Sci-Fi Saturdays is back with one of the greatest sci-fi/action films of all time!
The Terminator stands out as both a key film for director James Cameron and for its star Arnold Schwarzenegger. It furthered both their careers, created a new style for genre film, as well as helping to lead a wave of high octane action films to follow, which Cameron does by both looking forward and backward.
The trailer for The Terminator shows some spaceships and robots from “the 21st Century” as the narrator describes the ultimate killing machine, a Terminator. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays this killer who is after a woman in contemporary America. Apparently he can’t be stopped, so it’s probably just a matter of time before she gets killed. Take a moment to revisit this film before reading on.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
The film opens with an apocalyptic battle plain in Los Angeles, 2029, where robotic forces hunt and kill the last human survivors. In Los Angeles, on Thursday, May 12, 1984 at 1:52am (even though May 12 was a Thursday in 1983), a localized electrical storm deposits a nude, muscular humanoid near Griffith Observatory. It is a T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) that quickly acquires clothes from three punks nearby. At an alley somewhere else in the city, another nude man, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), appears, and is chased by police through a department store. The two beings are here looking for Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a waitress in a family restaurant.
The Terminator acquires guns at a local gun shop, killing the owner (Dick Miller), and sets off looking for Sarah Connor. It finds three listings for her in the phone book, and begins working the list. Reese steals a car and has a flashback to the war against the machines in 2029. The Terminator finds and kills two other women named Sarah Connor. News of the murders gets onto television and Sarah gets freaked out. She calls to let her roommate Ginger (Bess Motta) know where she is, but Ginger is currently in flagrante delicto with her boyfriend Matt (Rick Rossovitch).
The Terminator arrives at Sarah’s apartment, looking for his prey and kills Ginger and Matt, before hearing the message from Sarah that she’s at a club in town. Reese, who has been following Sarah, stops the Terminator from killing her in the club and escapes with her. She believes that Reese, and not the Terminator, is the one killing the other women. He explains that the Terminator is a cyborg from the future sent to kill her. He was sent by her adult son, John Connor, to save her. They bond a bit, but are captured by the police after a car chase and shoot out with the killer robot.
Lt. Traxler and Vulkovich (Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen) bring in psychologist Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen) to see just how crazy Reese is. They allow Sarah to sleep off the events in the police station. The Terminator repairs himself in a motel room before coming to attack the police station. He manages to kill most of the officers, but Reese escapes from custody and takes Sarah out the back way. They steal a truck and hideout in a local motel, where Reese has Sarah help him make some pipe bombs.
He tells Sarah of his life in the future. He explains how they must be vigilant against the attacks of the human-looking Terminators, and how John gave him a picture of Sarah and trained him to travel back in time to look for her. They grow closer and make love. The Terminator discovers where they are hiding and comes after them. After a short vehicular chase through the streets and tunnels of Los Angeles where Reese is wounded, they manage to blow up the semi truck that the Terminator is driving. Unfortunately, the robotic endoskeleton of the creature emerges from the fiery wreckage, continuing to pursue its prey.
It follows Sarah into a factory where she enables the machinery to hopefully hide from it. Reese sacrifices himself to blow it up with his final bomb. The explosion manages to shear the legs off the cyborg, which continues to crawl along after the wounded Sarah. She finally manages to lead it into a hydraulic press and crush it into oblivion. Later, Sarah is hiding out in Mexico, now pregnant with Kyle Reese’s child, and has her photo taken by a local boy. The very same photo that John would one day show Kyle.
“That Terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” – Kyle Reese
History in the Making
The Terminator was a breakthrough film not only for director James Cameron, but the film industry in general. Cameron had the idea for the film while he was in Italy after filming his directorial debut, Piranha II: The Spawning, which reportedly came to him in a fever dream. His background was in art direction and special effects, having started his career working for Roger Corman as an art director for Battle Beyond the Stars and a production designer for Galaxy of Terror. The “Corman approach” is evident in film as Cameron utilizes nearly every trick of the trade with lighting, stunts, and special effects to make a lower budget film feel like a bigger picture, as well as casting long-time Corman character actor Dick Miller in a bit part. In fact, The Terminator delivered way more than its budget might have allowed due to the strong script from Cameron and William Wisher, and his hands on, no nonsense attitude from Cameron on set.
For its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger was already a successful personality, having been known for his work as a bodybuilder and starring as Conan the Barbarian in a successful film and its sequel. The film provided a huge boost to his career however, priming him to be one of the main action stars for the 80s. He of course would go on to star in some other sci-fi action films within the next decade including Predator, The Running Man, Total Recall, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. And while only having a few more lines of dialog than he did in Conan The Barbarian, some of his lines in The Terminator transcended genre film and became hugely famous. Arnold’s most famous line, the one he’s known for more than any other, has to be the classic “I’ll be back,” which he says to the desk sergeant at the police station, just before driving back in with his truck smashing through everything. He has continued to use that line or a variation of it in other films, as well as having that line spoofed in a myriad of films that don’t include Schwarzenegger.
