With the release of Genisys in 2015, the Terminator franchise has seen multiple sequels, video games of varying quality, and now a reboot. Whether or not that reboot will continue remains to be seen, but I feel that this series deserves a thorough look as it currently stands. So, I will be taking a look at each installment, talking about what works and what doesn't. Let's start things off with the original 1984 movie, The Terminator.
The film opens with a brief, albeit bleak look into the future of Los Angeles. In 2029 following a terrible nuclear war, humanity is on the run from armies of machines across a desolate wasteland. In the present day (err... 1984, that is), a figure emerges from an electrical anomaly. Here we find the namesake of the movie, the terminator (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, but you knew that already). After confronting and brutally attacking several troublemakers, he acquires some of their clothing. Around the same time, a second electrical anomaly produces a human being, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). As he's being chased down by some cops, he evades them and steals his own set of clothing, along with some of their weapons.
Later on, we are introduced to Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), an average albeit clumsy diner waitress. The Terminator and Kyle have already started to look for her, with the Terminator murdering two different Sarahs after finding them in the phone book. After hearing about this bizarre “coincidence”, Sarah notices that she is being followed by Kyle at a distance on the streets. After Sarah ducks into a dance club to evade him and call the cops, the terminator finds her and attempts to kill her. However, Kyle successfully intervenes and flees with a very confused Sarah, who hesitantly agrees to go with him.
"Come with me if you want to live!"
During a hectic car chase, Kyle begins to explain the gravity of the situation. In the future, a defense network called Skynet became sentient and almost eradicated humanity. However, Sarah's unborn son John successfully led the remaining humans to fight back and destroy them. In response, the machines sent back a single cyborg to kill her first, with humanity sending back Kyle to protect her. Sarah is understandably bewildered both by his story and by seeing the terminator shrug off several shotgun blasts. After a second round of a car chase, they crash and are brought into police custody.
The police question Kyle, believing him to be crazy, but they treat Sarah as a kidnapping victim and attempt to comfort her. As you might guess, they are stupefied (and entertained) by Kyle's story about time travel and whatnot. Before Sarah can get some rest after an eventful night, the terminator tracks them once again to the police station, murdering every officer that gets in its way. Kyle and Sarah escape in the chaos, and later find shelter under a bridge for the night. As Sarah treats one of his wounds, Kyle explains that it was she who prepared John for warfare, much to her disbelief. Still, she slowly becomes more accepting of this bizarre tale.
The next day, they hide out at a nearby motel, where they prepare a few homemade explosives. That night, Sarah begins to despair, fearing that Kyle is disappointed in her. He denies this and reveals that he was actually given a photo of Sarah by her son in the future, and that he volunteered to protect her because he had fallen in love with her. Sarah returns his feelings.
After finding them once more the next day, the terminator attacks and chases them in another car chase. After the terminator commandeers a tanker truck, Kyle detonates it with one of the explosives, but the machine emerges from the flames effectively unharmed, now exposed as a metallic endoskeleton. It pursues the duo into a factory of some type, and though Kyle is dazed from his own injuries, Sarah refuses to leave him behind and helps carry him as they flee. Even as he is face to face with the machine and demands that Sarah go on, she is hesitant to do so. After sacrificing himself to plant another explosive in the machine's chassis, Sarah is nearly caught but manages to crush what remains of the cyborg with a press, killing it once and for all.
In the epilogue, Sarah, who is now visibly pregnant, records an audio diary for her unborn son. As she drives along, she is unsure if she should reveal to him that Kyle is his father. After stopping for gas, a young boy takes a photo of her (the same photo that is later given to John and then to Kyle) and sells it to her before she drives off into the distance.
Everything in the film has been leading to this point. Sarah is still in the dark about what's going on, and the machine is ready to move in for the kill... until Kyle narrowly stops it. It's a brief but tense fight (if you want to call it that), which serves as the turning point for the rest of the movie. We now see that the machine can recover easily from shotgun blasts, only making it all the more scary.
Police Station Battle
As if the terminator wasn't already terrifying enough, here we see it walk through a small army of heavily armed officers. If a first time viewer had any reservations about the terminator's capabilities, they should be gone after this scene. It only makes the atmosphere more bleak for Kyle and Sarah. If the police can't stop it, what chance do they have?
Final Showdown (two videos)
With the machine set up as a nigh-invincible monster, there had to be a convincing way to actually kill it off. The logical conclusions might be to blast it with a anti-tank round or set it on fire. Well, Kyle and Sarah have no access to the former, and the latter didn't work, but they gave us a convincing victory anyway. Through grit and a bit of luck, Sarah finally ends the machine once and for all, completing her arc. For his part, Kyle makes the ultimate sacrifice for the one he cares about the most. A very solid way to end the film.
