Time once again for Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly look at one of the many movies that I figured was just so darn good I had to buy a copy for myself. Today, we do the classic 1980s sci-fi, that launched James Cameron's directing career, and saved Arnold Schwarzenegger from a lifetime of Conan...The Terminator. This entry is dated in my notes at September 22, 2012.
Wanted to do this one for a long time, ever since I picked up the Blu-Ray out of a discount bin about a year and a half ago. The film that made James Cameron a superstar director, The Terminator. I remember a few years ago, I caught a bit of The Terminator on late night TV, and I laughed when the announcer said, "From the director of Avatar." I chucked because it was true. Here it was, this little $7 million movie from 1984, and the director went on to break the world record for most-expensive movie 3 times over.
As the legend goes, James Cameron was making his first movie, Piranha II: The Spawning, and it was a real stressful time for him. In some interviews, he says he suffered a nervous breakdown. And in that breakdown, he had a nightmare...a metallic skeleton emerging from flames. And from that, he sat down and wrote The Terminator.
He started shopping it around Hollywood, and finally found an interested producer in Gale Anne Hurd. Cameron said that he'd sell the script to Hurd fro $1 on one condition: he'd get to direct it. Liking the script, and Cameron's attitude, she said yes.
And now for a star. To play the heroic soldier from the future, Cameron's first choice was Arnold Schwarznegger, best known at that time for being Conan the Barbarian. Schwarznegger leapt at the chance to be in the film, because he starting to get very fearful of being typecast as a barbarian. However, as he read the script, Schwarznegger really wanted to play against type, and soon asked Cameron if he could be the villainous Terminator instead.
I think we all know the plot. Most who read this have probably seen it. In the grim and gritty 1984, two mysterious figures emerge from balls of lightening, and immediately procure clothes and weapons. They both begin the search for Sarah Conner. We catch up with Sarah Conner, a young waitress, working for minimum wage. One of our mysterious figures starts going through the phone book, killing others with the name "Sarah Conner." As our Sarah Conner is last on the list, she soon starts to fear for her life and calls the police.
While hiding in a bar, waiting for the cops, our two mysterious figures show up. The one who hasn't killed anyone identifies himself as Kyle Reese, a soldier from the future sent to protect Sarah. The other one is a Terminator...a killer robot built by SkyNet and sent back in time with the explicit purpose of killing Sarah Conner. Sarah is destined to give birth John Conner, the leader of the resistance against the machines in the future. SkyNet's plan is to kill Sarah before John is born, thus erasing John from existence, and ensuring SkyNet's victory in the future.
And the movie becomes one long chase as Kyle and Sarah run from the Terminator. They are captured by the police at one point, and the detectives in charge are played by legendary character actors Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen. These two are great. They are textbook world-weary cops. It looks like they'll be able to protect Kyle and Sarah, but the Terminator shows up at the police station, and when he's denied entry, he says what would become Arnold's catchphrase for the first time ("I'll be back"), and rams a truck through the front of the police station, kills everyone inside, and Kyle and Sarah are running again.
Kyle and Sarah hole up in a motel, and Kyle reveals that he volunteered to come back in time and protect Sarah because he fell in love her through old pictures and descriptions of her in historical texts. So, they have a night of passion.
Only to be interrupted by the Terminator. We have one last grand chase where the Terminator's flesh is burned from its body, revealing its metal endoskeleton. Kyle gives his life fighting the Terminator. The battle leads into a factory, where Sarah is able to finally terminate the Terminator by luring it into a mechanical press and flattening it.
And then, surprise! Time travel twist ending! In the epilogue, we learn that thanks to this wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff, Kyle is John Conner's father. Sarah drives off into an unknown future, knowing she's carrying the saviour of humanity.
The one thing that shocks me about The Terminator is how frightening it is. I wonder if Cameron ever felt any pressure from the studio to make it a full-blown slasher film, because it has so many slasher film tropes. We've got our silent, unstoppable killer...a virginal heroine...skeptical cops...the one last strike when we think the monster is dead...hell, the Terminator even kills a couple right after they have sex. It's just so damn close to being a slasher film, it's amazing.
But one thing I do love about it is it really has that wonderful "low budget, made-in-the-80s" look to it. There's a lot of film grain. It's dark. There's a wonderful synthesizer-based score. I think I touched upon this a bit when I did Highlander. It just screams made in the 80s.
Another thing that shocks me is how much this film is like Terminator 2, and not for some of the reasons you're thinking. A lot of the action beats are the same, there are some shots that are virtually identical to shots in Terminator 2...it's almost like Terminator 2 is what James Cameron wanted to do with The Terminator if he just had a little more money. I know others have made a similar observation about Aliens and Avatar.
Terminator 2 was one of the first DVDs I bought, because back when I bought my first DVD player in 2001, it was one of the more heavily-hyped special editions of the day. The Terminator did get a special edition, but it was in limited numbers and went out of print really quickly. So I'm lucky that I got it on Blu-Ray, and most, but not all, of the special edition features were carried over. It's neat watching the deleted scenes, because just about all of the deleted scenes for The Terminator are set-up for Terminator 2. We have Sarah Conner come up with the idea of doing why SkyNet's trying to do, and she proposes attacking Cyberdyne before SkyNet can be built, pretty much the entire plot of #2.
And we see the aftermath of Sarah's final battle with the Terminator. We see some employees hiding the Terminator wreckage from the police, and one says to the other, "Send it down to the boys in R&D, I'm sure they'll have fun with it," and we see that the factory belongs to Cyberdyne.
I've blogged this before, so I may as well blog it again. I liked Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation well enough, but at the end of the day, I found them unnecessary. They did nothing to expand they mythology. And on top of that, I find that the first two form a nice little two-part story. Everything's resolved at the end of #2.
But what makes the first two films better than the latter two is the first two are genuine science-fiction. In addition to the explosions and the action scenes, there's the tackling of the ideas like fate and destiny and whether the timeline can be changed. There's a little more beneath the surface to The Terminator.
I used to wonder how such a gritty, low-budget sci-fi from the 1980s could spawn a franchise that's gone one for 25 years now, but it makes sense. It was built on ideas. It was a good foundation.