The Terminator

With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.

The Terminator (1984)

The 37-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger was a human special effect. His physique was obviously just this side of inhuman, but it wasn’t just that. His face was hard and planar, all flat surfaces and sharp angles. He had a way of mangling English words, but his voice was authoritative and mysterious, and it seemed perfectly plausible that the Austrian accent could’ve been the result of an underdeveloped speech module. In The Terminator, James Cameron filmed him at night, under blue lights, with a clammy sheen on his skin. He looked terrifying. He did not look the way people are supposed to look.

Cameron has talked about the plot hole that he opened up when he cast Schwarzenegger as the Terminator. The whole idea of the Terminator robot was that it could infiltrate human settlements undetected, passing as normal until it was time to start killing. That would mean the cyborg should be nondescript, able to fade into a crowd. Schwarzenegger could never, ever fade into a crowd; he looked like a comic book artist’s fever dream. And yet it’s still a brilliant bit of casting. The mere appearance of Schwarzenegger, all bulk and glower, moved the movie into the realm of unreality. If someone who looked like this could be walking down a Los Angeles sidewalk, anything seemed possible, including the dizzying loops of time travel that the movie uses to build its story. And anyway, Cameron had a limited budget for special effects. If his star already was a special effect, that meant he was getting two things for the price of one.

The mere existence of The Terminator is a minor miracle. Cameron had started out as a special-effects artist, working on movies like Battle Beyond The Stars and Escape From New York. Before The Terminator, he had exactly one feature directorial credit to his name: Piranha II: The Spawning, a horror flick that basically only distinguished itself by making its carnivorous fish fly. But sometime after he finished that movie, Cameron had a dream about a gleaming robot sent back from the future to kill him, and he set about turning that dream into a script. (One person who would dispute the dream legend is the great sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison, who sued, claiming that Cameron had stolen the story from an old episode of The Outer Limits that Ellison had written. Orion, the studio that distributed The Terminator, settled and put Ellison’s name in the credits.) Waiting around for Schwarzenegger to finish filming Conan The Destroyer, Cameron had time to polish the movie, and also to knock out a script for Rambo: First Blood Part II.

Cameron famously sold the Terminator script to producer Gale Ann Hurd for $1, with the agreement that he’d get to direct the movie, which turned out to be a good move. The movie kicked around for a while, with various stars turning down the roles of the Terminator and his futuristic opponent Kyle Reese. There’s an infamous and entirely true story that the studio wanted O.J. Simpson to play the Terminator but that Cameron thought he seemed too nice to be believable as the killer. (Simpson would’ve been terrible in the role, mostly because even at his most terrifying, he still seems deeply and tragically human. What’s hard to imagine now isn’t Simpson killing someone; it’s him doing it with an emotionless efficiency.) The actors who were cast—not just Schwarzenegger but also budding serious actress Linda Hamilton—mostly thought the movie would be crap.

It’s fun to think about being a moviegoer in 1984, walking into The Terminator and expecting another B-movie rather than an breathlessly efficient stress-machine with an elegantly head-fucking Gordian knot of a plot. I belong to the first generation who basically never knew life without The Terminator hanging over popular culture, and I still remember the thrilling sting I felt the first time I watched it, home sick one day from seventh grade when I’d already seen Terminator 2. I had expectations, and the movie’s dank, intense violence still shattered them. Imagine seeing it with no expectations. The studio essentially thought it had a piece of crap on its hands; it didn’t screen the movie for critics before release. And when it turned out to be an immediate runaway hit, both executives and critics were reportedly taken off-guard. Look at this clip of Siskel and Ebert trying and failing to make sense of the phenomenon, only grudgingly taking the movie halfway seriously:

The importance of The Terminator would reveal itself in time. Movies had played around a bit with time-travel paradoxes before, but never with this level of eerie, absurd rigor. It told its story with absolute confidence, laying out the barest bones in a pre-credits text-scroll and then letting Michael Biehn’s Reese dump more exposition during brief lulls in the head-spinning violence. The movie’s relentless brutality, the unfeelingness in the way Schwarzenegger dispatches whatever humans serve as obstacles, was a new thing in action movies; its obvious inspirations were horror movies, John Carpenter’s original Halloween in particular. If any movies before The Terminator had so successfully melded science fiction with impactful blunt-force action, I can’t think of them right now, and that would become a more and more important part of the action-movie genre going forward.

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And most crucially, the movie made a star out of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’d already been famous as a bodybuilder and as the star of Conan The Barbarian. But by putting him into a present-day setting and turning him into a killer, Cameron made Schwarzenegger more unreal, which made him more compelling. He’d spend the next decade playing fundamentally unreal characters, and it would make him, for a time, the biggest movie star on the planet. (Schwarzenegger’s character in Commando, which would come out a year later, is essentially the same as his character in The Terminator, except that he’s the good guy in Commando and he’s technically human in that one, though he doesn’t really act like it.)

Cameron had a few precedents for The Terminator. There’s the aforementioned Halloween, with its unkillable killer and its moments of relief that just turn into more terror. The climactic moment of The Terminator, where the metal-skeleton remains of the cyborg rise from the flaming remains of a burning truck, is one of the great oh shit scenes in movie history; it’s every Michael Myers comeback amplified. The movie’s color palette, with its sickly neon greens and inky black skies, is a slight variation on the whole Michael Mann aesthetic, which Mann himself was just figuring out at the time. And the many car chases, with their street-lamp lighting and their impossible stunts, owe a lot to Walter Hill’s The Driver.

