- Year: 1984
- Director: James Cameron
- Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn
Of all the time travel films in this Movie Match-Up, The Terminator is the one least associated with the genre. The conflict of the film has absolutely nothing to do with defunct time machines, but it is still about changing the future. It is tough to think of The Terminator as just a single film, as it has now spawned four sequels, a TV series, video games, and a governor, but let’s try to strip all of that away. Let’s go back to a time before James Cameron was the guy who made Dances with Wolves in Space and everyone knew how to spell Genesis.
You know, I’m perfectly fine with this opening script, except for the last word. It brings to mind the opening of the old Batman show.
We see a glimpse of 2029 here, and we see a bit more later through Kyle Reese’s flashbacks, but almost all of our movie is set in 1984. All of the time travel movies so far have started with our hero traveling back or forward in time, so starting in the past instead is a nice change. The time travel technology has already been developed, and it really exists just to get the plot going. The only issue with it is both the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) are sent back naked, for some blah-de-blah sciency reason which really exists to show Arnold’s Mr. Universe body. Immediately, we see the threat of the T-800 as he kills people for their clothes and a gun shop owner for weapons.
The T-800 is essentially a horror movie villain, a nearly-unstoppable force whose only intent is to kill Sarah Connor. It’s a machine covered in human tissue, blending into human society flawlessly (you know, except the chiseled physique and thick Austrian accent.). Perhaps the scariest thing about the T-800 is its ability to imitate human voices, whether it be a police officer or someone’s own mother. While it says very little, and perhaps because it says very little, the T-800 has become one of the most iconic film villains. It only says what it needs to do the job, and that makes it more terrifying.
The villain isn’t the only reason The Terminator works so well, though. All of the characters are well-drawn and feel like real people. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is the embodiment of the every-woman—a young waitress whose normal life is affected by forces beyond her control. She actually accepts things fairly quickly and proves she has survival skills she wasn’t aware of. Kyle Reese is a great action hero, and Michael Biehn plays all the war-torn weariness and hope of a better future perfectly. Even the cops are portrayed as intelligent and incredibly well-meaning, unlike the bumbling and unintentionally harmful police many action films have to offer. Of course, they are still defeated as they are up against an unstoppable machine they have no experience with. Lt. Ed Traxler (Paul Winfield) in particular is a stand-out character, going out of his way to protect Sarah and make sure she is comfortable. After taking Reese in for kidnapping Sarah, Traxler is the only one to consider that perhaps his story is true. Seeing him get blown away by the T-800 while trying to protect Sarah is one of the film’s most emotional moments.
Unlike so many action movies, the story in The Terminator isn’t just an excuse to set up action set pieces and car chases. James Cameron’s story clearly came first, as there is very clearly a whole universe created here, in both 2029 and 1984. Any story that starts with two Sarah Connors being killed and the third on the run is going to be compelling. The mystery fan in me wishes the film had started with the investigation and revealed the T-800 and Kyle Reese later, but regardless, we’re sucked right in.
The one thing in The Terminator that doesn’t really work is the love story. Kyle and Sarah are partners in a life-or-death situation, so I completely understand them falling in love quicker than usual. It’s the backstory that makes it weird, and I’m not talking about how the sequels changed it or expanded on, just what is shown here. Kyle has been sent back to save Sarah, because her future son John is the one that will save humanity from their robot overlords (J.C. initials, subtle huh?). However, as the film goes on, we learn that Kyle volunteered for the mission because John showed him of a picture of Sarah and he fell in love with it. I don’t know… haven’t we seen this one before?
I can even live with the picture thing, but he’s falling in love with his friend’s mom! Couldn’t we have gotten a scene in 2029 of John Connor being incredibly uncomfortable with this? Who knows? Maybe Reese is lying, and Connor sent him back to get his creepy friend out of the way. Of course, Sarah gets pregnant, making Kyle his own friend’s dad. Like I said, I’m not going to break down the science of time travel in these movies, because it’s not real, but if this “love story” doesn’t make you uncomfortable, I’m worried. Plus, at the very end of the film after Kyle and the T-800 have met their end, Sarah records a message for John saying that she and Kyle “loved a lifetime’s worth” in the short time they had together.
There are very clear themes in The Terminator about man and machines, and these are one of the reasons the film is the classic it is today. We get little glimpses here and there of how technology is already taking over in 1984. Sarah and her roommate’s answering machine plays a joke message about talking to a machine, which is alright because “Machines need love too.” The club where Sarah hides out is called the TechNoir, literally the “black technology.” Of course, the most evil machine, the T-800 itself, has been built to look like a man. Look at this shot, where it is resembles our common image of Frankenstein’s monster.
At the end, when it rises up from the ashes like some kind of twisted metal phoenix only to reveal its robot interior, the true horror of technology overtaking us is brought to light. Even when man, the outer shell of the T-800, is stripped away, the creation of a machine still remains. There are many horror movies where the villain rises again at the very end for another scare and chase, but it’s actually justified here. Even if you know it’s coming, it’s a genuinely great cinematic moment. I just wish the stop-motion in the chase wasn’t so dated.
What is it that finally kills the T-800? A hydraulic press—a machine. However, it’s operated by Sarah Connor, showing ultimately that technology in the right hands can be used for good as well. Of course, the ending cannot be completely happy, as Sarah’s life has been changed forever. We see her driving through Mexico, preparing herself and her future son for the war that is coming.
Obviously, The Terminator has stood the test of time marvelously. The story, performances, and most importantly the themes all hold up today. Are there a few too many car chases? Sure. Is the score perhaps too 80’s? I would say so, but a lot of people really like it. James Cameron gritty direction makes it a breathtaking thrill ride of a film, while still allowing for character development and the necessary exposition. Let’s take a look at the final score.
Story (26/30 Points)
Yeah, it’s the classic “Save Humanity’s Savior” story, but it’s done really well. The romance really could have done better, but it doesn’t hurt the film too much. It’s a story set on a huge scale, but since it focuses solely on our two heroes, we care.
Cast (25/30 Points)
Arnold has never been more perfectly cast than as a huge, threatening killing machine. Michael Biehn portrays every aspect of Kyle Reese’s character believably, and Linda Hamilton portrays Sarah Connor as a strong every-woman. Paul Winfield as Lt. Traxler rounds out the cast nicely, making the most of every second he’s on screen. Sure, the characters are archetypes, but they’re good ones.
Experience (18/25 Points)
The few shots we get of the future seem real, and the action scenes really hold up. The stop motion scene at the end really takes you out of it, though, and I don’t care for the electronic score.
Originality (12/15 Points)
It brings a lot to the table, mixing horror, science fiction, and action all into a story of what man has created. It’s a modern day Frankenstein, if Frankenstein’s monster had a gun.
FINAL SCORE: 81%
Time travel may play just a minor part, but the whole story is about saving and protecting the future. It holds up as a seminal work of the sci-fi action genre. Next week, we’ll be taking a look at very possibly the most famous time travel work of all time, 1985’s Back to the Future.