While James Cameron was directing Piranha II he fell ill and started having hallucinatory dreams. One of them featured a metallic killing machine dragging its torso from an explosion while carrying kitchen knives. Upon his recovery he started work upon a script featuring this creation and Terminator was born. Don’t we wish we all had the visionary talent to turn our mad dreams into a billion Dollar franchise!
Filmed in 1983 and released in 1984, it was never conceived as a blockbuster movie and struggled to attract funding, talent and for a while a distributer. Cameron is never one to back down on a project he believes in, so he persevered and got the movie made. Early versions of the storyline show quite a different tale to the one finally produced. Initially the terminator was to be a fairly nondescript, albeit powerfully built character that could blend into the crowd and the main role was to be Reece, the future soldier sent back to protect Sarah Connor. It was only after auditioning Arnold Schwarzenegger for the role that Cameron saw the advantage in making the terminator character much stronger and more central to the film.
Schwarzenegger had really just hit the big time, with the Conan cinematic series his major break. At first he was quite dismissive of the movie, but more recent interviews suggest he retains a soft spot for his metallic role. Michael Biehn was an established TV actor at that point, with a few movie parts under his belt, as was Linda Hamilton. So with Schwarzenegger in the starring role, the screenplay started to take shape.
The basic plotline is that machines have taken over the world and subjugated humankind to the extent they exist only in refugee camps and the remnants of a fighting force. The trouble is, it’s difficult to keep the human race down and they are starting to gain the upper hand through the efforts of their leader – John Connor. The dastardly robots hatch a plan to go back in time and kill Sarah Connor, the mother (Linda Hamilton) and thus expunge John Connor from existence. When the freedom fighters learn of the plot, they send back one of their warriors – Kyle Reece to protect her.
The film opens in the future with the iconic shots of the machines crushing human skulls and wiping out pockets of human resistance with their laser cannons. These scenes are as powerful now as they were back in 1984, all helped along by the impactful electronic soundtrack and huge sound effects. The method of time travel means that neither terminator nor human can carry anything back with them, so both arrive naked and unarmed. This is less of a problem for the terminator than for Reece, but quite soon, both are armed and more importantly, dressed. Sarah Connor on the other hand is living a perfectly normal existence in Middle America. She spends her days waitressing and her nights clubbing and keeping out of the way of her nymphomaniac flat mate. Had it not been for the terminator, her life would likely have remained unchanged. Fortunately for her, the terminator works through the phone book in alphabetical order and the earlier deaths are well publicized, giving her time to escape and also for Kyle to find her and come to her aid.
The chase section of this film with the decaying terminator doggedly pursuing her is a definite highlight and has been copied many times since. The stunts are massive, real and well captured on celluloid while the pace of the music keeps everything moving along and the adrenaline up. Made before the age of digital effects, we are treated to a wide range of optical effects, including combining models with composited stop motion animation and live action to achieve a good result. The use of forced perspective to allow the use of miniatures within the same frame as full size props is something of a lost art these days, as 20 seconds of button pushing on a computer replaces days of prop building and the huge lighting rigs need to give the required depth of field.
Throughout the film we learn about the world the machines have created in 2089 and also the relationship between Kyle, Sarah and her unborn child. Anyone who has seen Terminator 2 will understand just how good this set up is, leading to a sequel that was in many ways better than the original movie. Connor’s change from mousey, clumsy waitress to hardened survivalist is almost complete by the end of the movie and adds the required amount of closure.
So just how do you destroy a futuristic armoured killing machine? Tricky, as bullets just bounce off his exoskeleton, even if they do rip junks of decaying flesh away in the process. Just as things are looking serious, a petrol tanker pops up to save the day. It is an unwritten rule of action movies that all fuel tankers must explode within 3 minutes of their appearance, so sure enough, following a collision with the Terminator, a brief chase and the untimely ends of the crew, Kyle manages to slip some homemade explosive onto the trailer and cue the fireball. It is just a shame this is not enough to decommission the robot and he just keeps coming. Time for the heavy engineering. What a massive fireball can’t manage, a 100 ton industrial press can. The end is gruesome, final and sets up the sequel perfectly.
Sarah Connor now knows her future, so all she can do is head off into the wilderness and start to train her child – even before birth for the life he must face.
This movie cemented the careers of not only the stars, but also James Cameron. It opened new doors for him and helped to ensure funding was a little more forthcoming for his later projects. A classic action movie and one that has not dated as much as many of a similar vintage.
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