic perspective that a robot would be staunchly declarative and, as such, would not use a contraction. “I don’t tell you how to act, so you shouldn’t tell me how to write,” went Cameron’s alleged retort. (You can hear the disdain creep through a bit in Arnie’s delivery.)
Also, despite the film’s influence, Cameron was hardly the first to exploit technophobia in sci-fi, and there were resultant legal concerns. Author and screenwriter Harlan Ellison successfully sought credit for “inspiring” the film, prompting Cameron to allegedly brand him “a parasite who can kiss my ass.”
Another fascinating tidbit: Executives at Orion Pictures, which distributed the film to theaters, initially suggested that O.J. Simpson play the Terminator. (Your ironic mileage may vary, but Cameron insisted Simpson didn’t look like a killer.) However, Cameron didn’t initially like Schwarzenegger, either, who was hot off Conan the Barbarian. Cameron intended to goad the Austrian Oak into an argument and cite him as unfit to cast. But when they met, Schwarzenegger persuasively spoke to him about how the villain should be played. And that’s where the Terminator’s separation from your standard-issue shooter really begins.
Simpson could have played a stone-faced, square-jawed heavy with no problems. But that would have been all she wrote on the Terminator legacy until a snarky court reporter resurrected it as a morbid punch line a decade later. And at first glance, Schwarzenegger’s sometimes-surprised facial expressions seem to betray the character’s cybernetic nature. But they’re actually a shrewd choice as righteously robotic as his monotone.
When the T-800 registers shock or anger, it’s expressing a computational procedure for course correction. Your GPS does the same thing when you suddenly hang a left instead of a right. It just doesn’t ram its fist through your stomach. The same goes for the T-800’s brief glance back at a hapless TechNoir clubber whom he pulverizes en route to Sarah’s table; it’s a complex processor tending to a less-robust program and the memory-consuming task at hand. And when the T-800 selects “Fuck you, asshole” from a list of possible responses to a nosy custodian, it’s a great joke. But there’s a hesitant halt to the tone that suggests the cyborg is analyzing whether that’s a proper response to the savagery that surrounds him.
That’s the difference between a recognizable face who would treat the moniker like a generic football-field nickname and a thoughtful performer who’s cleverly figuring out ways to forge a magnetic, mesmerizing and convincing presence.
Schwarzenegger’s physical imposition goes without saying; in a scene where he fills a space advertised for police vehicles only, he’s his own motif for the hopelessness of rules in his chaotic wake. But he also endowed the Terminator with as much mental, process-driven menace as he did muscular, murderous might. He feels like a blight on our very humanity that “can’t stop and won’t stop” — an instant icon that would later become an endearing good guy in “T2” and feel just as enduring. He’s a villain who lives long enough to see himself become the hero.
That idea crystallizes in an arresting interlude to the climactic action sequence, in which Sarah singlehandedly destroys the Terminator after Kyle dies. As my colleague Sam Watermeier once eloquently wrote about the moment: “There is a curious moment earlier on in the scene when, while chasing the heroes through a factory, the Terminator stops to look at the assembly-line machines around him, as if making a connection, having a moment of recognition … It’s a brief yet thought-provoking moment about the possible self-awareness of machines.”
Seen in hindsight, this ghost-in-the-machine curiosity seems like sly foreshadowing of T2, in which the T-800 is programmed to exhibit more human traits. But in 1984, this couldn’t possibly have been the case. James Cameron wasn’t James Cameron. He had no idea The Terminator would be such a commercial, let alone critical, hit. (It made Richard Corliss’s 10-best list in Time that year.)
Cameron is not constructing the pieces of a larger, profitable puzzle. He’s just shrewdly considering a cosmic, existential notion: Maybe the machine is just as hackable, just as malleable, as our choices and emotions. That’s the first hint of the grace notes for which he’d become known. That is the beauty amid the damage.