Sunday, June 28, 2015

Zaki's Retro Review: The Terminator (1984)

For James Cameron, it all started with a dream.

When describing the origins of The Terminator, his violent, paradox-inducing parable of future wars and cyborgs and time travel, the Oscar-winning director of Titanic has said the idea was birthed out of a slumbering vision he had of being attacked by the partial torso of a metal skeleton, clutching kitchen knives in its hands. That was in the late '70s, while Cameron was deep in production on his directorial debut, the low-budget horror flick Piranha II for noted schlock maven Roger Corman.

Today, with a fifth Terminator film just days from release, it's easy to take the franchise's ubiquity for granted. The iconography. The Brad Fiedel music. Arnold Schwarzenegger's black shades. "I'll be back." They've all become cultural touchstones that are known even by those who've never actually seen it. But back then, when Cameron was still toiling in the Corman salt mines, when the market for high-minded sci-fi was still fairly thin, it's doubtful the director had any inclination how that dream -- nightmare, really -- would launch not only a billion dollar franchise, but also set the direction for the rest of his career.

What one realizes in hindsight is, as with many classics, how many pieces had to fall into place exactly the right way to end up with the movie that we got. Building off the visceral imagery from that nightmare, Cameron arrived at the outlines of a plot that pulled inspiration from the then-recent Mad Max, set in a dystopian future, as well as a few different Outer Limits episodes involving time travel. He then partnered with writer William Wisher on the script, about a time traveler who comes back to the present to save the mother of a future messiah from the robot assassin intent on killing her.

That story, plus Cameron's passionate pitch, was enough to get the interest of Hemdale Pictures, who agreed to back the picture to the tune of $4 million -- still pretty low budget, but a quantum leap forward for Cameron considering his roots. After that it was on to casting, and the next bit of manna to fall from heaven was when (at the studio's prodding and very much against his will), Cameron met with rising star Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose Conan the Barbarian in 1982 had just become a smash, for the role of Kyle Reese, the heroic character from the future.

The director had every intention of blowing this meeting off and telling the studio it was a non-starter, but he was won over by the gregarious and charismatic Schwarzenegger, quickly realizing that while the mammoth Austrian was clearly a mismatch for Reese, his oversized frame and intensity would be a perfect fit for the title character (until this meeting, Cameron had wanted his friend Lance Henriksen in the role, which he envisioned as a stealthy figure who doesn't stand out). And so, with Arnold onboard as the Terminator, Cameron got down to business and...waited.

Thanks to the sequel option in the star's Conan contract, Schwarzenegger became unavailable for the 1983 production window. As such, while his star was off filming the unfortunate Conan the Destroyer, Cameron bided his time by polishing the script and enlisting newcomers Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton for the roles of Reese and mother-of-the-future Sarah Connor. (He also filled his dance card by writing the sequels to First Blood and Alien, the latter of which he'd end up directing). In early 1984, with Schwarzenegger finally available, production on The Terminator began in earnest, and future history was made.

The story is so familiar now that I'm not sure I even need to recap it, but for the uninitiated, in the war-torn future world of 2029, advanced machines have ravaged the last vestiges of humanity. In a last ditch effort to stave off resistance, the computer intelligence known as Skynet has sent a cyborg assassin called a Terminator back in time to 1984 to kill nineteen-year-old Sarah Connor before she can conceive her son John, who will one day lead the human resistance. Reese has been sent back by the junior Connor himself to prevent this from happening. And so the chase begins, with hunter and hunted just steps from each other.

Seen now, even with the passage of time and with the technological limitations of the era apparent, The Terminator remains a masterpiece of minimalist, high-tension filmmaking, benefitting greatly from the pioneering puppet and prosthetic effects that the late, great Stan Winston used to bring the title character to terrifying life. While Cameron hoped the movie would do alright in relation to its budget, it's unlikely he foresaw just how well it would do. Released in October of '84, it debuted at the top spot on the back of terrific reviews and word of mouth, earning nearly $80 million dollars worldwide -- not a bad haul considering its relatively piddly budget.

One of the many reasons it works so well is how Cameron (along with producer Gale Anne Hurd, who also helped him shape the story) plies these restrictions to his advantage by zeroing in on the key players of his sci-fi fable rather than getting lost in the weeds of a larger mythology he couldn't hope to depict given his budget (which had been upped to $6.5 mil in the interim). While much of the future war 2029 stuff is offered up in quick snatches of imagery and exposition, that all helps to set the context without getting the audience bogged down in it. The primary focus remains on the tension of the chase, and man is it tense.

While Schwarzenegger was already a superstar at this point, ironically enough it's the robot killing machine of The Terminator that helped demonstrate his range and pointed the way towards his global dominance at the box office for the next decade. Even today he remains legitimately scary in the role. At one point the desperate Reese tells his police captors, "He'll find her! That's what he does! That's all he does! You can't stop him! He'll wade through you, reach down her throat and pull her f**kin' heart out!" And you know what? You totally believe it.

Still, while Cameron and Schwarzenegger understandably take the biggest bows for its many successes, I think one performer who doesn't get nearly enough praise is Michael Biehn (who'd go on to re-team with the director several more times). Just as Schwarzenegger's indomitability is so crucial to his effectiveness, Biehn's vulnerability is essential to his. The tortured future man, and his relationship with Hamilton's Sarah, gives the film its necessary emotional through-line. While it's understandably remembered for its ultra-violence, pyrotechnics, and the franchise that followed, I've long said that, beyond all the scares and big ideas, The Terminator is, at its core, a love story.

In a moment of passion following the second act action sequence, wherein the ruthlessly efficient robot wipes out an entire squad room of police officers in search of his quarry, Reese confides to Sarah that he came back in time for her, because he'd loved her since he first saw her in a picture given to him by her grown son. The two make love, but their happiness is short-lived, as the Terminator once again finds them and pursues them to a factory where, even after its human frame is stripped away in a fiery crash, its horrifying endoskeleton continues to pursue them.

Using dynamite to halt its progress, Reese is killed in the attempt, but the metal monster, now only a torso (Cameron's original nightmare now brought to vivid life) continues to advance after Sarah, herself wounded by shrapnel and unable to walk. Finally, she traps it in a hydraulic press and activates the device, crushing the robot and ending the threat -- for now. In an epilogue, the visibly-pregnant Sarah reflects on recent events as she makes audio recordings for her offspring trying to make sense of everything she's experienced. As it turns out, Kyle Reese coming back in time from the future is what allows John Connor to exist in the past.

At story's close, Sarah Connor rides off into the sunset with certainty of the impending dark future bearing down on her. It's a perfect conclusion to a damn near perfect movie. A closed loop built on a predestination paradox. If Cameron had chosen never again to revisit this property, it would have been just fine. And who knows, maybe there's an alternate timeline out there where that's the case. But in this timeline, the director got the opportunity to not only produce a sequel to The Terminator, but also expand on and surpass his original vision in every way possible. As for when audiences would get to see it, well, it was only a matter of time.

To Be Continued...

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