The Terminator also helped popularize the female action hero. While Sarah Connor is more akin to the “final female” in a horror film, like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, her portrayal as a woman that must conquer her fears, and one day become the mother of the leader of the resistance was a defining moment for female stars. Along with Ripley in Alien, and even more like Ripley in Aliens (which was also directed by James Cameron, and cemented the female lead as a bonafide action hero), Sarah Connor would become even more of a bad-ass in the sequel. Additionally the interplay of genre styles also helped to make the film greater than the sum of its parts; having a near equal mix of science-fiction, action and horror roots.
In preparation for this article I took a non-scientific poll on Twitter asking what genre The Terminator fits in to. Overwhelmingly the response was Sci-Fi (at 56%), which is of course why this film is even being talked about in Sci-Fi Saturdays. Most of the remainder of people mentioned it was an Action film (35%), but 5% of the respondents thought that The Terminator was a horror film, and I don’t disagree with them. Structurally The Terminator is no different than the recent emergence of slasher horror films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween. A woman is terrorized by an unstoppable, or nearly unstoppable foe (possibly supernatural) that hunts her and kills her friends (especially those that may have had pre-marital sex). Nothing she or the people that work with her can do will stop the antagonist from coming after her. There are times it appears her actions worked, but the killer pops up revitalized and good for more. With a final jump-scare, the final female tries one last effort and manages to terminate the villain. But then again, he always comes back in a sequel.
But, of course, the film is also a science-fiction film, and a time travel variant at that. It is one of a small handful of time travel films that posits Fate versus Free Will as the norm. Films like La Jetée, Somewhere In Time, and Timerider all exist in closed loop systems where things happen and characters react, but cannot change the events of the timeline. Yet where this film differs is that the narrative does not follow the time traveler (Kyle Reese). Instead they are a secondary character to the protagonist, so the audience is more likely to assume that their character has a choice. The Terminator also makes it seem, at least to Sarah, that Reese is crazy and may just have a very active psychosis, according to Doctor Silberman. However, the events of May 1984 must always have played out the way they did, with Kyle coming back in time, impregnating Sarah, which leads to the birth of John Connor and the resistance movement in 2029. A closed loop, and also a grandfather paradox similar to Timerider and others.
Cameron also made a film with a unique visual look, even on the lower budget he had. Along with his director of photography, Adam Greenberg, and his editor, Mark Goldblatt, the crew created a visually compelling and tightly edited structure that seamlessly moves between two periods in time to tell a story that appears larger than the 107 minutes of screen time. The use of lighting and shadow within the technological science-fiction structure gives the feeling of film noir more than a standard sci-fi, action or horror film. In fact Cameron named the dance club in the film after the term he had coined for this style: Tech Noir. Much like Blade Runner and Alphaville before it, The Terminator could remove the sci-fi elements and tell a hard boiled pulp-style story from the 40s or 50s with a tough following a young ingenue. Again, Cameron–the young director–advances the film with yet another layer of influence and meaning which inspired future directors, productions and sequels.
While The Terminator is a relatively straightforward film, it does deal with some larger societal concerns which were already being discussed in genre films. As with other films like Blade Runner or the Mad Max series, the future of the film exists in a dystopian world after a cataclysmic event. In this case it’s the aftermath of a nuclear war, but not brought about specifically by humans as films like Dreamscape fear. This event was touched off by an intelligent computer system referred to as SkyNet. It created sentient machines that would ravage the world and attempt to exterminate the human race, a similar theme to many future films such as The Matrix and its sequels. The fear of nuclear war was a real fear at this time in the 80s, but always shown as something that was in the human’s control. The Terminator intimates that people created an artificial intelligence which became self-aware and decided to eliminate humanity as the most logical thing to do. While an AI apocalypse was frequent in literature over the years, films hadn’t done much with it since the time of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Colossus: The Forbin Project. Westworld had rogue computers and one might consider TRON as something that also moves toward a similar end, but here the SkyNet computers control giant tanks and planes, as well as an army of killer robots that actively attempt to wipe out civilization. In this nightmare future the robots can look like humans and the remaining people get marked with barcodes laser printed into their flesh. It’s a horrific future where the machines that humanity once utilized for efficiency have revolted and now control us.
In creating this dire future, the film also acts as a warning about consequences of actions. However it doesn’t seem like there’s any deviation from the path set forward by the plot of the film As mentioned in the time travel discussion above, everything unfolds as it always had with Kyle impregnating Sarah to give birth to John, who would send Kyle back in time to meet Sarah. It’s a hard-coded, infinite loop of pain and suffering. Except that the character of Kyle Reese, using the words of John Connor, tells Sarah, “I can’t help you with what you must soon face, except to say the future is not set.” If the future is not set then there is always a chance to change that future. Unfortunately, for all the talk, there is no changing any of the future in this film. The sequel would expand on both these themes, demonstrating that in fact the events of this film were fated to occur, with Miles Dyson finding parts of the T-800 crushed in this film and using it to start the beginnings of SkyNet at Cyberdyne Systems. The future is set, in that a sequel to this ultimately popular film wants to keep things as nebulous as possible in order to tell another story of rogue AI, killer cyborgs, and time traveling freedom fighters.