As Mr. Plinkett of RedLetterMedia once explained, Sarah Connor is your classic everyman (err... everywoman) protagonist. However, this is not a bad thing at all. Her character arc is visible across the movie and becomes even more noticeable when you look at her character in the sequel. What happens there is... a bit more complicated, so I'll get to that next time.
Like I said, Sarah is pretty average across the board. She's not super smart or by any means foolish, she has no special training and physically, she's no stronger or weaker than the next person. She spends the bulk of the movie at the mercy of the events around her, but she avoids the “damsel in distress” cliche by becoming more proactive as time goes on. While she does start off pretty much helpless, this is perfectly understandable, given that the antagonist is so beyond anything that she (or any other human) can hope to match. As it turns out, the only way the terminator is destroyed is mostly through luck. Can't blame her for being bewildered – she's just in over her head.
It takes her a while to come to grips with what's going on, but as she does, she becomes a lot more capable and less fearful. In the opening scenes, she is struggling at her basic job as a waitress and is stood up by a date. Nothing is really going her way, and she's just dealing with the same problems that a lot of other people face as best as she can. When she's thrown into extraordinary circumstances, she's (understandably) slow to grasp the apocalyptic future that's staring her in the face. Still, she does become a lot more independent, and practically has to carry a wounded Kyle along. She changes quite a bit over the course of the film, which makes her a believable, likable character.
Kyle isn't that much different than Sarah, when you really get down to it. While it's true that he has a lot of training and that he's seen a lot of war, he's still just a human. He still has the same weaknesses that many other people have, and though he's good about hiding them sometimes, you can tell that he's in over his head just as much as Sarah when they're dealing with a murderous cyborg. At no point is he ever presented as Superman - he's just another guy, ultimately.
Kyle's vulnerabilities (physical or otherwise) are evident throughout the film. His opening scene sets the pace for much of the film. He has to evade some regular police officers, and this is taken to the next level when he has to evade a rampaging machine. Kyle can't possibly hope to face it directly, so the best he can do is slow it down. Even then, he has to sacrifice his own life just to give Sarah a fighting chance.
It's hammered home throughout the film that Kyle is, to one degree or another, a pretty broken person. In one of his initial scenes, he has a flashback to the 2029 war, and he is left rather shaken by it. The future, as you would have guessed, radically changed him. The harsh environment shaped him into someone who is pretty much alien to the otherwise normal world of 1984 Los Angeles. He adapts well to his surroundings, but you can tell that he's very troubled inside. Very few other things seem to interest him, other than his desire to protect Sarah. Given the future that they're trying to avert, his dedication certainly makes sense, but it still shows that he's been deeply affected by the war.
This is further evidenced by a conversation that he has with Sarah in the motel. Sarah asks him about the women of the future, a pretty innocent question. She merely wants to learn about what the future holds, and she probably just wants to hear Kyle speak of his social/romantic life. Kyle responds that they are “good fighters”. While that's a fair answer that you might expect, it does show that the war is always on his mind, even when if the topic at hand is not directly related to it. Somebody else under more typical circumstances might state that the women of the future were “strong”, “caring”, or “smart”, but the first thing that jumps to his mind is war. His life is so abnormal that things like socializing appear to have fallen by the wayside for him, for the most part.
All of this makes Kyle a great, if sad, character. Like Sarah, you really want to root for him, because they're (at least partially) relatable and so vulnerable. If a movie's protagonists come across as gormless airheads who can't keep their hands off of the idiot ball, or if they are too idealized and therefor inauthentic, the audience is likely to disengage and care less if they win or lose. Kyle (and Sarah) don't suffer from this problem. They're in near-constant peril, and you want to see them survive.
The Terminator (T-800):
Before he was the good guy programmed to defend John Connor, he was the bad guy who was only concerned with destroying his mother. Err, that is... they're not the same character. They're different. Kinda.
Anyway, this is one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's finest roles for a reason. He has practically become synonymous with the character, and if you were tasked with listing off famous Arnold quotes, no list would be complete without “I'll be back”. Typically, the former California governor has been placed in protagonist roles that call for an imposing presence. This time around, he does so while also instilling pure fear into the characters and audience at all times. He says so little, and he does virtually nothing that makes him identifiable as a human – he pulls off the whole “inhuman robot” thing really well.
Despite some of his more hammy and often ridiculous roles, I feel that this was an excellent casting choice. His status as a bodybuilder makes him (quite literally) larger-than-life, and when compared directly next to Kyle and Sarah, he just grossly outmatches them, along with every other unfortunate character that gets in his way. Arnold's accent can be a bit distracting for non-Austrians at times, so the fact that he says so little throughout the movie really works. It's rare that he ever does speak, and when he does, it's to directly further his mission. Every line (there are fewer than ten throughout the entire movie, if I understand correctly) is scary in its own way, and he fills pretty much every scene that he's in with dread. He's just a perfectly intimidating villain who really makes the movie.
