A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 478 – The Terminator

The Terminator – June 21st, 2011

When I was in grade school one of my classmates was an avid fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He even named his dog (a female sharpei) Arnold. I just couldn’t see the appeal. To be honest, I still can’t. But even so, I will admit that his presence in this movie is perfect for the role. I’ve read stuff about other actors being considered for the part and no. I just can’t see it. This role is Arnold’s. From the first moment you see him through the last bit of time he has on screen, he is iconic as the Terminator. And while that might not be the mark of a great actor, it is the mark of a perfectly cast role.

It took me a while to see this movie for just that reason. It seemed to be so very full of Arnold and I wasn’t big on Arnold and so why would I watch this movie? Well, because it’s one of the best time travel sci-fi action movies ever made. That’s why. I don’t expect everyone to love this movie and I can certainly see flaws in it, but there’s a reason it’s a so-called “modern classic” and it’s not just the title character. It’s the whole package. Personally, I really like the plot and how it all comes together.

It’s a time travel plot, which was apparently done out of necessity because there was no way the movie was going to get the budget it would have needed to be entirely in the future. But that time travel plot works. Got some holes? Sure! What time travel plot doesn’t? But it’s kept fairly simple for the most part. Way off in the future (which will obviously be the past eventually – that’s the trouble with anything set in the future) the world is a nightmare where mechanized tanks hunt people down and what’s left of humanity is fighting to survive against implacable foes. You know, your standard issue dystopia. As we learn later, the machines that have taken over the world are in danger thanks to a resistance force of humans led by a man named John Connor. To rid themselves of this man they send a super machine – a Terminator – back in time to kill Connor’s mother, Sarah, before he’s born. Why yes, that would create a paradox! But like I said, this is a time travel plot. That’s just how these things go. Let’s run with it. Resistance fighter Kyle Reece follows the Terminator back in time to find Sarah and protect her and so the stage is set.

Okay, I might have lied a little when I said that the Terminator itself isn’t why this movie is iconic. He is really important and I think with anyone else playing the role it just wouldn’t have been the same. Because the movie hinges on the threat from the Terminator. He has to be the serial killer in the slasher flick. He has to be the ultimate unsympathetic villain. You have to believe that this creature is willing and able and determined to kill not only Sarah but anyone between himself and her and you have to believe that there is no stopping him whatsoever. And Schwarzenegger delivers here. After the movie was over Andy mentioned to me that he thought the Terminator is a “single spine” character. That is, a character who can only really be performed with a single motivation. Most characters, if you really dig into them, will have a couple of possible motivations and the trick to playing them well is for the actor to choose the one that works for them. The Terminator, on the other hand, has one goal and one motivation: Kill Sarah Connor. But then, I don’t think he’s really a character. He has no personality and no background and no name. It’s not even a matter of not knowing who he is. It’s a matter of there not being anything to know. He’s a plot device, not a character.

All that being said, I think that’s perfect. He’s a cyborg from the future, bent on killing our heroine and as many extras as possible. It makes him horrifying and impossible to know and that in turn makes the humans in the story that much more sympathetic. When we meet Sarah she’s decently likable and all, but she’s not necessarily a deep character we want to root for. Until we see her sudden realization that with the deaths of two other Sarah Connors in the area, her life is in danger. Until we see Kyle Reece grab her and tell her “Come with me if you want to live.” Because suddenly we know that Sarah Connor is important. She might be a scattered waitress who gets stood up for dates right now, but she’s going to be crucial somehow. And she has no idea why.

While I’m never thrilled at female characters being built only on the fact that they have wombs, I don’t mind it here. Because not only do you know that Sarah Connor had a child who led a revolution, but you know that he lived to fight that revolution because his mother taught him how to survive. And I love seeing Sarah realize it all. That if she wants to live and if she wants her son to live and if she wants humanity to survive, she needs to learn all these skills and she needs to learn them fast. She is hands down one of my favorite characters in an action movie, ever, and not because she’s bad-ass (that would be tomorrow’s movie), but because she’s not. Not yet. But she has the potential. And that right there suggests that we all have that potential. That if we were told tomorrow that the future depended on us we could rise to the occasion. And that’s a good thought to have.

As an action movie it does its job nicely, with plenty of car chases and gun fights and speed holes and explosions. The Terminator even shoots up a police station, so that’s obviously going to make for some decent action. The climactic fight scene with the Terminator’s mechanical skeleton still coming after Sarah is as iconic as Schwarzenegger in a black leather jacket and those sunglasses and with good reason.