But Cameron takes all those elements and builds something special with them. The movie’s single-minded sense of focus and its ever-increasing tension mark Cameron as a virtuoso filmmaker, something he didn’t really get a chance to show with Piranha II. The movie plays around with its audience—forcing us to feel Sarah Connor’s confusion and terror once she realizes she’s being hunted, letting us think (as she does) that maybe Reese is a killer. It has fun foreshadowing its future full of killer machines: Scenes of cranes and factory robots that will eventually give way to Terminators, an outgoing answering machine message that says, “Machines need love too.” And while the admirable-given-the-budget special effects look a lot more fake now than they must’ve seemed in 1984, their own fakeness—the stop-motion robot skeleton, the Hunter-Killer miniatures—gives the movie an unsettling bad-dream feel. And the police-station scene, where the violence turns completely surreal, might also be the most dreamlike moment in the whole movie.

But in her role as Sarah Connor, Linda Hamilton deserves as much credit for the movie’s success as Cameron or Schwarzenegger. Sarah Connor is the movie’s real hero. She anchors it. She’s its John McClane—the ordinary person dropped into an insane circumstance, forced to stay alive through sheer toughness, adaptability, and resourcefulness. Her whole love story with Reese is certainly abrupt, but Hamilton makes it seem possible mostly because she seems so utterly real. And over the course of the movie, we get to see her toughening up. When she shows up as a sinewy, disturbed badass in the second movie, there’s nothing jarring about the transformation. After what she goes through in this movie, it only makes sense that she’d turn out like that. When she asks Reese about her as-yet-unborn son, Reese says, “You trust him. He’s got a strength.” And we get to see that in Sarah, too. The Terminator is the first movie in this column with a female hero. It won’t be the last.

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After the success of The Terminator, American action movies would pretty much abandon any sense of realism. They would become sleek, violent, absurdist money-machines, especially when they had Schwarzenegger (or the increasingly Schwarzenegger-esque Sylvester Stallone) as the star. Action movies left behind a whole lot of humanity once they absorbed the lessons of The Terminator, but they also entered into a long golden age. In a very real sense, The Terminator created the ’80s action movie. We owe it a lot.

Other notable 1984 action movies: The runner-up has to be Red Dawn, the over-the-top right-wing guerilla-warfare fantasy that mostly destroyed the career of director John Milius, one of the great nutcase-genius filmmakers of the ’70s, even as it launched the careers of young stars like Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen. The movie’s story, about Russia and Cuba teaming up to invade the American heartland and about a small-town high-school football team transforming itself into a paramilitary unit, is absurd, and that’s what makes it great. The movie’s politics are ecstatic bullshit, and yet you will find very few movies this absorbingly watchable, which is why it’s never dropped out of the Saturday-afternoon cable rotation.

With Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas took their great Raiders Of The Lost Ark hero into some dark places and ended up with the most divisive movie in that series. Meanwhile, Romancing The Stone attempted to apply the Raiders aesthetic to a present-day romantic comedy, and the result was way less shitty than anyone could’ve guessed. And perhaps under the influence of Raiders, Conan The Destroyer attempted to turn Schwarzenegger’s Übermensch character into something much sillier, and Wilt Chamberlain, Grace Jones, and André The Giant were all around to help out. Fortunately, The Terminator came along soon enough and erased all memory of it.

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With Missing In Action, Chuck Norris and Cannon Films effectively ripped off Rambo: First Blood Part II a year before that movie came out. (Cannon got a look at Cameron’s Rambo script and rushed Missing In Action into production to beat that movie into theaters. Given that, Missing In Action is about as good a movie as you could expect.) And with Ninja III: The Domination, Cannon wrapped up its original ninja trilogy, though the studio was nowhere near done with ninjas yet.

In Hong Kong, the Shaw Brothers style was still chugging along, and movies like The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter are well worth a look. But the Jackie Chan kung-fu comedy was the way of the future. In the great Wheels On Meals, Chan and his Project A co-stars and Peking Opera school brothers Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao fight opportunistic gangsters in then-current Barcelona, and the result is a beautifully silly and entertaining breath of fresh air. The blindingly fast climactic fight between Chan and the American karate champ Benny “The Jet” Urquidez remains one of the best things Chan ever did.

While this column isn’t going to dwell much on the action-comedy, the hybrid genre that became way too popular in the ’80s, we should probably take a moment for Beverly Hills Cop, the movie that started the craze. It holds up better than most of what would follow. And I’ll end by giving the highest possible recommendation to Walter Hill’s fever-dream rock-’n’-roll gang fantasy Streets Of Fire, a movie that overcomes Michael Paré, its stiff hard-boiled lug of a lead, through gorgeous, cocaine-dazzled cinematography and some otherwise-inspired casting, including Willem Dafoe as a reptilian old-timey biker-gang leader, Fear frontman Lee Ving as a bruiser henchman, Rick Moranis as a tough-talking and money-grubbing concert promoter, and a teenage Diane Lane as a kidnapped rock star. Seriously, this movie fucking rules. See it immediately if you haven’t.

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Next time: Sylvester Stallone abandons the brutally moving complexities of the original First Blood for something much more simplistically patriotic and cartoonishly silly in Rambo: First Blood Part II.