Movie-Flashback #01: The Terminator

The TerminatorThe Terminator
USA 1984
Written by James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd & William Wisher Jr.
Directed by James Cameron
Watched on 02.07.2015

Welcome to a new feature on my blog: Movie-Flashback, where I’ll discuss past films – good or bad, old or fairly new, well-remembered or rightfully forgotten. And since “Genisys” is just around the corner, I decided to go back and re-watch the whole Terminator-franchise, which is why “The Terminator” has the honor to kick it off. Or should I rather say, it is my honor to kick it off with “The Terminator”?

James Cameron’s second full-length feature film (and kinda his first real one, given that he didn’t have as much creative control when shooting “Piranha II”, and got rather sick during the shoot) is his first (but definitely not last) masterpiece, and probably the best B-movie ever. It mixes elements of different genres – science fiction (the future war, time travel, and so on), action, horror (the ruthless and unstoppable killer), romance – and molds it into something new, original and (then) unique. I was probably about 10 years old when I watched it for the first time (on television, in a cut version), and I remember being completely engrossed by it almost instantly. Our first glimpse of the future war, the Terminator travelling back in time and his encounter with the punks, Kyle Reese’s arrival, our introduction to Sarah Connor… within minutes, my eyes were glued to the television screen, and didn’t leave it again until the credits rolled. There’s such a wild energy to it, and an astonishing inventiveness. This is the best possible result when you’ve got a young, hungry filmmaker with something to prove, and everything just comes together perfectly – and you end up with a piece of magic. The script is absolutely great, finding a perfect balance between action, exposition, drama, and establishing the characters. I love how the exposition is broken down into easily digestible pieces, and is sometimes intermingled with the action. When you see the movie for the first time, you’re just as enamored with the plot and with finding out what the heck is going on, than you are with the (incredibly shot, and very down to earth and realistic) action.

Basically, “The Terminator” employs the well-known trope of an everyday man or woman becoming a reluctant hero because of exterior circumstances. However, especially back then (and hell, to be honest, even know), most of the time those heroes were men. James Cameron already broke the mold by making Sarah Connor the hero of the piece, and while she may start off as your regular damsel in distress, she gradually develops into the heroine of the piece – and the person that will later teach John Connor everything that he needs to know to fight, and beat, the machines. She’s a great character, played perfectly by Linda Hamilton, who at the beginning encapsulates the epitome of the everyday girl, who is thrown into these extraordinary circumstances, and is forced to evolve and grow in order to survive. Kyle Reese also isn’t your typical clear-cut hero, but rather a troubled war veteran hardened and broken by the future that he fled in order to protect it, and who is now meeting the girl of his dreams. Despite the fact that their characters only share a couple of hours, Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton totally sell their feelings for each other – helped by the great script as well as Brad Fiedel’s score which, while usually rather frantic, provides us with a stunning, romantic piano-interpretation of his memorable main theme during their love scene. While we’re at it: His entire score is great. It’s probably not necessarily what you’d call easy listening, and it’s a score that definitely works better with the images accompanying it than on its own, but with its very mechanical and dissonant sounds he perfectly captures the essence of the movie. His music is chaotic and frantic and unique and dynamic and absolutely right for the movie.

Kudos also has to go out to the two men that created the Terminator, one of the most memorable creations of cinema. Arnold Schwarzenegger might not have been Cameron’s first choice, but without him, the Terminator wouldn’t be the cinematic icon that he is today. With his incredible physique and his very controlled, minimalistic, efficient and well thought-out movements, he proves to be the perfect choice for the role. The other person is Stan Winston, who was responsible for what can be seen underneath Arnold Schwarzenegger’s impressive body. Granted, the stop-motion-animation may look a little dated now – it’s the only thing about the movie that IMHO doesn’t quite hold up. Other than that, though, his work for the movie was absolutely incredible, especially the (iconic) head and torso that he designed and built. And the “operation”-scene definitely stuck with me back then; that was just something that we (or at least I) had never seen before. Absolutely stunning. Also, who could ever forget the shot of the terminator rising from the flames? Which brings us back to the man who envisioned it all: With just his second feature film, James Cameron already proved himself to be an incredible talent, and more than 30 years later I still rank him among the best filmmakers of all time. He’s the only director that I can think of with a clean slate (well, at least “Terminator”-upwards), with not a single misfire on his résumé. His skill to build up tension, the immediate way he shoots the action, and how he, despite all the spectacle, still doesn’t forget to tell a gripping story and to make us care for the characters… god, there are so many things that modern filmmakers could learn from him. Finally, I just love love love love love the way it all wraps up in the end, when we learn that Kyle is actually John Connors father (which obviously opens up a fascinating chicken-and-egg-paradox), and where we see how the picture was taken, and then get the ominous reference to an upcoming storm. It’s a perfect ending for a near-perfect movie, which rightfully ranks among the all-time classics of not just the science fiction-genre, but cinema in general.


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