It’s easy to make fun of the movie’s fashion and dated technology (VHS tapes, cassette walkman with a shoulder strap, not to mention Linda Hamilton’s feathered hair) but really, the effects stand up to time. The future scenes are still pretty solid and the Terminator’s repair scenes are still as good as anything I’ve seen. The script isn’t brilliant but it’s got some great memorable lines and when the movie’s action scenes and character interaction work as well as they do, the script doesn’t have to be full of nuance and insight. Nuance and insight would be kind of silly here. So the movie delivers exactly what it should, Arnold and all.

June 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Terminator

June 21, 2011

The Terminator

This is one of my favorite sci-fi action films of all time. I was way too young to see it when it came out in 1985 – I was a sensitive thirteen year old and the blood and gore of this movie would have been too much for me. When I finally did see this on VHA, probably about three years later, it was mind blowing for me. Oh, I was still pretty freaked out by some of the gore (such as when the Terminator cuts into its own arm and removes its eye) as this was probably only the third or fourth R-Rated movie I ever saw, but I simply couldn’t look away – the movie is so incredibly awesome.

This movie has everything a sixteen-year-old boy could want in an action movie. Explosions, gunfights, car chases, time travel, an apocalyptic future, and a sex scene. How could it not leave an indelible impression on me?

The plot of the movie is fairly straight forward. Two warriors have come back from a post-apocalyptic future where machines have been trying to wipe out humankind. One is a T-100 series Terminator – a machine built by Skynet to infiltrate human colonies and wipe them out. It has a flesh and blood exterior, but inside it’s an unstoppable killer with only one purpose: to kill Sarah Connor. Her unborn son John, you see, is the leader of the human resistance which is on the verge of wiping Skynet out once and for all after decades of war. The other time traveler is Kyle Reese, a fighter hand-picked by John Connor to protect his mother and preserve the future. That’s pretty much the whole movie right there (except for some cool time-travel stuff that is revealed at the very end.) A simple man trying to defend an unsuspecting waitress from the most single-minded killer of all time.

I think that part of what makes the movie work so well is that it’s so brilliantly simple. We get a little plot exposition here and there – a few glimpses into Reese’s past (which is in the future) – and there actually is some romance and connection between Kyle and Sarah – but it’s mostly just pure action. This is the movie that proved that James Cameron knew action blockbusters better than just about any other director in Hollywood. It’s amazing to think that this was his first big break-out hit. (Though we still have the first feature film he directed waiting in the stacks here to be reviewed.)

Cameron knows how to build to a crescendo. He knows how to do an action set-piece (like the iconic police station shootout.) He knows how to inject just the right amount of humor (the gun merchant for example) or pathos (Reese’s recollections of the future.) And of course the stubborn refusal of the Terminator to stay dead at the end of the movie is the very blueprint from which many future movies would be drawn, including Cameron’s own Aliens.

Amanda commented on how well the special effects in this movie have aged, and she’s right. This movie uses every trick in the effects grab bag of the pre-digital era including miniatures, animatronic puppets, fantastic make-up (Stan Winston of course) and stop-motion animation. Sure most of the time you can spot the tricks, but they still look good enough to be believable. Part of the charm of the movie for me is figuring out how it was done anyhow.

The script is extremely polished, with the time-travel aspects better handled than just about any other movie with the possible exception of 12 Monkeys. It’s just so perfectly put together, from the photograph of Sarah that Reese has in the future to the very concept of the terminators themselves, and the explanation for why no futuristic technology could come through. I love absolutely every performance in the movie too. Michael Biehn would of course work multiple times with Cameron again in the future. Arnold Schwarzenegger was already well known at this point of course for his iconic performances in Hercules in New York and Conan the Barbarian, but this was the movie that established him as an action super-star complete with catch phrase. And Linda Hamilton gave the movie a much needed human touch as the girl being hunted who has to figure out in a very short amount of time how to defend herself.

From Brad Fiedel’s percussive score to Arnold’s accented monotone to the above average special effects to the tightly written plot everything about this movie raises it above the average eighties action movie fare. No other action movie before or since in my experience has done everything so perfectly right. Though James Cameron sure has tried a few times. We’ll look at one of those attempts to replicate the success of this movie tomorrow.

June 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment