We jump from a movie about parallel time periods with a robopocalypse to a movie about parallel time periods with a robopocalypse.
THE TERMINATOR (1984)
Directed by: James Cameron
Written by: James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd
THE TERMINATOR in one sentence:
Golem: Terminator? I hardly know 'er!
Here's a story about me and THE TERMINATOR:
Yourself: I have an old friend who called himself Kyle Reese for years. I still don't really get that joke.
Golem: Kyle Reese is an old friend of mine.
Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: Isn't it crazy how all the major Hollywood sci-fi franchises started out as slashers? ALIEN, PREDATOR, TERMINATOR, STAR TREK, pretty much all the big hits. TERMINATOR tends to get lumped in with time-travel sci-fi action post-apocalyptia, probably because it's got all that, but structurally this tale is 100% slasher. It's got far more in common with JASON LIVES than with BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II. We've got the 'masked' unstoppable psychopath, we've got the survivor girl, we've got the falsely accused hero, we've got the skeptical police officers, we've got the slutty friends, we've got the sacrificial lover [all of whom get murdered], we've got the highly contrived defeat of the slasher.
The key thing that makes this movie feel more substantial is that the survival of the girl has a point. When I sit down and watch a Friday 13, I root for Jason, because who gives a shit about these little nerds he's wiping out. Generally we're made to hate them (fuckin' Crispin Glover). TERMINATOR goes back to the sane non-extremely-cynical movie-making handbook and says hey, let's make the mass murderer the bad guy. And let's not only do that, let's also hang the fate of the entire human race on the survival of this one woman. And that, ladies and gentleman, gives us a conflict. The elaborate backstory for the slasher and the hero really fall straight from this.
The only plot gripe I have is that Sarah becoming this great leader feels like a fairly bizarre twist. I know the point is that she's a totally normal waitress and it's as big a shock to her as it is to anyone else, but I don't really buy it. The Sarah of this movie feels kinda milquetoast. So, what, learning how to make pipe bombs transformed her into the kind of nutjob that could raise a revolutionary leader? [well, that is implied in T2, where she's introduced as in brain jail for trying to blow up a Circuit City or something].
Golem: Why doesn't Kyle Reese eat a gun to take a weapon into the past? How does Sarah outrun an 18-wheeler?
Sarah's transformation into resistance leader felt fine to me upon watching because its spot in the plot is natural. After the Terminator wrecks a police station, Sarah has no one left to rely on but Reese and herself. That's when Reese's world takes over Sarah's world. You sleep in the most secure hole-in-the-wall you can find, and kitchens aren't for cooking food but for cooking explosives. But then, on reflection, that doesn't make the transformation any more logical.
The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY for the '80s (armed to the teeth and on cocaine). Cameron loves his raw images. He can't help breaking out the geometry over and over, be it the thousand match cuts in the first ten minutes, cars driving in parallel, the trash heap future that can't be bothered to have a straight line anywhere (except, of course, robo-lazers), or, you know, rippling male buttocks. Sigh. Douche chill. The framing is hella intense too, from Sarah Connors being crushed but isolated in the club to the repeated close-ups of the Terminator driving around in a cop car in search-and-destroy pan-and-scan mode. It's all jammed in there at a jarringly fast rate suitable for the action blockbuster fascination of the time.
Going in I remembered TERMINATOR being a largely blue-gray-night movie, but there's a lot of subtle color shifting to keep us up with the tone. Sarah's all-too-consciously sitcom intro in the diner is set in the soft lighting and pastel wash of an AMERICAN GRAFFITI, while the police station, bastion of logic and order, is sterile white and brown.
Golem: Maybe this speaks more to my nostalgia for films of the period than a genuine sense of taste, but THE TERMINATOR shows that bad practical effects are still creepier than CG. The Terminator scraping out his own eye stuck with me for years after my initial viewing, even though I chuckle over how obviously fake his head is. Plus, the sleek, mechanical stop-motion skeleton at the end gives me the heebie jeebies. The animation jerks awkwardly, but something about the image looks more tangible than CG. Although maybe it's better these days.
Performances to speak of?
Yourself:I know this is anathema, but this is not my favorite Arnold role. His physical presence is immense and integral to the below-discussed thematics of mechanical perfection, but Arnold was (or became) a pretty great actor in his own right (in a pure camp way). He works best when his murderous rampages are played like mischievous hijinks. Although he looks truly demonic cruising around eyebrow-free, I spent too much time wanting to high-five the old boy to be scared. While I don't think it's a better movie, T2 makes better use of similar players. Arnold gets his moron-hero role and Robert Patrick gets to be the child molesteriest artificial intelligence I've seen since last week when I watched THE MATRIX.
Golem: In the first half of the film, I love watching desperate Kyle Reese. He steals a guy's pants, he holds up a cop to ask the year, and he begs Sarah to "come with me if you want to live." Just a lot of running and yelling. His run is panicked--compare it with the Terminator's confident stride (during the Technoir scene I think?). His voice is high enough that his yelling comes off as tryhard instead of badass. (Hate to admit it, but: when I hear his opening lines, his voice reminds me of Silver the Hedgehog, a hero from the future notable for his high level of whine.) Naturally, Kyle finds peace once Sarah believes him, but their goofy home life and his self-sacrificing action sequence aren't as entertaining. Although I did raise an eyebrow when Sarah played "think fast!" with the bag of pipe bombs and Kyle played along, smiling.
