Summer blockbuster season rolls on and it’s time for another revisit to a franchise with four films dating back to 1984. With a new movie set for next week, it’s time for Arnold Schwarzenegger to make good on his promise because the terminator is indeed back. But, before we see if Terminator Genisys can salvage one of the most convoluted film franchise timelines in cinematic history, let’s begin our revisit by taking a look at the original from 1984, The Terminator.
In 1984, the world was only seven years removed from a little sci-fi flick called Star Wars. The VHS home video market was still in its infancy. However, both were making a huge impact on the type of films the studios were willing to greenlight and give it a go. Director James Cameron had worked on such films as Galaxy of Terror (1981) and Escape from New York (1981) but only had two directorial credits with the short film called Xenogenesis (1978) and Piranha II: The Spawning (1981). The Terminator would be his first major film and the one that made him a name in Hollywood. However, it initially wasn’t given a chance for success. After two weeks topping the box office, the so-called experts were quickly proven wrong.
Getting the film made was like putting together a puzzle. James Cameron has listed Mad Max 2 (1981) as one of his inspirations in writing the core story, as well as various classic 1950s sci-fi films. However, technology would be a big limiting factor to what he could do in the first film. After selling the story rights to producer Gale Ann Hurd for $1 in exchange for a promise that he could direct the film, the next step was finding a study willing to give it a chance. After Orion Pictures agreed to distribute the film if he could find financing, James Cameron utilized his friend Lance Henriksen (Aliens, Near Dark) to dress up as a terminator to secure the deal with Hemdale Pictures. The puzzle was taking shape, so now it was time for the actors to bring the story to life.
The casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger (Conan the Barbarian, Predator) was key to the ultimate success of the film. Although he was originally considered for the role of Kyle Reese, it was his presence during a meeting with Cameron that earned him the role. Michael Biehn (Aliens, Tombstone) would get the role of Kyle Reese, who felt much the same way that Schwarzenegger did regarding their skeptic approach to what sounded like a forgettable flick from an unknown director. However, both would change their mind once they got to know Cameron and the cameras started to roll. With actress Linda Hamilton (Children of the Corn) rounding out the core cast as young Sarah Connor, The Terminator was ready for cinematic life.
The story is simple enough and is known by just about any sci-fi fan. In the year 2029, cybernetic creations are engaged in an ongoing battle with the remnants of mankind for supremacy of Earth following a nuclear holocaust. The war is brought on after an artificial intelligence called Skynet gained awareness. A Terminator T-800 Model 101 is sent by the machines to the past of 1984 to kill Sarah Connor and alter history. Sarah Connor will be the mother of a key resistance leader named John Connor. Now, in a last ditch effort to save mankind, the resistance sends Kyle Reese to stop the terminator and save Sarah Connor. A battle across Los Angeles and a race against time creates a trail of bloodshed and chaos.
What always comes to mind every time I revisit this movie is how raw and dirty it really is. It’s a very barebones adventure lacking the gloss and big budget feel that all of the subsequent sequels would offer. Yet, it remains so simple and satisfying. Stan Winston would create some great special effects at the time. While I think the cyborg sequences hold up well, the infamous close-up shot of an obviously fake Schwarzenegger head has always looked rather bad. It doesn’t ruin the film but pulls you out of the moment. Cool practical effects but greatly limited as far as looking anything close to real. However, the story and presentation are still just as gritty and just as engaging.
Arnold gives us a really good performance as a non-emotional cyborg, a rare case where his lack of acting skills plays in his favor. Its fun seeing Arnold before he would become the overblown star of countless action flicks. It’s equally entertaining to see familiar faces round out the cast. There’s Lance Henriksen as a police sergeant and Paul Winfield (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn) as a police lieutenant. You’ll see a young Bill Paxton (Aliens, Twister) as a punk and Dick Miller (A Bucket of Blood, Gremlins) as a gun store clerk. Not to mention how well Biehn and Hamilton work together, it all comes together very well.
From the opening sounds of a great synthesized musical score to the final shot of Sarah in the desert commenting on the upcoming storm, The Terminator still entertains after more than 30 years. It made an immediate impact at the movie theaters and subsequent home video market. But it also generated a huge fan following that ensured we weren’t quite done with this universe just yet. If by some odd chance you’ve never seen The Terminator, or if you haven’t revisited it in a while, take the time to escape the heat of the summer and cool off with a classic.
Next time, journey with me back to the summer of 1991 for Terminator 2: Judgment Day!