There’s a scene early on in the film where the camera is focused on a toy semi-truck in the middle of a suburban street. Then, all of a sudden, it’s totally crushed by the massive wheels of an actual car. The camera pans to the right as Arnold Schwarzenegger steps out of the vehicle – black boots, lifeless stare and all. This brief moment is a perfect metaphor for the horrifying nature of the killing machine that’s traveled through time. It’s on a mission to kill Sarah Connor, and it will not stop for anything. This machine is a relentless force that can withstand point-blank shotgun blasts as easily as MMA fighters absorb body blows. To put it simply, Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator is death incarnate, and I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything as pants-shittingly scary and awesome as this cyborg from the future.
Now, if “Arnold Schwarzenegger, death incarnate, and cyborg from the future” stir up nothing inside you, then I think you should just skip this one. I don’t see how any amount of praise will convince you otherwise. I can sure try, though. The story is rather simple: A cyborg is sent back through time to kill the mother of a resistance leader, John Connor, before he and his forces can win a decisive victory over computer-led machines that have taken over the world. To try and combat this tactic, Connor sends back Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to do whatever it takes to protect his mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton). That’s pretty much it, but the perfect blending of sci-fi, action, and even some horror elements continues to hold The Terminator up as an absolute classic.
Alright, so this film is definitely science fiction, and since I just got through railing against 2009’s Star Trek, I figure I should get the brain-melting parts about this one out of the way. The film explains that only organic, living tissue can be sent back through time. No metal – be it machinery, weapons, etc. – is supposed to be able to go back through time. I don’t know why, but neither does Kyle Reese, who explains it in the film. Don’t worry; he’s just an infantry soldier, so it makes sense that he doesn’t know all the science. But there are two problems with the way the time travel is supposed to work. I know these problems are well-known and all over the internet at this point, but I still feel the need to tell you about it.
If nothing but living tissue can go back in time, then terminators have no business being sent back. The film tries to gloss over this fact by saying “Oh, sure, they’re machines on the inside, but they’re covered in real skin, blood, and hair.” Okay, but that distinction is crap. There is still a GIANT, HYDRAULIC MACHINE UNDERNEATH.
The second problem with the time travel includes a spoiler, but this movie is 28-years-old and a pop culture staple, so you’ll just have to get over it. Kyle Reese is the father of John Connor, the resistance leader in the year 2029. But the only reason he’s John’s father is because he was sent back in time, where he has sex with Sarah and ta da! John Connor. So, folks, that’s what’s called a time paradox. How can he be John’s father in 1984 if it has to be 2029 before he arrives there? It would seem that the future event can’t possibly take place before the past one, but it also seems that it necessarily has to. The reason I take this to be a more philosophical and deliberate approach to such a quandary (as opposed to Star Trek) is because James Cameron lets the audience know that he did it on purpose. There’s a scene where Sarah Connor says that it hurts her brain to even think about the ramifications of their situation. Yep, me, too, and in a weird way, I appreciate Cameron trying to make us figure out what is and isn’t possible with forever-looping time paradoxes. Call me crazy.
The other thing that makes the time travel in The Terminator more acceptable to me over Star Trek is that it’s a tiny discrepancy in the way travel works, and the rest of the science just goes unexplained. In Star Trek, there are so many holes in the way just about every plot point is handled, and the action on-screen suffers because it’s all a direct result of stupid bullshit that makes no sense. On the other hand, in The Terminator, once Arnold and Michael Biehn are in the past, it really boils down to an action/horror chase movie that’s only dependent on the events presently taking place.
But enough about time travel. What’s important here is that you all understand how much of a scary monster Arnold Schwarzenegger is. Kyle Reese puts it best when he says that it can’t be reasoned with. Terminators have no remorse or guilt, so if one of them wants to kill you, it’s pretty much going to happen. Unless you’re the mother of the future, of course. Unfortunately for everyone else, they’re not the mother of the future. Arnold’s infamous “I’ll be back” line originates here, and after saying it, he promptly makes good on his word by obliterating an entire police station using an assault rifle and a shotgun. And that’s not all of the crazy stuff: he’s also set on fire (twice); he gets his face mangled; he’s shot roughly a bazilliondy times; he’s dragged under an 18-wheeler; he drives a car head-on into a concrete wall; he gets a grenade stuck in his stomach; etc., etc. No, none of that stopped him. Yes, it makes for quite the amount of white-knuckle chase sequences.
In-between those chase sequences is when Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese get to know each other better. It’s not exactly a romance, but under the circumstances, it’s the next best thing. John Connor is conceived in a motel one night after a full day of making pipe bombs, so a little unexpected sex is certainly a fine thing. Reese isn’t ever fleshed-out as a character, but he’s not supposed to be. His only reason for being in the past is to protect Sarah, so him being one-note isn’t a problem at all. It’s a little questionable why Sarah would fall in love with him, but seeing as though she knows her life is pretty much over, I’m alright with her admiration for her protector.
Oh, by the way, Stan Winston did the practical effects, and they’re some of my favorite parts of the movie. When Arnold has to fix himself up after taking a beating, a mechanical bust is used to simulate his messed up face. The bust took six months to make, and it’s made of clay, plaster, and steel ribbing. You can tell it’s not the real Arnold, but it looks damn good, and I’ll take that over horrible CG any day.
There’s also a perfect blend of practical effects with stop-motion and model work. Towards the end, the terminator is chasing Sarah around (not a spoiler, obviously), but it’s been reduced to just the hydraulic skeleton underneath its skin. There are a couple of wide shots that don’t use a physical creation, but most of them do. Whenever there’s a shot of the terminator from the waist up, it’s a practically-built, working model. Needless to say, it looks better than any other option. I know there are older movies out there with awful real-world effects, but this isn’t one of them.
I didn’t set out to write a novel about The Terminator, so I’ll wrap things up. There are some movies that are products of the times, and once the decade they were made is over, those movies cease to remain relevant. The Terminator is totally ’80s, but in the same way movies like Lethal Weapon or Flatliners are. Basically, unless you hate things that are awesome, this one should be on your yearly re-watch list.
*This review was originally posted on Tyson Carter’s blog, Head in a Vice, for his IMDb top 250 project. Since he’s re-tooling his site and focusing more on indie/horror reviews, the project is being discontinued and all of my guest reviews will be lost if I don’t re-post them here. Go check out his blog if you get a chance; it’s well worth your time.