Because of that other Terminator film recently released, trying its best to soil the name of a once-mighty franchise.
James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day is not the film its predecessor, also directed by James Cameron, was. For largely the same reasons that James Cameron’s Aliens is not the film its predecessor, not directed by Cameron, was. 1984’s The Terminator is a more urgent film than 1979’s Alien, but they share a similar sensibility: relentless, unforgiving, nihilist, purposeless terror always lashing out at you, married to perfect filmmaking that traffics in both show-not-tell and not-showing-is-scarier-than-showing. Alien is an outright horror film masquerading as a sci-fi film, and although The Terminator is more comfortably an action film masquerading as a sci-fi film, it trades much closer to horror than you might expect. Continue reading
Update in late 2019 with the release of Dark Fate: The glum and more self-consciously morose later sequels track, recode, and needlessly convolute this film’s elegant, inescapable trudge toward oblivion, shading and sharding Cameron’s original vision in various ways, but they all completely miss the original’s brilliance: its sense of soul-death. Nominally an action film but far divorced from the self-amused tone of the Schwarzenegger pictures that were in the can as soon as this one made a fortune, The Terminator is as implacable and monosyllabic as its namesake: a blood-and-guts slasher film in a metallic overcoat, and one with significantly less Pavlovian satisfaction at the death it deals. Brutal simplicity at its finest, The Terminator essays a dystopic future that ultimately, tragically, realizes its far-flung visions of eventual catastrophe already came to pass in the present while it wasn’t looking. How far this franchise has fallen …
Those who’ve only seen the sequels to this truly distressing Reagan-era portrait of social aimlessness and blight, a film that typifies menace itself, 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), emphasizing escalating narrative stakes rather than deepening emotional texture, and have since run out of steam. While this lean-and-mean low-budget 1984 film starring a mostly unknown who couldn’t speak much English is plenty thrilling, it’s tempered with an overpoweringly grim sensibility, a magisterial sense of mounting dread and desperation that establishes a mood of forlorn malaise more than fist-pumping aplomb. 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 in that decade, and one of the best.