The Terminator (1984) dir. James Cameron
Starring: Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Arnold Schwarzenegger
By Alan Bacchus
Out of complete obscurity dramatically emerged director James Cameron, a muscular brawny director, technically ahead of the curve with an unabashed sentimental melodramatic heart. In various anecdotes Cameron has said the vision of the Terminator grew from the singular image of the robotic beast emerging from the flames of the exploded gasoline truck. The scene and the movie still gives me chills.
It’s 2029 and we see Los Angeles in a post-apocalyptic state – gigantic machinery battling raging humans on the ground with pulsating laser beams. In the present, 1984 LA, two men from that future find themselves beamed back in time - one, disheveled but cunning and resourceful, the other, a bull of a man with precisely controlled movements and unwavering focus and intensity.
Both are looking for Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in the present, a humble singl waitress. When a bunch of other Sarah Connors from the phonebook are randomly killed she finds herself mysteriously marked for death. In a dramatic confrontation in a public disco hall the two men from the future fight it out with heavy machine guns. Kyle Reese who is revealed as Sarah’s protector flees with her. As the chase rages on Conner and Reese bond over a few intimate moments, which includes some time to consummate a romance. When Reese reveals to Connor he’s been sent from the future by her own son to protect her, it becomes a fight for civilization and the future of the human race.
"The Terminator" exhibits some of the lingering early 80’s cyberpunk aesthetic. Cameron's visual style is dirty and unpolished. His cinematography bathed in shadowy nourish gloom, underlit at times and blanketed in omnipresent smoke and fog. This is a highly cynical dark look at our future, the same future Reese is trying rescue from ourselves.
Cameron does everything he can to connect his apocalyptic near future with the present. His first shot in the present is a mechanical garbage truck which, for a brief second, by the size, shape and noise, we think it's another of the metallic monstrosities of 2029. And Reese and Connor hiding out in the underground parking is shot in claustrophobic tightness reminding us of Reese’s tactics we saw in the future.
In his later years Cameron’s been known for a more elegant visual design. “Terminator” in retrospect breathes a distinctly low budget air. Cameron learned his craft working for Roger Corman’s company, so perhaps Cormon's methodologies rubbed off on him. While the work in front of the camera – special effects, car chases, gun fights – are all mondo expensive – the gently shaky camera and natural underexposed film grain retains a wonderful b-movie flavour.
Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton are marvelous as lovers in pursuit. Cameron manages to make the love affair believable despite the fantastical, extreme situation. Aiding this is Brad Fiedel’s magnificent score – a tough industrial sound, which feels like repetitious smashing metal, feeding into the unrepentant assault by the Terminator. Fiedel transitions to the film’s delicate moments smoothly. All it takes is a few simple notes before the action and love themes mesh together and become ingrained in your head.
Cameron would continue his fascination with technology both on and off screen progressing the cinematic possibilities with computer effects, underwater photography and 3-D. Enjoy.
The Terminator is now available on Blu-Ray from MGM Home Entertainment