The Terminator series is now so long and full of iterative nonsense that it has managed to reach the pinnacle of any once great franchise: soft reboot time. What does that mean? It means that, in a canon sense, the series is being stripped back to the original two James Cameron movies and continued from there with the next instalment in 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate. Considering how convoluted and nonsensical the series would be if we continued to pile on top of the twisted timeline, this seems like a decent idea. Will it actually be any good? History suggests…no. BUT not only is Arnold back, again, Linda Hamilton is in. This gives me hope. In any case, it’s as good an excuse as any to return to the series’ relatively humble beginnings with The Terminator from 1984, to see how it holds up 35 years on.
In 1984 James Francis Cameron of Ontario, Canada was not yet the kind of filmmaker who can confidently announce not one, but four, sequels to a single film at once. He was not yet a man who had helmed the top two grossing box office hits of all time. Instead, he was the writer of Piranha II: The Spawning. Make of that what you will, but with the release of The Terminator that was all about to change. Another man, one Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a star on the rise, having come to attention in two Conan movies, He would also have his career transformed by the success of this film. They joined Linda Hamilton and Michael Bein in a cast and crew which now seems star-studded, but at the time was an unlikely combination which somehow resulted in a surprising mega-hit, unambiguously becoming one of the greatest films of the 1980’s, and one of the most singularly iconic of all time.
It is surprising just how pop culture pervasive The Terminator has managed to become. This is not because the movie is poor, or has aged badly, but because it is so dark. Not only does it present a disturbingly bleak vision of humanity’s future, but the Arnold on show here is not a muscle-bound quip machine, he is a heartless cyborg who represents everything that mankind should be afraid of. His lack of empathy, fear, and repercussions means that no space is safe from him. He has no respect for law, sanctity, or witnesses. He has a job to do, and collateral damage isn’t even something that he can compute.
But let’s slow down a little. The boiled down premise is this: in the future man has fallen to machines, but a resistance has arisen and is on the brink of victory. To prevent this from happening Skynet, the defence system which has rebelled against its human creators, sends back a terminator (Schwarzenegger), a machine disguised as a human, to prevent the resistance’s leader and icon John Connor from even being conceived, by killing his mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) before the war begins. The resistance manages to send a single agent to try and prevent the assassination in Kyle Reese (Bein).
Of course, you probably already know that, because even if you haven’t seen this film before you’ve probably picked up the basic premise over the years through the constant winking other films, tv shows, and video games make towards this classic. So, if you haven’t watched it yet, is it even worth going back to? Well, yes. For a start this movie proves that Arnold is a better actor than he is sometimes credited for. His physical presence is an absolute necessity here. We see him emerge from his time travel completely nude, and frankly magnificent in his muscle-bound glory. Throughout the film his literally enormous presence visually separates him from the actual humans. But Arnold’s brilliance here is not solely down to his biceps. There is stillness to his face, and a preciseness to his movements which ensures that although human in appearance, there is never really any doubt that at heart the terminator is a machine. Strangely, despite being a killing machine, he does also already have the comic timing that we will see more of in the sequel. When buying weapons from a store he begins to load a gun, which the clerk obviously has a problem with.
‘You can’t do that,’ he says.
Arnold turns the gun on him. ‘Wrong.’
Exactly why a hyper-advanced killing machine would feel the need to say anything at all before killing the poor guy, I don’t know.
But I love it.
Like I said, this is a dark movie, with two scenes which can be accurately described as massacres, so Arnold’s comic timing presents a necessary reprieve to lighten the mood.
Those two scenes, one in a nightclub and one in a police station, have become more troubling and disturbing with time, as America has continued to suffer repeated mass shootings. Aware that she is being pursued, Sarah Connor retreats into what she assumes to be the safety of a public place: a loud, busy nightclub. She contacts the police, who in turn reiterate that she will be safe in such a place, for there are too many witnesses for someone to cause trouble or commit an act of violence. But the terminator does not care for this social code, this normalised expectation that even a criminal cannot avoid the fear of repercussion, and strides into the nightclub with a laser sighted pistol and takes aim at his target. Reese saves Sarah, but the terminator kills indiscriminately, and later attacks the police station which Sarah and Reese are held with a similar level of indiscretion, not only killing to defend itself, but killing any and all who it sees because there is no reason for it not too. The machine becomes as frightening as any movie monster, perhaps more so, as there are few figures in film who have such little respect for human life. It is why it is not unfair to consider this movie not simply as an action, or as a sci-fi, but as a horror, particularly now when we consider the real world fear that we have of the extremist violation of the social contract in regard to the sanctity of public spaces.
Indeed, the terminator is essentially a serial killer, but instead of the narrative revolving around an attempt to work out the identity of the killer, it is explores the fact that despite knowing from the start who the killer is, no one can realistically stop it from doing whatever it needs to do. It is an unstoppable force, evil embodied, and it exist because of us.
The Terminator is only becoming more relevant with time. In 1984 Cameron created a version of the world in which we were on the brink of allowing technology to surpass our humanity, but back then this meant creating characters like Ginger, who is so obsessed with her music player that she doesn’t remove her headphones for sex, misses the phone ringing, and doesn’t hear the sounds of the terminator beating her boyfriend until his corpse bursts through the door and she becomes the next target. In 2019, we are yet to create our own technological apocalypse, but we are even more reliant and obsessed with technology than Cameron could have imagined 35 years ago.
I suppose this means it makes perfect sense to have another terminator movie now, and I’m very interested to see how our modern obsession with technology can be challenged without being preachy or derivative. Honestly, maybe it can’t, but I understand why they’re going back to the well. Personally, I’m quite happy to simply revisit this one, but for younger and less forgiving audiences, I can understand that this film may not have the same appeal as a new big budget imagining. There are some absolutely classic and wonderful practical effects which I find to be marvellous and nostalgic, but I can accept that there are some who may find Arnold’s rubbery face during a self-surgery scene to be a little immersion breaking.
The ideas that this franchise tackles are timeless, and with a fresh coat of paint and, hopefully, some new insight, there is no reason why those ideas can’t be moulded into something as exciting as the original, and the sequel.
But we’ve seen what happens when things go wrong.
We’ve seen it three times, in fact.
Hopefully the missing ingredient in those false starts was Linda Hamilton, and with her back in the mix I’m holding out hope that this time we’ll get something worthy of the name.
If not, I can always go back to 1984, time and time again.