It may seem impossible for a 30-years-old director to debut (I consider this a debut given that it’s not yet clear who directed Piranha II: The Spawning in 1981) with a magnificent film like The Terminator, but that’s what James Cameron did in 1984. After all, we are talking about one of the most influential directors in the history of modern cinema (among other things he directed Aliens in 1986, Titanic in 1997, and Avatar in 2009), so there’s little to be surprised. And just a few days ago I wrote about another young prodigy, the master of horror John Carpenter, who in 1978 directed Halloween when he too was just 30 years old. But I’m already digressing! Let’s go back to The Terminator and start from the plot.
In 1984, Los Angeles is shocked by a series of homicides committed by a serial killer who chooses his victims among women called Sarah Connor. The police seems unable to stop him and in the meantime it also has to deal with Kyle Reese, a guy claiming to have come from the future to prevent a murder… Stop, stop, I simply cannot write down the plot avoiding spoilers! But you all have seen The Terminator, right?
Now for a serious run. In 2029, the few human survivors of a nuclear catastrophe are finally winning the war against the machines thanks to the leadership of the legendary John Connor. Skynet (the artificial intelligence that wants the extinction of the human race) only has one final remaining attempt to change the fate of the war: send back a cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to kill John’s mother, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), thus avoiding the birth of the commander of the human army. Luckily, John also manages to send someone back in time, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), to protect his future (in the past!) mother. Will Kyle succeed in stopping the seemingly unstoppable Terminator?
Needless to say, this film is shockingly magnificent. James Cameron succeeded with a ridiculous budget to bring to the screen a science fiction film that’s still impressive to watch thanks to the mix of practical special effects created by the brilliant director (including stop motion animations, projections in the background, scale models, animatronics…). The film has an incredible pace and time flies while watching it: each scene follows the previous one with a great sense of rhythm and nothing feels out of place. Also, all scenes are simply perfect: the presentation of the three protagonists ensures that in just a few minutes we already understand their personalities, if not their intentions; the attack in the Tech Noir is filmed and edited so well that it’s hard to believe that the director was a beginner and had to work with little time and little money; and think about the Terminator storming the police station! The Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 (that’s how Reese defines the Terminator model he has to fight) kills thirty cops one after another without stopping for even a second: it’s really scary! And the scenes set in the future have a unique atmosphere, a very dark post-apocalyptic tone that shows the fears of Cameron related to the use of nuclear weapons (the Cold War was still raging on at the time).
So this is a science fiction movie, but at the same time it also has all the characteristics of an action horror one (the close-up scenes of the Terminator patching itself up are creepy!). This is why I have always considered this movie close in spirit to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). But if the idea behind the latter movie is extremely simple (a hostile alien on a planet kills all the humans), the plot of The Terminator is at once brilliant and very original, even if Cameron had to give credit to the science fiction author Harlan Ellison who sued him soon after the movie came out (although to this day Cameron maintains that he did so reluctantly and only due to the producers’ pressure).
The character of Kyle Reese is not simply a spotless and fearless hero: he’s a soldier used to living in a cold, hopeless world, madly in love with the person for whose salvation he will inevitably die… Sarah Connor has an incredible character arc, starting as a young and awkward housemaid who becomes a fighter capable of surviving a relentless Terminator by the end of the movie. And the latter is an incredible antagonist: 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! Thus, Schwarzenegger is used intelligently by Cameron who practically doesn’t give him any line of dialogue (a bit like John Milius did a few years earlier in Conan the Barbarian).
Also the soundtrack by Brad Fiedel has a relentless main theme which is so memorable that it’s impossible not to know it and recognize it. Even the idea of putting the antagonist in the title, rather than the heroes, is great! In short, everything works perfectly in this movie! Even the secondary characters like the police lieutenant who always goes straight to the point (Paul Winfield) and the detective who cannot shut up for a moment (Lance Henriksen) are well written. And how to forget the cameo of the great Bill Paxton as one of the first victims of the Terminator? So many lines of dialogues of this movie give me the chills, especially those of Reese trying to convince either Sarah, the policemen, or the imperturbable psychologist (Earl Boen) that his incredible story is nothing but the truth.
But of course this is a magnificent movie, I don’t need to convince you! It spawned an unknown number of sequels (forgive me, but I am willing to admit the existence of the only one directed by Cameron, Terminator 2: Judgment day, 1991), a couple of series, games, videogames, comics… in short, as always with a great Hollywood brand, you can also find flamethrowers and toilet paper with the movie title on them (thank you, Spaceballs). Leaving all this aside and going back to the 1984 film made with $6.4 million by James Cameron, let me admit that I watch it at least once a year. I find it perfect in every detail, all the scenes fit together incredibly well, I absolutely love all dialogues, its universe is captivating, and I have always enjoyed imagining stories in it. And now that I wrote about it I want to watch it again!!! Ciao!