Those who’ve seen the sequels to this borderline-depraved urban-horror that typifies menace may be forgiven for thinking this first film is something it has no interest in being. The later films focused on action, action, and more action (the first sequel being one of the greatest slam-bang thrill rides ever made, and with a touching human-machine relationship to boot), and have since run out of steam. While this lean-and-mean low-budget 1984 film starring a mostly unknown who couldn’t speak any English has plenty of action, it’s tempered with an overpoweringly grim, blackened heart and a magisterial sense of mounting dread and desperation. Horror is as appropriate as action. Fortunately, it happens to be one of the grimiest, most caustic horror films to take over the public consciousness, and one of the best.
In 1984, none of the principles involved in making The Terminator were household names. Arnold Schwarzenegger had starred in Conan the Barbarian and had an impressive bodybuilding career behind him. James Cameron had a couple films behind his belt, but none worth mentioning. Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn were largely unknown. But when it came out in 1984, the film was an instant success, one which would catapault its villainous performer and director into monstrously successful careers (Hamilton and Biehn would find some success as well). Soon enough Schwarzenegger would be a name (and accent) known to all, one of the most gosh-darned perplexing head-scratcher cinematic success stories this side of, well, Jupiter. Cameron, for his part, was offered Aliens, replacing the nervy wide-silences of Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece with something decidedly more heated and propulsive, before going on to experiment with CGI in The Abyss and then directing the gargantuan success story sequel T2: Judgment Day in 1991.
It’s downright dumbfounding to look back on the careers of the film’s two central figures and find their humble beginnings in something so totally opposite most anything they would go on to do. Firstly we have a mostly tongue-in-cheek goofball masquerading as an action star in some of the most ludicrously nonsensical action films ever released. Secondly, we find the guy who read the concept of the big ol’ tentpole film past itself and gave the world the two highest grossing films of all time. When one thinks of tongue-in-cheek action-comedy or grandiose exercises in their own self-pomposity, The Terminator is just about the last thing one would imagine. This film is tense, terse, and bad to the bone – a sleek and efficient killing machine as single-minded and scarily chilling as its antagonist. It doesn’t have a funny bone, or an ego, to save its life. It is for this reason that it is so out-of-sync with the decade that produced it, and so much better than just about any genre film from its time period.
As the story goes, the future is a bitter, struggling war in a post-apocalypse between humans and “machines”, robots who gained sentient intelligence as a result of mankind’s quest for advancing technology. One man, John Conner, leads the human resistance, and is perhaps the only figure capable of overthrowing the machines. This prompts the metal menace to send one machine, a Terminator (guess who?), back in time to nip the problem in the womb by killing Connor’s mother, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) before he is born. The human’s meanwhile do their part and send a man, Kyle Reese (Biehn), back as well, ostensibly to protect her. There’s ample ground here for heady sci-fi social exploration, but this film doesnt have a didactic bone in its body. It’s too busy doing something wholly more effective – crushing anything in its path with a single-minded obsession so murderous it borders on the psychotic.
One wonders then whether watching this first film is a humbling experience for those now-famous involved. Anything high-minded about it is just icing on the cake of a masterful case study in tension building and white knuckle dread. Most of the film plays out as one long unending nerve fryer of a chase scene. There are affecting quiet moments, mostly related to Sarah and Kyle’s budding relationship, but they’re filtered through an atmosphere of dread so palpable it suffocates and strangles them. The film’s greatest strength is its relentlessness, its commitment to a singular vision of pure style. It doesnt let up and doesnt let us question it – we come to feel as Connor and Reese do because the film is so committed visually and aurally to making us feel it. They’re more human punching bags than honest-to-god characters – but there’s nothing wrong with characters as meat for raw filmmaking, as long as that filmmaking is up to the task.