And it's hard not to get into the snarky, dry characters inhabiting the police station: Lieutenant Traxler, Detective Vukovich, and Dr. Peter Silberman. There's also Nancy, Sarah's fellow waitress and the queen of ironically meaningful statements such as, "In a hundred years, who's gonna care?" and, "You're dead, honey." But I think at this point I'm listing side characters that I like instead of talking about acting.
A really cool shot or sequence:
Yourself: To me a great scene is one that abstractly reproduces the entire concept of the movie. I can't come up with a better example than the parallel 'birth' of the Terminator and Kyle Reese.
The Terminator appears in clouds of smoke in front of a pneumatic garbage truck, scaring off the driver. He's crouched, perfectly still, back hunched forward in an unnatural semi-circle (not unlike an egg!). He rises silently, fluidly, showing off the sculpted Davidian physique and perfect posture that only a lifelong career as an international bodybuilder can bestow. After scanning his surroundings with a meticulously horizontal neck-pivot, The Terminator strolls forth to loom over a vista of the city, dominating the night skyline.
Reese makes his entrance in a dark alley swirling with trash and filth, materializing splayed out in midair before slamming immediately to the ground. He's grimy, scarred, and bruised; he can't scramble to his feet quickly enough. By the time he jogs down to swipe the pants off a bemused hobo, he's already been spotted by the police and is on the run.
So, what we've set up in about three minutes is that machines, the sleeping giant in plain sight, have risen, co-opting the human ideal and hovering over every aspect of our lives. The machine is god, all-powerful and all-seeing. Humanity's fleeting moment in the sky is over - we've come crashing back to earth, battered from our ambition, knee-deep in waste and little more than scared animals on the run.
Golem: The entire film superimposes Kyle and Terminator's future antics over the present. Kyle scampers between clothing aisles in the present the way he does through heaps of mangled wreckage in the future, and Terminator bulldozes. The Terminator just bulldozes always and forever.
But the police station shootout firmly yanks Sarah out of her time and into Reese's. Watching the Terminator tear apart the station, it's not hard to imagine how the future got the way it is (will be?). More than that, though, he demolishes the law established by humans. "It decided our fate in a microsecond," Reese says, and you can see that microsecond when the Terminator says, "I'll be back."
It's also fun to see a staple sequence of the monster-of-the-week style executed so well. Watching it brought back memories of those old episodes of Doctor Who where the ineffective military would have terrible-looking clashes with terrible-looking, invincible monsters. Only now the direction is engaging.
Also, I just really like the Terminator crawling after Sara at the end. They're both so hopeless and desperate, it's great to watch them at their wits' ends.
What does it all really mean?
Yourself: I guess this was James C.'s little way of saying turn off your goddamn iPhone you dirty motherfucker have a real conversation we are having dinner listen to me goddamnit I am your father. I would say about 35% of the run-time of TERMINATOR is spent on one-way phone calls. Let's count!
- Sarah misses a call from her date who leaves a message to cancel their date
- Sarah picks up her apartment phone and is mistakenly sex-talked by roommate-boyfriend
- Sarah's Mom leaves a message in the background while Sarah dicks around with her lizard
- The police call Sarah's house and miss her
- Roommate gets killed by the Terminator because of her head PHONES (he kinda did her a favor, she was gonna go deaf by 40 anyway)
- Sarah calls her house from a payphone and misses her roommate
- Sarah calls 911 from the club and they put her on hold (this feels like not that real a thing)
- The Terminator fakes out the cops over the radio with his magic voice box
- Sarah calls her mom to say some incredibly irresponsible things only to never find out she was talking to the Terminator, or as I prefer to call him, the Answering Machine.
- And lets not forget, it's a phone directory the T-800 uses to track down all the S.C.s in the city.
That was just REGULAR phones and they almost caused the downfall of the human race. Now we have phones that we call "smart" and "droid" and "Terry". Kyle Reese would be ashamed of us.
Oh, right, the point being I guess that reliance on technology is dismantling our social interdependence and that leaning on machines to interface with people is about as personal as interfacing with a murder machine with the skin of a person. I don't know if that's how anyone would've read it in 1984 but in 2015, consciously considering how much deeper we've dug that hole, it's hard to miss.
Golem: I came away from this with a more sappy message. Sarah trades in her cold, awkward iguana for a German shepherd. She's just terrible with people, always getting accidentally sex-phoned and kids dumping ice cream in her work uniform. But when she meets a guy who taught himself to ignore his feelings (probably great with future-people but not so much with present-people), they get around to having a good time. Not only does she find purpose, she finds someone willing to invest in her. That's when she clicks on and starts investing in others: buying a vehicle with more than one seat and recording memoirs for her son.
There are also some one-way communications sans phones. Kyle shouts at the security camera during his interrogation, speaking directly to Sarah from the past. Sarah talks to Big Boy and her iguana (at different points in the movie). And you are watching the movie!!!
Note to future self on watching THE TERMINATOR:
Yourself: If time travel is real, send a hamburger (organic beef only) back in time to this exact moment. By TERMINATOR rules, I've just disproven time travel. Also, watch TERMINATOR more often.
Golem: You know, I enjoyed this movie more after knowing what would happen. Pay more attention to shot composition. During the shot when the kid puts ice cream in Sara's pocket, don't get so distracted about who is telling who should be tipping who. Mull the foot/stomping motif.