Like they say, hindsight is always 20/20. Predicting the future is never as accurate as truly “seeing” it. Back in the early ’80s, the action film genre was on its last legitimate legs. The ’70s had taken the once viable category and dragged it through a dozen b-movie drive-in permutations. Unless it was being helmed by Stephen Spielberg and centered on a he-man archeologist with a funny first name, no one much considered stunt-oriented cinema as the upcoming decade’s moviemaking messiah. That was before young hot shot James Cameron and his sci-fi masterpiece The Terminator came along. Borrowing a bit from speculative fiction’s past (thank you very much, Harlan Ellison) and arguing for a new style and approach to edge of your seat thrills, it remains, some 27 years later, one of the benchmarks in the business called show.
Forget the fact that it launched a relatively unknown bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger into the upper echelons of the A-list (and into a certain State House). Ignore the fact that it would spawn a sequel that literally redefined the use of special effects and computer technology in filmmaking. Heck – how can you overlook the fact that its primary driving force, that glorified geek named Cameron, went on to direct the two most popular motion pictures of all time (Titanic, and Avatar)? From the steel-blue gray color scheme that defined the genre’s look – until The Matrix remade it in mossy greens and browns – to the careful combination of concept and execution that remains to this day, the story of a future warrior sent back in time to protect an unknowing waitress from the mechanical menace out to destroy her is, perhaps, the single most important film of its time.
Linda Hamilton is Sarah Connor, lowly hash slinger and unknown mother of a post-apocalyptic savior. Her unborn son John will one day rise up to be the leader of a rebellion that will take on the genocidal Machine State indirectly created by US Defense contractors Cyberdyne Systems and their smart grid, Skynet. After two other women with the same name are discovered brutally murdered, Sarah grows concerned. She fears she is being stalked, and soon runs into two ‘individuals’ that will change her life forever. One is Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a man from the year 2029 who is there to warn her and protect her from a robotic fiend known as The Terminator (Schwarzenegger). This cyborg, covered in human skin, will stop at nothing until Sarah is dead…and if she dies, so do the hopes of all future mankind.
In order to fully understand the impact of The Terminator on today’s Hollywood, you have to grab the same time machine that transported Reese back to 1984 and look at the landscape the action film was existing in at that time. On the one hand, home video had jump started a whole direct to cassette format that reminded the industry of the previous decades passion pit parameters. Foreign film concerns like Canon cobbled together fading stars and untried martial artists for their quickie one off franchise wannabes, while the big studios didn’t quite know where to go next. Unless your name was Indiana Jones, or Luke Skywalker, no one cared about your onscreen spectacle. When Cameron came along, the need for a significant shakeup was at hand. Many were trying to trump the mainstream. Cameron just stepped in and stripped it bare.
In its place, he produced iconography and scope. He reinvested the then cliched heroes and villains with viable personality and individual depth. He found shorthanded ways of reconnecting with a disinterested audience, and argued for his own skill behind the lens with action scenes that profoundly shaped the artform. Along with Spielberg and names like John McTiernan and Renny Harlin, the genre has never been the same. All pushed for extremes within the everyday, the capability of the human to tackle and take down the most inhuman of threats and punishments. Besides that, they avoided the 2011 au current trend toward creating chaos in the editing bay. While shots were indeed thrown together with the same kind of kinetic force as the material they were illustrating, they didn’t countermand the viewers ability to follow the progression. Instead of a “you are there” POV, movies like The Terminator argued for an “aren’t you glad you’re not” ideal.
But Cameron’s creation also had body and mythos. While some (or many feel, a great deal) was lifted from Ellison’s classic short story (and eventual Outer Limits episode) “Solider,” the director also channeled his own fears of technology-in-overload and nuclear annihilation into the storyline. Remember, this was a time of mass proliferation and Cold War jitters, all of which find their way into The Terminator‘s sphere of influence. Similarly, Cameron continued the human connection by making policemen Traxler (Paul Winfield) and Vukovich (Lance Henriksen) into identifiable types, working class Joes suddenly overwhelmed by forces from another time. With performances that make everything crackle with basic believability and plenty of panache behind the lens, the results were a revelation.
The new Blu-ray release doesn’t add much to the conversation, save for a sensational collection of revamped tech specs. The image is amazing -sharp, clear, and much more colorful than past presentations. The sound has also been beefed up to match the new transfer. The improved mix, which maximizes the excellent score and spatial ambience, brings the nearly 30 year old title up to date. Sadly, the extras are a bit lacking. A Making-of retrospective is far too short, and a dated overview with Cameron and Schwarzenegger is short on insight and overloaded with celebrity smarm. Even the collection of minor deleted scenes and slight digi-book essay don’t help matters much.
Of course, none of that is important in retrospect. No matter the format or form, The Terminator stands as one of the era’s most important efforts. For who and what it introduced to modern moviemaking, as well as the lingering impact today, it stands as a monumental achievement. But that doesn’t discount its inherent entertainment value. This is still an amazing inventive and thrilling rollercoaster ride, a clever combination of action tropes and emotional investment. If it didn’t work as a prime example of the genre, no one would be championing it three decades later. But because it is so good – and so important to what contemporary popcorn cinema is – it’s power is predictable. In 1984, Hollywood had never really heard of The Terminator‘s team. Today, it wouldn’t be the same without them.