The Science in The Fiction
Contrary to many other time travel sci-fi films over the course of the decades, The Terminator has a well thought out and internally consistent view of the scientific process behind the time displacement. The film depicts naked men appearing in a flash of lightning, which represents the time displacement equipment. When questioned later by Dr. Silberman, Kyle Reese provides the basic rules to time travel in this universe: “nothing dead will go.” That is, organic tissue only, no clothes, weapons or other devices. When pressed on a supposed inaccuracy in his story about the cyborg Terminator being able to travel through, Reese angrily reminds the doctor that it is covered in organic tissue. To Silberman it seems that this man is delusional, since every aspect of his story is intricate and internally consistent, but doesn’t contain a shred of proof. From a story aspect, it’s a pretty brilliant idea for time travel.
Historically the time traveler is the one that built the machine (as with HG Wells and his Time Machine, or Richard Collier in Somewhere in Time who uses self hypnosis). Only recently did others begin traveling in time, such as the sailors in The Philadelphia Experiment, or The Final Countdown. Kyle Reese is a soldier, and has no real knowledge of the time travel equipment, which makes sense. It’s like someone being asked how their smartphone works, by someone that has never seen one before. Would you be able to explain its workings? In this case, both for story purposes and in the reality of the film, the time travel is explained just enough that viewers can find it probable, even if questions arise that are at this time unanswerable. The fact that the Terminator has “flesh” over its endoskeleton and that there is no return trip for the characters only adds to the veracity of the explanations.
At sometime in the future, 1997 according to the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a computer system called SkyNet built for SAC-NORAD became sentient and determined that “all humans were a threat, not just the ones on the other side,” and so it started a nuclear war that wiped out most of the population. It created robotic devices to wipe out the remaining humans including several models of Terminator (Arnold’s T-800, and then another model seen in the future flashbacks portrayed by Franco Colombu), plus HK-Tanks, and HK-Aerials seen in the future war segments. In reality, by 1984 computers were becoming smaller, faster and more readily available. Robots were performing more jobs in industry but looked like droids from Star Wars, instead of humanoid cyborgs. Cameron wanted to capitalize on a plausible future where in 45 years, humanity has been crippled by nuclear war and overrun by an intelligent AI which can construct its own offspring, continually upgrading itself. As of this writing it’s 2021 and AI is getting more prevalent, though still just limited to chat bots and advertising. But at some point soon there may be a time where the fusion of robotics and AI creates something that is not easily discernible as a machine. We’re continuing learn and so are the machines.
The Final Frontier
Among all the other myriad of things Cameron puts into the film (multiple genre conventions, action elements, science-fiction elements) he also chooses to add in religious symbolism with John Connor. Unglimpsed in this film, the character has the same initials as Jesus Christ, was born to a mother under strange circumstances, and was predestined to be a savior of the human race. A pretty heavy weight for anyone to be tasked with, let alone a modern child of the 80s. His story would continue in 1991s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, where he would be anything but Christ-like. But obviously Cameron may have thought he might not get another shot at this story and put as much in as he could.
Surprisingly he did edit out some details, including another Terminator that was made of liquid metal. Much like George Lucas did by streamlining Star Wars and then taking unused ideas to form the sequels, Cameron did the same thing for Terminator 2. In fact the film was such a success on home video that after Cameron’s 1991 sequel four other forms were made between 2003 and 2019, with Cameron only serving as Producer on the final one, Terminator: Dark Fate. The film had merchandising spinoff’s, video games, theme park rides, toys, trading cards, comic books, and more plus a two-season TV series called Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which continues from the events of Terminator 2.
Not only would The Terminator spawn a successful franchise of nearly four decades, but it would also serve as an example for sci-fi, action, and action/sci-fi films to follow in the future. It proved that audiences were ready for grittier apocalypses, more complex storylines and characters, and lots of action. The special effects, while relatively limited for this film, also served the story, and inspired the future filmmakers and artisans that would be working on projects for many more years. James Cameron would continue making these hybrid sci-fi/action films with Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), and Avatar (2009), as well as making the most successful film of all time about an historical event, The Titanic (1997). Linda Hamilton would marry Cameron for a brief two years in the late 90s, return to the franchise in Terminator 2 and then again in Terminator: Dark Fate. In the end, The Terminator is a film that stands as a warning about putting too much reliability into machines, and not enough concern towards humans. It reminds audiences briefly that the future is not set, and that we still can make the change we want to see.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.