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And this computer thinks it can win… by killing the mother of its enemy. Killing him, in effect, before he’s even conceived… a sort of retroactive abortion?

Movie

The Terminator
(1984)

 

The Terminator franchise is a mess of jumbled narratives, stop-start continuations, temporal entanglements and ill-conceived recasting, so at least this year’s latest entry looks as if it will be right at home. The original is only structurally tidy in terms of being relatively linear and unconfused about its objectives. Of course, that means that it needs to sweep a lot of internal logic under the carpet to work. But work it does in spite of that. This James Cameron at his leanest and hungriest, in stark contrast to the narrative bloat that has since (quite unnecessarily) consumed his storytelling.

Indeed, The Terminator is a relentless nightmare of a movie. It’s years since I revisited the picture; I don’t think I’d revisited either this or T2 in the years since the second and third sequels have come out, but watching them back-to-back it’s very evident how this series’ roots have as much, if not more, in common with the horror genre as they do action cinema (it has that in common with the original Mad Max). It’s a blend it would share with Aliens. It’s said Cameron switched to action after Terminator was enthusiastically received that way, rather than as horror, but that may be on the apocryphal side.

The predestination paradox at the heart of the plot is one that refuses to really satisfy, but at least it’s in the DNA of the picture. Some have sought to explain it by positing the idea that, for the events in Terminator to occur, there has to be an original timeline where – for some reason – a John Connor who isn’t the son of Kyle Reese sends Reese back in the first place. Consequently, the loop we see here is at least the second iteration of that.

It’s a commendable try, but ignores essential simplicity with which Cameron devised the tale and the linear manner in which such plotlines tend to be constructed. When Reese whisks back in time minutes after Arnie, the filmmakers aren’t considering this in terms of the tricky logic that the already arrived T-800 should have all the time in the world as an advantage. T2 follows this schematic, as indeed do most time travel narratives. It’s simpler that way.

The causal loop is also there in Cameron’s deleted scenes. The reveal that the factory at the end belongs to Cyberdyne is picked up in T2, and is as crucial as the identity of John Connor’s dad. Harlon Ellison took a credit after claiming Cameron had used The Outer Limits episodes as inspiration. Whether or not he did (Cameron has claimed otherwise), the concept isn’t exactly exclusive to Ellison; Doctor Who’s Day of the Daleks had a similar predestination paradox 12 years earlier (albeit absent of any crucial rumpo), and 12 Monkeys would follow a such a course a decade later.

Thus, we have a narrative where John Connor dutifully ensures Kyle Reese gets a photo of Sarah (the one taken at the end of the picture) so he can become devoted to her and volunteer to go back in time. T2 will forsake this. Ironically, since it is a much less satisfying movie: the predestination paradox is generally the stuff of twist short stories leaving the reader going “Oh, that’s clever”. The more one pokes at it, the less appealing the cleverness becomes (the most irksome example of this kind of thing is Time Crimes, where the protagonist’s precise re-enactment of events beggars belief). So it’s curious in this regard that a deleted scene from Terminator addresses the main thematic thread of T2; the unfixed future. Sarah suggests they go and destroy Cyberdyne and Reese replies that’s not his mission.

What Skynet thinks about all this is questionable (until Salvation, but even then…). They are presumably sending all these differently skilled Terminators back in a fairly short space of time (one of the most marked aspects of the first movie is that the resistance has won, so where these Skynet resources come from is curious in itself). Do they just hope to strike it lucky? Do they never come to realise the essentiality of their own involvement in the paradox? It’s one of the problems of a franchise like this that once one considers the many variables they might affect the same dogged focus becomes less and less convincing (How about sending a Terminator back to steal a nuke and wipe out LA, if Judgment Day is inevitable (Rise of the Machines)? Skynet would presumably still be developed eventually and it would at least sort out the Sarah Connor problem.)

The only time travel theory I find reconcilably satisfying is that of parallel timelines, since it can get on board with most anomalies and paradoxes. It’s something the series has generally avoided (although the TV series appears to entertain the idea), with only a singular but multiple expunged timelines. There’s certainly no room for it in the original. This is a series that has repeatedly stumbled with internal consistency; as Reese says “One possible future, from your point of view. I don’t know tech stuff”.

The theoretical side of the series is, however, spotlighted in one of my favourite scenes. Exposition-heavy scenes are often a pain in the arse, clumsily introduced and delivered. Here though, Reese’s interrogation by Earl Boen’s Dr Silberman serves to hold the picture’s rules under bright lights. Silberman’s a great character: lazy, bored, patronising (“A sort of, retroactive abortion”). It’s no wonder Cameron brought him back (it’s a particularly nice touch that he exits, engrossed in his pager, as Arnie enters the police station).

Combined with Lance Henrikson’s detective, cackling encouragingly whenever Silberman leads Reese on (“Ray guns?”; especially good is how his self-aggrandising anecdote about junkies on PCP is interrupted), the scene has a down-to-earth quality that lends weight to the picture’s verisimilitude. The limited budget also really helps the picture for the most part in this regard, with only the occasional effects-heavy moment falling down. I’d have liked them to find a way to get both Henrikson (off screen death) and Paul Winfield (badly wounded) back in the sequel, but getting Boen was particularly appropriate in terms of the outright disbelief of Reese’s tale told.

