Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Terminator - 1984

"The Terminator" - 1984
Dir. by James Cameron - 1 hr 47 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Here's the thing I don't understand about "The Terminator."  And yes, it's true that I've never seen the first one until last night.  I've seen a couple of the sequels, but not the original.  What I don't get is that this film is not appreciably better than anything John Carpenter was putting out in the same time period, and yet The Terminator is a big deal, and John Carpenter's stuff (which is arguably deeper, concept-wise) has cult-movie status, at best.  Honestly, if you put "The Terminator" side-by-side with "Escape From New York," I'm probably headed to New York every single time.  That's not to dismiss "The Terminator," but I was fairly underwhelmed, and constantly reminded of Carpenter's work.

So, there's this scrappy young waitress named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who works at a diner in Los Angeles.  And there are these two men whom teleport into 1984 L.A., bare-ass naked.  One is mountain of muscle who shows up at Griffith Observatory, is hassled by some punks, and then steals their clothes.  That's the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a robot killer sent back in time to find and kill Sarah Connor.  He's not very smart, though, and just starts killing everyone in the phone book (Google it) named Sarah Connor, assuming that he'll find the right one eventually.  The second one is also sent back from the future, to defend Sarah Connor.  He's a human soldier, fighting against the robot uprising, named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn).  That's about all you need to know.

So if we're going to get into what makes "The Terminator" worthwhile, you have to start with Arnold Schwarzenegger.  He owned the 1980s (and a good portion of the '90s), and this movie is a good reason why.  No, he still can barely form sentences, and yes, he's jacked like no other.  But, like with the Conan films, director James Cameron uses that to his advantage.  Guy is intimidating and can't talk?  Make him a killer robot.  Problem solved.  Schwarzenegger has presence for days, and the gradual reveal that he's a cyborg under that flesh is a good one.  Plus, I'm not sure any other actor has had more prosthetic faces made for special effects purposes as Ahnold.

If you think this is bad, wait until "Total Recall."

Beyond that, the special effects are alright (I'm sure for the time they were good, but some of it reminded me of the stop-motion and matte work from the first "Robocop" movie), about on par with what John Carpenter was doing at the time.  There are things you just have to overlook as relics of their time, and roll with them, and there are other things that work fairly well.  But "The Terminator" is definitely a pre-CGI film, and that's something that you have to make peace with fairly quickly.  The other thing that stood out to me was the soundtrack, which seemed very much like the direct predecessor to Daft Punk's score to the recent "Tron" film.  And, considering this was an electronic soundtrack in the '80s, I've got to tip my hat for a job really well done.

Where's my beef, exactly?  "The Terminator" isn't much of a story - it's a decent concept with some fighting and shooting and Arnold being bad-ass, all of which was expanded on greatly in the next couple of sequels.  There's a built-in excuse for the clunkiness of the some of the action; it's explained that the robots aren't very smart, and have had great difficulty building cyborgs that could pass for human, and this Terminator is the first one that comes close.  But that is an admission that some of the material is clunky.  As is the dialogue.  Sometimes, like with Arnold's lines, it totally works (largely because he doesn't say more than three or four words in a row at any given point).  Sometimes, like with the police, the dialogue sounds perfunctory, like there's some vital information that needs to be gotten across in the quickest, least elegant way possible.

And there's the issue that while people remember things like Arnold looking bad-ass in a leather jacket and shades, saying "I'll be back," he spends at least as much time in the film dressed like a hulking dork.  Witness:

Total dorkage

I think that a lot of the fondness for the original Terminator film comes down to selective memory.  There are a few memorable scenes, but it's largely indistinguishable from any other action film from the same era, save for Schwarzenegger's presence.  I might feel that way because I saw T2 first (when I was a kid, and I was blown away by it, naturally), but it could just be that I've watched a few films from this era, and a lot of what's here isn't particularly gritty or interesting, even when it's trying hard to be.  But then again, I'm not really a James Cameron fan, so make of all this what you will.

3 / 5 - Blu-Ray

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