Thursday, 9 March 2017

Elwood's Essentials #17 - The Terminator

Title: The Terminator
Director: James Cameron
Released: 1984
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, Earl Boen, Bess Motta, Rick Rossovich, Dick Miller, Franco Columbu, Bill Paxton

Plot: A cyborg assassin known as a Terminator (Schwarzenegger) travels back in time to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (Hamilton) the future mother of the human resistance in 2029 before he is born. At the same time Kyle Reese (Biehn) a solider from the future has also travelled back in time to protect her.

Review: Who’d have thought that the director of “Piranha 2: The Spawning” would go on to be the director of some of the most iconic and visually inventive cinema of all time. A graduate of the Roger Corman film school were he started as a miniature model maker before briefly being given the Piranha 2 gig taking over from original director Miller Drake before he too was fired topping off what had proven to be a nightmare debut for Cameron who topped off the experience by getting food poisoning.

It was while battling this illness that Cameron had a nightmare about an invincible robot assassin sent to kill him from the future which formed the basis for this film while also drawing inspiration from “The Outer Limits” episodes “Soldier” and “Demon With A Glass Hand”. Cameron also traded recordings with his friend Bill Wisher who helped him turn his draft into a finished script. This original script featured two Terminators and also introduced the idea of the liquid metal Terminator which had to be scrapped when he realised that the technology at the time wouldn’t realise his ideas leaving it for the sequel were he would introduce the now iconic T-1000.

With this film Cameron gives us two distinctive worlds as he opens in the post-apocalyptic Los Angeles of 2029 were humans have been driven to brink of extinction by the robot uprising brought about by the AI defence network Skynet. Its an iconic world vision of the future that Cameron gives us as towering machines rumble over fields of human skulls. Even though this vision of the future is limited it’s still unquestionably effective and perfectly establishes this alternative future. From here we are taken back to 1984 Los Angeles which though Cameron’s lens is shown in a grimy and neon lit style which makes for the perfect battleground for this game of cat and mouse to unfold on.

Returning to this film as an older film watcher it was now that I could finally appreciate this film beyond its set pieces, which certainly helped keep its sequel in heavy rotation during my film watching youth. This original film is a much difference beast than its action orientated sequels as here Cameron’s focus is purely on building atmosphere and tension to create a film which is as equal parts a cat and mouse thriller as it is a slasher only this time the killer is a seemingly unstoppable killing machine.

The casting is another key aspect of why this film works despite the fact that Schwarzenegger was to be cast as Kyle Reese only to talk himself into the Terminator role following a lunch meeting with Cameron, though the Terminator role could easily have gone to both Lance Henriksen or OJ Simpson who were both in the running for the role with the latter being dismissed as they felt no one would buy him as a killer. No doubt neither of them wouldn’t have made the role as iconic as it was in Schwarzenegger’s hands which itself is largely down to the amount of work he put into developing the character to truly sell the idea of him being an unstoppable killing machine and its hard to say if it was this role or Conan which was the bigger star making role for him.

Schwarzenegger as the Terminator is such a dominating presence throughout though Cameron does for the most part keep his personality cold and calculating its never to the point here that he stands out by giving machine like responses as he is shown talking with Dick Miller’s pawn shop clerk whose lack of response for why he’s buying such a shopping list of guns is more questionable than the responses that Schwarzenegger is giving. Even his iconic “I’ll be back” is a perfectly acceptable response to what he is being told by the police station clerk, only here its added to by the fact that its followed up by the Terminator driving a car through the front of the police station.

Unquestionably its a gritty sci-fi thriller that Cameron crafts here with both the Terminator and Kyle being introduced as they land nude in the present day before having to find the resources with the Terminator coldly killing a group of Punks while Kyle is shown having to break into a clothing store while evading the police in a wonderfully tense sequence and Cameron really doesn’t establish the motivation of Kyle’s character until his first confrontation with the Terminator during the now iconic tech-noir club sequence, until this point he is just shown running around the city with a modified shotgun while the Terminator works his way (or should that be kills his way) through the Sarah Connors in the phone book which is such a great touch that the machines only have a name and a location rather than an actual idea of what she looks like.

The relationship between Sarah and Kyle is an interesting one as for the most part she is unsure if Kyle is who he says he is and not just some delusional nutcase as everyone keeps telling her. The reasons for them getting together however are slightly convoluted and even now the idea of the Sarah’s future son giving Kyle her picture and essentially match making his own parents just never sat right with me even though its kind of an essential aspect to the story. This aside having a human soldier as the sole defence against the Terminator really adds a tense aspect to the plot, especially when we see the Terminator easily despatching everyone he comes into contact with. Its equally a ballsy move on Cameron’s part to *spoiler alert* kill off Kyle and leave Sarah to have the final showdown. Obviously for Sarah it perfectly sets up her character evolution from being the damsel in distress as we get to see in the next film even though having a Terminator take on the protector role does remove some of the edge that the human vulnerability of Kyle brings to the film.

The action scenes throughout are still fantastic to watch even after multiple viewings be it the police station massacre of Kyle and Sarah being chased by the Terminator, Cameron really knows how to hold the audiences attention and really craft genuinely exciting action scenes. Of course the appearance of the exo-skeleton Terminator at the finale does loose some of its effectiveness due to being such an iconic image for the franchise while its movements Stan Winston has quite nailed in this film. That being said it still makes for a fantastic finale and a wonderful creation.

While this film might be overshadowed by its sequel, the subtle charm of this film and slow build tension makes it none the less of an essential watch while also the film which marked Cameron out as talent to watch as he would unquestionably prove with the films which followed in its wake.

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