MRR's Action Movie Month - The Terminator Review


MRR's Action Movie Month: "The Terminator" Review

Rating: R
Length: 107 minutes
Release Date: October 26, 1984
Directed by: James Cameron
Genre: Action/Sci-Fi
Cast: Full cast and crew

"The Terminator" is the original big-screen installment in James Cameron's epic series about the coming machine war. The film explores the nature of humanity's dependence on sophisticated and intelligent machines to manage civilization and its implications for the future. It makes an effort to raise the bar for philosophical speculation in a major action picture, and it largely delivers on its potential through a tight script, enthusiastic performances by the cast, and a solid effort at producing the best stop-motion visual special effects 1984 had to offer.

In the Los Angeles of 1984, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is an ordinary everywoman trying to get along as a waitress in a coffee shop. Little could she suspect the role history has in store for her. In the Los Angeles of 2029, the human race, led by the heroic John Connor, is on the brink of final victory over Skynet, the horrific defense computer network that has achieved consciousness and launched a genocidal war against all of humanity. In desperation, Skynet has sent the Terminator, a cybernetic executioner (Arnold Schwarzenegger), into the past to find John's mother Sarah and terminate her before John can be conceived. Humanity's last hope, it seems, is in using the captured time portal to send back Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to save Sarah and stop the Terminator before time runs out.

There's no overstating the sheer epic beauty of this movie's scenic composition. Regarded simply as visual art, "The Terminator" transcends a mere blockbuster film and creates a visceral shock in the viewer's belly. The truly horrifying scenes of the machine war are the stuff of legend and images of monstrous robotic skeletons crunching across fields littered with discarded human skulls have etched a dark niche in the iconography of modern culture. The prewar Los Angeles sets have their own visual aesthetic. Grit seems to coat every surface, and outdoor scenes are rendered in shades of yellow and beige. It seems like the world is waiting for the shooting to start.

The score is powerful and keeps the mood of the film going between the many action sequences. In addition to the modern music soundtrack, the highly percussive original score strikes a dystopian note of violent, abrasive, industrial pounding, as if the machines are chasing the audience watching the film. A strong score can be used to patch defects in a movie's pacing, and that's what the musical accompaniment does throughout the film.

"The Terminator" is driven by the performance of its cast as much as any other factor. Linda Hamilton belies the tough, militant twist her character will develop in the sequel with a genuinely helpless deer-in-headlights affect that would have fallen flat if the audience couldn't have been made to identify with her character in the early scenes. Arnold Schwarzenegger turns in a totally believable performance as the cybernetic killing machine in the title role. It's never explained in this film how a terminator would have acquired an Austrian accent, but somehow it works, as if the killer robot was having just a slight problem with human language. Michael Biehn is restricted by the larger-than-life, almost mythical nature of his character, but he still manages to deliver his lines about the end of the world as if he'd actually seen it. Reese's expositional monologue to Sarah regarding the inhuman nature of the terminator is delivered perfectly, from the terse and soldierly way Skynet's infiltrators are sketched to the sudden emotion in his voice when he tells her (and the audience) about the Terminator's motivation. There is a real temptation to overact in a scene like this, so kudos is owed to Biehn for resisting. Other actors to look out for in very minor roles include a very young David Hyde Pierce as Tanker Partner and the always-delightful Bill Paxton as Punk #1.

Of course, no discussion of "The Terminator" can be held without addressing its central philosophical premise, which is "explosions are awesome." Every single object in the universe of "The Terminator" seems to be teetering on the brink of demolition at all times. This tendency becomes more pronounced later in the series, of course, but "The Terminator" is kind enough to foreshadow the later films' over-the-top stunts by finding room for more car chases than the entire Bond franchise. Again, there's always a tendency to overdo it in a big-budget action flick, but despite always seeming to have time for another gunfight, "The Terminator" manages to avoid jumping the shark entirely.

Rating 4 out of 5