And, wouldn’t you know, it sure is. Most notable is the film’s positively dour, lived-in mise-en-scene, an aesthetic that crawled right out of the gutter and onto the screen . This is not a clean film. Although the final scene is hopeful in a bittersweet way, mirrored by the sun rising on the end of an endlessly hellish night, most of the film exists in the muck and grime of a nighttime urban jungle. And even that final scene still lowers its head to an oppressive, washed-out sun that threatens something more malaise-yellow than a sense of renewed passion and vigor about life – the night, it turns out, lives on, festering and permeating throughout the day. The darkened cinematography, the sparse, stark keyboard-enhanced score, and the anguished, merciless cuts-on-motion sweat and suffer with us. Never for a moment do we feel the characters are safe, and never for a moment do we doubt that this gritty, apocalyptic 1984 could easily become the 2029 harrowingly depicted by the film.
At the same time, I shouldn’t extend the film-as-pure-style argument as I far as I am wont to – there is a real sense of palpable dread for Kyle and Sarah, not only because of the raw, relentless filmmaking and guerrilla sensibility of the camera movements, but because we do after all come to care about these two. As the two get to know each other, they develop a touching, human relationship, important when one considers the film’s deep core of “humanity” in relation to machinery. When Reese initially saves Sarah from the film’s titular character, she’s naturally terrified and distrustful of him as much as her pursuer. A relationship develops, but it’s more a shared hopelessness and stress than a true romance – she never truly comes to trust him, but her existential crisis gives her few options. This soul-deep hopelessness adds a layer to The Terminator lost on the (still great) first sequel. If that film rollicks and raises hell, this one haunts.
And in the middle of it all is the ubiquitousness of the titular figure, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger with a stark, chilling minimalism that’s striking. It’s easy to mock Arnie today, but it’s easier still to forget what a presence he brought to this film – he dominates every scene he’s in and haunts every one he isn’t. It doesn’t require anything other than that he be completely committed to the role of a soulless killing machine, but that’s not something every, or even most, actors could pull off, and Arnie does it with aplomb. It’s the perfect pairing of actor and role. Clad in leather and sunglasses, he’s more an image than a character, but he’s so effective as a nightmarish killing machine you wouldn’t dare say as much to the guy himself.
Ultimately, The Terminator is the kind of unsparing entertainment that viewers don’t so much watch as come to terms with. It’s less a reality than a state of mind: it approximates a film version of late ’70s or early ’80s gutter punk – an apocalyptically reckless, dark rock n’ roll vision of the world that doesn’t resemble reality but a sort of collective dream of youth who see the world as a scary underworld playground to inhabit, to destroy, and above all, perhaps, to be afraid of. The rock ‘n’ roll connection is far more than implicit – the Terminator wears a punk outfit throughout the film, literally adopting the persona of three angry punks he kills at the beginning of the film. Later on he attacks in succession a disco night club (its own kind of apocalypse) and a police station to lay down the line for both overly “safe” party-goers and the moral authority, hard rock/ punks two greatest enemies. The Terminator himself is a literally a metal warrior, a cyberpunk who belongs in a Judas Priest album, but here rendered with frightening unnerving surrealism – less power metal and more thrash. This may be coincidence, but this is, after all, a film built on the ever-present fear of the future and technical advancement, here aesthetically coupled to mainstream society’s other great fear at the time: moral decay at the hands of decadent, violent youth.
The Terminator plays as if these monotonous teenage machines took over the future and came back to reveal a 1980s they felt perfectly at home in, melding the two great fears of traditionalists, rambunctious children and technology, and turning it back on them. In doing so, the film essays like no other the hopelessness of trying to stop a future that it renders as visually of the present – the stark, dialogue-free cavernous emptiness of a city at night, a metal and concrete jungle slowly closing in on two helpless people as it threatens to overwhelm them with its very mundane emptiness, is so much like the film’s 2029 it’s a marvel of design. It captures a sense of its own futility – it asks its characters to prevent an apocalypse and then conveys visually that a sort of apocalypse has already happened, rendering their task hopeless and even meaningless. If some of the character dialogue is slightly dated or artificial, the film, like its titular character, aims for something more direct than character and logic – it works on a deeper level of image and sound that burrow into our souls and don’t leave. It’s a nightmare playground, an action movie so loaded up on and completely committed to its own taut, relentless effectiveness that it does many things, but most of all, it just works.