Time travel must be a pretty neat concept to play around with in science fiction stories. You can do almost anything with it, and you don’t have to burden yourself with continuity issues. If something doesn’t add up, you can always say “Well, they’re existing in different dimensions. Things don’t have to add up”. Or do they? Does going back in time and unscrewing a light bulb affect the brightness of the future some hundred years away? Probably not. But going back in time and killing the future leader of a human resistance could very well create a shift in the space/time continuum.
This is the premise that James Cameron’s The Terminator presents to us, and it’s a complex warning of the smartness of machines. One machine and one man have traveled back in time, from an apocalyptic future to a very dingy ’80s present. The machine — the Terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a role that seems to fit his physique and acting ability like a smooth leather glove — wants to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) because she will eventually bear a son, John, who is to lead the humans in a war against all the machines. The man, Kyle (Michael Biehn), travels back to protect Sarah. He also turns out to be John’s father. So that’s tied up very nicely.
What follows is essentially a cat and mouse chase that spans the entire movie. The Terminator wants Sarah, and Sarah and Kyle are running away from him. There are car chases and gruesome murders. There’s a fantastic police station shootout that sees the Terminator gunning down everyone as if they all have water pistols instead of real bullets. There are more chases, and there’s a climax that has The Terminator stripped of all human appearance. What makes the hunt exciting is how relentless the machine is. He is programmed to kill one person, and one person only. That means he will not stop until his mission is accomplished. And when I say he will not stop, I mean he will scratch and claw his way to his target even if both his legs have been sawn off. He is so single-minded, so focused, and so bloody indestructible that the chase becomes an event, not just a hide-and-seek game. When the Terminator shows up, you know someone is going to die, or get thrown through a window, or get yanked out of a moving vehicle, or all three at once.
I can break down the movie into what works well, and what doesn’t, because the lines are clearly defined. Some movies don’t have this line; the good and bad parts are melded together, but The Terminator seems to be torn between the futuristic sheen of the machine world, and the very dated capsule of the 1980s. It has outstanding special effects, and a very smart script, but it’s hampered by dreadful ’80s synthesized music. And the same outstanding special effects are less than mesmerizing in some scenes, specifically the climax. I am not one to complain about outdated details, but I have to admit that Brad Fiedel’s score is distracting. It’s distracting to the point of being comical, especially when it bubbles over the top of an intense chase sequence and I’m trying my hardest to invest emotionally.
But the idea of the story is what carries the movie through. And the character of the Terminator is what provides it with an image, and oomph. Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to be born for a role like this. He is a big man, with charisma that’s tiny in comparison. Most of his roles require him to fight and perform macho stunts, but they also require him to tell jokes, smile and laugh, and crack corny one liners. He is not very apt at mixing the two, even though he’ll have you believe that he is. And that’s why the Terminator is just right for him. He gets to show off his muscle mass without having to make us laugh at the same time. When he tells a nosey neighbour: “Fuck off, asshole”, it’s more intimidating than funny. Some people may find it funny because it’s rather out of character, but his face is so straight, and his brow so stern that the comedy is strangled away.
Terminator and Kyle are from the future. They’ve come back to rewrite history, and they do it with their own brand of violence. Kyle also has love and sex on his agenda, and his bonding with Sarah is where the movie strives for an emotional core. But at the end of the day, The Terminator is remembered for the man Schwarzenegger plays. He creates a simple being out of complicated parts, and he steals the show with his invincibility and undying determination. If you want an honest opinion, though, he looks weird without eyebrows.
Best Moment | The scene involving an eye removal in a dingy hotel room is splendidly executed. And I’m also inclined to add the famous “I’ll be back” scene.
Worst Moment | Can’t think of one.