“THE TERMINATOR” (1984) Review
Back in 1984, director James Cameron and his fellow co-writers, Gale Anne Hurd and William Wisher Jr., created a science-fiction thriller about a time traveling cyborg assassin in a movie called “THE TERMINATOR”. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Lance Henriksen and Paul Winfield; the movie not only spawned four movie sequels within the next thirty-one years, but also a television series and video games.
The story began in post-apocalypse world of 2029 where artificially intelligent machines controlled by a computer system called Skynet are bent upon the extermination of the human race. Two beings from this era are sent back to 1984 – a “Terminator” or a cyborg assassin (Schwarzenegger) programmed to kill a young woman named Sarah Connor (Hamilton); and a human resistance fighter named Kyle Reese (Biehn) charged with protecting her. Sarah happened to be the future mother of the human resistance leader named John Connor. After the Terminator killed two women with the same name as hers, Sarah came to the conclusion that she might be next on the list of some serial killer. Both the Terminator and Kyle manage to track her to a West Los Angeles nightclub, where Kyle manages to save her from being killed by the cyborg. He eventually told Sarah the truth about her destiny and the reason behind the Terminator’s hunt for her.
What can I say about “THE TERMINATOR”? That it is a first-rate science-fiction thriller that has every right to be considered a Hollywood classic? Well . . . yes. It is. For a movie that has a running time of 103 minutes, it is filled with action, pathos, romance, horror and history. Director James Cameron has stated that “THE TERMINATOR” was inspired by two episodes from the 1960s television science fiction series, “THE OUTER LIMITS” – “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand” – both written by science fiction author Harlan Ellison. Cameron, Hurd and Wisher did such a great job with their story that Ellison threatened to sue them for plagiarism. The movie’s production company and distributor, Hemdale Film Corporation and Orion Pictures, gave him an “acknowledgement to the works of” credit on video and cable releases of “THE TERMINATOR”, as well as a cash settlement of an undisclosed amount.
The movie also boasts some pretty good dark humor – especially in scenes featuring the two Los Angeles detectives (Winfield and Henriksen) determined to save Sarah’s life; and the criminal psychiatrist (Earl Boen), who manages to avoid the carnage at the police station where Sarah and Kyle were taken after their arrest. I also enjoyed some of the action sequences that were well staged by Cameron – Sarah and Kyle’s attempts to escape from both the police and the Terminator on the streets of Los Angeles, the cyborg’s attack upon the police station, its murder of Sarah’s roommate Ginger and the latter’s boyfriend; and the Terminator’s last confrontation with Sarah and Kyle. But my favorite scene featured the Terminator’s attempt to kill Sarah at Technoir, the West Los Angeles nightclub. Not only did it bring back memories of the 1980s for me, I thought it was well staged and acted, despite very little dialogue. The entire sequence was enhanced by the Tahnee Cain & Tryanglz song, “Burning in the Third Degree”.
As much as I enjoyed “THE TERMINATOR”, I had some problems with it. One problem I had were the Los Angeles location sites in the movie. I realize that Cameron did not have a large budget for the film. But did he have to shoot nearly every scene in the eastern half of downtown Los Angeles? Aside from a residential street, the exterior of Sarah’s West Los Angeles apartment, the location where the Terminator meets the three thugs (that include Cameron favorite, Bill Paxton) and the street outside of the Technoir nightclub, just about all of the exterior scenes were shot in the scummy part of downtown L.A. He even used that particular area to serve as West Los Angeles. And how on earth could Sarah Connor, who was a waitress, afford to live in a slightly upscale West L.A. apartment building? The only excuse I have is that her roommate Ginger Ventura (Bess Motta) had wealthy parents. And where did Sarah and Kyle go after their escape from the carnage at the police station? It looked as if they were leaving Los Angeles. Yet, when the Terminator managed to track them down to a motel, it looked as if they had returned to downtown Los Angeles. One last problem I had was – and I cannot believe I am saying this – the character of Kyle Reese. He seemed to have lost any common sense whatsoever, while being held by the police. Instead of keeping his mouth shut or spinning a lie about how he came to Sarah’s rescue from a killer at the Technoir, he tried to warn the cops about the Terminator and the future apocalypse . . . as if they could do anything about it. I can only assume that the last 24 hours and time travel had affected his brain patterns. Because I found his attempt to warn the cops rather stupid.
Arnold Schwarzenegger led the cast as the cybernetic killer, the Terminator. What did I think of his performance? Hmmm . . . by only saying a few words, he managed to convey the image of a ruthless and efficient killer. Otherwise, I found nothing spectacular about his performance. Michael Biehn was intense as the time traveling Resistance fighter, Kyle Reese. There were moments when he threatened to sail into the waters of hammy acting – his scenes at the police station are prime examples – but I thought he gave a first-rate performance. I was really impressed by Linda Hamilton’s portrayal of Sarah Connor, the mother of future Resistance leader, John Connor. She managed to skillfully develop the role of Sarah from a slightly mild-mannered and girlish young Californian to a tough and wiser woman determined to survive the future for the sake of her unborn son. Earl Boen – who will end up appearing the next two movies – gave a snide and funny performance as police psychologist, Dr. Peter Silberman, who abandoned all semblance of delicacy to express his belief of Kyle’s lunacy. Both Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen made a funny and sarcastic screen team as Ed Traxler and Hal Vukovich, the two L.A.P.D. detectives who traded insulting barbs, while trying their best to prevent Sarah from being killed. And if you are careful, you might spot future star, Bill Paxton, who ended up appearing in a few other James Cameron productions.
“THE TERMINATOR” is considered one of the best science-fiction movies of all time and among the two best films in the franchise. Do I believe that it deserved this kind of accolade? Well, it is one of my two favorite TERMINATOR films. As for it being one of the best science-fiction movies ever made . . . no. Not quite in my book. I do believe that it is one of the best movies that feature the topic of time travel. In the end, “THE TERMINATOR” is an entertaining and original film that I never get tired of watching. Kudos to James Cameron for kick-starting a well-made franchise.