Typically, all future villains in the franchise are compared to this original iteration of the terminator, along with one other villain that I'll get to at a later time. Even if you believe that this particular terminator is later outclassed, it's hard to deny that he's just a great antagonist.
The original Terminator movie is commonly overshadowed by its sequel, for reasons that I will elaborate on next time. However, this doesn't make it a bad movie by any means. Quite the contrary, I believe it has a lot of other things going for it.
Starting from the opening scene, I really love the contrast that it gives us with respect to Kyle and the Terminator. Whether intentional or not, it really helps to set up the rest of the movie. Both of them go through the same basic process: they emerge from an electrical anomaly of some kind, both take time to gather themselves, and both acquire clothes in order to blend in. Pretty simple. But, the way in which their entrances are presented are vastly different. Arnold is obviously unfazed by the whole time-traveling ordeal, and he wastes absolutely no time in carrying out his mission. He effortlessly walks through his first “challenge” - a group of random troublemakers - with an imposing presence and plenty of brute strength.
Kyle, on the other hand, emerges from time travel in visible pain and is slow to recuperate from the trip. As I mentioned earlier, he also has to acquire clothes through far less intimidating means (robbing a homeless man and stealing from a store), and he has to spend several minutes evading cops. From the very beginning, we establish that the Terminator is extremely tough, and that Kyle, while by no means “weak”, is not some Captain America-esque super soldier. He's got combat experience under his belt, but he's ultimately just another human. This contrast is further emphasized with their respective weapons – the Terminator has a small arsenal at his disposal, while Kyle has to survive with a basic police revolver and shotgun. This contrast is consistent through the rest of the film, and the way that it is set up was very well done, in my view.
Now, when people talk about this movie, it's generally described as “science fiction”, “action”, and so forth. I would argue that it fits into one more genre, or that it at least shares some surface elements with other movies in the genre – horror. Of course, horror movies come in many forms, with some of them being more psychological, and others (slashers) being far less subtle and heavy on the gore. For the record, I don't care for most horror films, but I feel that The Terminator works well as a horror or quasi-horror film. I should also note that I'm not the first person to push this argument.
Some of you are probably skeptical of this labeling, and I wouldn't blame you. But let's take a look at some of the more superficial elements of a slasher film, like Friday the 13th. You've got an unstoppable, remorseless, inhuman villain whose only goal is to murder the protagonists. It will march through anything and everything that stands in its way, with zero regard for collateral damage. Then you've got a group of young individuals with little to no special training. They are grossly outgunned, the rest of the world is of little to no help to them, and because they can't hope to go toe-to-toe with the villain, they can only hope to outrun it and/or slow it down. There's also a consistently dark, eerie atmosphere, and every scene is filled with a sense of fear - you never know when the bad guy is going to pop up next. It helps that you also have James Cameron stating that before the movie was ever brought to life, the terminator itself was basically inspired by a nightmare. He has effectively said that the dream like a slasher film, so this tone was at least semi-intentional on his part.
There's obviously more that goes into horror movies besides cliches and basic commonalities. But when The Terminator has all of these things going for it, I would still contend that, while it may not be a “true” horror movie, it certainly feels like one a lot of the time. Even when Arnold isn't on the screen and is many miles away, you dread the idea of him showing up. Up until the end, everything just seems so hopeless, and your heart sinks every time the machine shrugs off another shotgun blast or emerges almost unharmed from another desperate attack. These shades of the horror genre only work in the film's favor, as far as I'm concerned.
There's one last thing that I need to touch on. Our friend Biodegradable brought something to my attention regarding this movie. You see, there is a controversy regarding the plot of this movie. By Cameron's own admission, the film rips off several major plot elements of two episodes of The Outer Limits (Soldier and The Man With the Glass Hand), both of which were written by Harlan Ellison. Both The Terminator and the episodes in question feature several big commonalities, namely time traveling soldiers, evil robots, and evil robots reprogrammed for good. After hearing of this, Ellison sued and won in court, even though he otherwise liked the movie for what it was. It's a shame that an otherwise excellent movie has this kind of mark on its record.
As I've said already, The Terminator is somewhat forgotten because of its excellent sequel. Indeed, Terminator 2 remains one of my favorite movies of all time, for reasons that I'll get into next time. After my most recent watching of the original, I would definitely place this on my “honorable mentions” list. The effects have aged very poorly, it has the aforementioned plagiarism strike against it, and it lacks some of the heart of its sequel, so I would not call it perfect at all. However, the excellent atmosphere, great music, solid action sequences, and memorable characters all make it very worthy of a viewing for anyone who loves a good action movie, or is looking for a different kind of horror movie.