Starring Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Much more than a great science fiction/action film.
People are always surprised when I tell them that I think The Terminator is the best movie of 1984. Those who know me know my aversion to science fiction. They and others may also, while enjoying the film, not consider an action/science fiction film to be the kind of film that is recognized for its quality rather than merely its entertainment factor. People tend not to think it’s serious enough to be considered the best film of the year. However, this film, with its simple, action-filled plot and dearth of the dialogue, manages not only to transcend genre but to tell a story that reflects on important ideas about the human condition.
One aspect of science fiction I don’t like is the way it loses sight of its characters in world-building and in didactic allegory. World-building in The Terminator is kept to a minimum. Most of the film takes place in present-day Los Angeles. The information about the future world is kept to a minimum. In the near future, defense system machines become self-aware and cause a nuclear attack that eliminates most of the human race. The humans fight against the machines led by a man named John Connor. When the humans are on the brink of winning the war, the machines send a cyborg (a robot covered in human tissue) back in time to assassinate John Connor’s mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton), before he is born. In turn, John Connor sends back a human soldier, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to protect her. No more information is needed to understand the story.
Most people think of the film as the one that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger as an action star, the one where he plays a killing machine. He appears on the posters and the DVD covers. However, he’s not the focus of the film. Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is. The movie is about her journey from ordinary waitress to warrior. In this way, it could even be called a woman’s film. Certainly, the romance portion of the film could be seen as an attempt to appeal to women. I don’t use the word “subplot” because the romance between Sarah and Reese is such an essential part of the film.
I read a comment recently that claimed that Sarah and Reese were stupid to stop and have sex while the Terminator was chasing them. Putting aside the fact that the encounter is necessary to the story, I’m reminded of a similar sexual encounter that occurs in the restored version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), where the young German soldiers have a rendezvous with some comely French young ladies. That scene was cut from the film after its initial release because of censorship and later restored. The censors may not have considered it essential to the story, but it says something about humanity—that in the face of horror, there’s still a time for beauty and for love. In The Terminator, it’s that capacity to love which separates the humans from the machines.
To me, this idea is more significant than the Christian allegory that many critics have recognized in the film. Yes, John Connor (J.C.—get it?) is a Christ figure, while Sarah parallels the Virgin Mary and Reese the angel Gabriel. Even the Terminator’s early murders of the other Sarah Connors mirrors the New Testament story of the Massacre of the Innocents.
But, this reading, while clever and certainly intentional, tells us little about humanity, which is what the film is about thematically. Initially, we’re presented with an unstoppable killing machine and a future dystopia when humans are forced to hide and cower in underground lairs. Yet, the Terminator is stoppable, and, in the future, the humans are on the brink of defeating the machines. The most basic human drive is the urge for survival. As much as the Terminator puts her through, no matter how many times it comes at her, Sarah never gives up or gives in. The fight for life and for the future of humanity is too important.
With, now, four increasingly complicated sequels, we can appreciate the simple narrative of the original. The Terminator chases, and Sarah and Reese run. The dialogue, too, is spare. When most people think of screenwriting, they think of dialogue, but the craft is much more than that. Every beat of action in the film had to be scripted. The structure has to be developed. The movie could have easily become tired and repetitive, but the screenplay, written by director Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, seemingly effortlessly uses a perfect structure to create the momentum of the film.
Camera work, editing, and special effects are often cited as the important elements in action films. All three in this case are outdated. Yet, the simplicity of them actually aids the film. Too many recent movies get caught up in generating images with the result that everything else is lost. The framing in The Terminator is not dense. Usually, the shots display only one or two major elements. The editing reveals the action rather than obscuring it for the sake of excitement. The effects, on one level, look fake—we can tell when the Terminator’s head is replaced with a model, for example—however, all the objects in the film look physically real. They appear to have weight. Their movements reflect the cumbersomeness of actually existing unlike computer generated images.
The three key performances are flawless. The lack of dialogue may give the actors limited opportunities to emote, but emoting is not needed. The brilliance of Hamilton’s performance can be seen in the evolution that Sarah undergoes throughout the movie. Each scene brings a subtle change to the character—a remarkable achievement when you consider that movies are shot out of sequence. Biehn is charming, as always. I’m surprised that he hasn’t had more mainstream success. Schwarzenegger has little chance to speak, but he creates a character through movement and expression. Yes, the Terminator has only one expression, but that’s the point. He’s always has a look that says, “Must kill now.” His gait is similarly non-human and focused on a goal.
Even the music works perfectly. The electronic score by Brad Fiedel matches the rhythm of the action scenes and makes them feel mechanistic, as we would expect an attack by a machine to be. Then, it changes to an evocative melody for the love scenes, a melody which takes on an ominous tone in the final scene as Sarah drives off into an uncertain future.
Few would argue that The Terminator is a great action film and that it set a high bar for later action movies. However, the film is more than that. It’s a very human story like most motion pictures that we simply call “great films.”