The actual genesis of Skynet picks up where WarGames left off the previous year; it was “built for SAG NORAD by Cyberdyne Systems”. If only Matthew Broderick had been on hand this would all have been satisfactorily sorted out by now.

This is a movie where it holds true that less is more. The more a franchise is unearthed and mined, the less mystery it holds.  Reese explaining, “The 600 series had rubber skin. We spotted them easy. But these are new” evokes a world of claustrophobic possibilities. And Cameron’s flashbacks to future Earth are a master class of economic storytelling that may have been incrementally exceeded budget wise in the sequels but aren’t actually more impressive. The guerrilla warfare and the infiltration by a Terminator are riveting and kinetic scenes.

It’s the little touches that appeal too. The T-800 doesn’t know Sarah’s full name so is gambolling around like a serial killer, offing anyone with the particular name he doesn’t like.

Arnie’s impassivity here isn’t actually all that impassive (Cameron purposefully reined that in) but he’s like a rock compared to the touchy-feely stuff that will follow. In T2, Cameron doesn’t really recapture the “dilation of time” as he calls it with the Terminator attacks. It’s a shame, as there’s a palpable, visceral terror to the dreamlike slow motion of the scenes in Tech Noir and the murder of other Connors and Sarah’s flatmate (it has to be said Matt – Rick Rossovich – the flatmate’s boyfriend actually gives as good as he gets before he goes down, much more so than any other human victim).

The celebrated Arnie moments are all pretty much as good as you remember. The opening with Bill Paxton’s and The X-Files’ Brian Thompson is perhaps a little less confident than later scenes, but the weapons purchase from the great Dick Miller is sheer class (“Phased plasma rifle in forty-watt range’). Arnie doesn’t actually don his trademark leather and shades until nearly the hour mark. The attack on the police station hasn’t been bettered, even if more polished set pieces have followed in T2. Then there’s his “possible response” to a guy asking if he’s got a dead cat in his apartment or what (“Fuck you asshole”).

Less satisfying is his retreat to do a few self-repairs, when he could surely have finished off Reese and Sarah at the scene of the car wreck (one asks similar questions about Reese wasting so many explosives trying to hit Arnie on a motorbike). The fake Arnie head and blue screen endoskeleton finale are less effective, effects-wise; although, the warehouse clawed pursuit is up there in terms of tension.

Both Biehn and Hamilton acquit themselves well. Biehn can alternate between slightly unnerving (he was Lauren Bacall’s obsessive stalker in The Fan a couple of years before) and chipmunk innocence, which is about right. He has the right kind of build for someone surviving on scraps (unlike Jai Courtney; one valid complaint about the Terminators, and a consequence of casting Arnie, is that they’re not really the greatest of infiltration devices amid a malnourished human resistance), and doesn’t think twice about appropriating dirty smelly tramp trousers.

Hamilton’s transition from disbelief and terror to internal strength is more nuanced and impressive than the cuckoo’s nest of T2, although the line “You’re terminated fucker” is dreadfully cheesy. She falls victim to the inevitable failing of the heroine making stupid choices (calling mom) to fuel the advancement of the plot, but she’s believably a different person come the last scene.

It’s unsurprising Cameron hasn’t gone near overt sex scenes since this; their passionate embrace is rudimentary stuff, and one gets the impression Jimbo was very relieved to have it done and dusted. The love story is rather pressed into place and rudimentary, lacking the development that would forgive the way it strains for the hopelessly romantic (“I came across time for you Sarah”). Such elements have never been Cameron’s strong point (see both True Lies and Titanic as evidence). It’s probably just as well the take-it-or-leave-it Christ retelling is unintentional (saviour of humanity John Connor – JC – Jesus Christ) as Cameron would have undoubtedly overegged it.

There are a fair few elements in The Terminator that haven’t aged well – the haircuts, especially Sarah’s are dreadful, headbands are popular in 1984 and 2029, although the obsession with Walkmans is more endearing – but for the most part it stands up. I remembered the aforementioned Terminator effects to be more jarring that they are, if anything. I’ve never been that keen on Brad Fiedel’s score, however, truth be told. The ominous Terminator theme works, as does the main theme, but an awful lot else resembles discordant bashing about that is only so far from getting on the nerves.

What really vindicates the picture is that, in spite of a plot that should get demerits for lacking internal coherence, The Terminator succeeds by dint of conviction and verve. The spectre of the bomb, and the intimate scale of the elements lend the movie particular endurance; the inevitability of the apocalypse (“He said there’s a storm coming”) is balanced against personal peace with the long game. There’s little doubt that each reiteration since has picked at the scabs of logic here and exposed them, but that shouldn’t make the original any less of a compact and effective little gem. Cameron could learn from his early lack of self-indulge now. Perhaps after Avatar 4 he will take stock (no, I don’t think so either).

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