Love Is An Austrian Killing Machine: Re-watching Terminator

Recently I wondered whether a Terminator computer game could capture the feel of the first film.  I haven’t played many Terminator games, but most look like straightforward shooters, which isn’t what the first film is about.  Terminator is about evasion, about fear and uncertainty and desperately trying to avoid a more powerful foe.

Terminator is a quick stab of action, sci-fi, and chase movie.  It feels shorter than its 108 minute duration but fits in more than most longer films.  The film speeds along, much as Sarah and Reese rush to escape the T-800.  Even the opening shots – where most films simply set the scene – quickly begin to push the narrative forward, as we watch the arrival of two beings from opposing sides of a war.

The film suffers from this pace – lacking some down-time to make the rest more engaging – but only slightly.  And now on to film notes:

[Note that the T-800 will mostly be referred to as Arnie]

Yes, I know that’s Bill Paxton playing a punk.  What troubles me is that the film is set in present-day (in 1984) yet there’s the inclusion of a man with spiky blue hair and a tire tread on his face.  Was this James Cameron’s idea?  Is this what he thought the people who prowl the streets of LA look like?

How would Arnie find Sarah if she wasn’t in the phone book?  And what would happen if he hadn’t quickly found her?  Every hour she was on the run would make finding her exponentially harder.  I imagine Arnie travelling America for years, randomly thinning out the population while hunting for Sarah and waiting for Judgement Day.

One of Sarah’s colleagues says “In 100 years, who’s gonna care?”.  That’s relatively subtle foreshadowing compared to the grindingly-obvious references of Terminator Salvation.

Sarah’s date cancels on her.  To cheer herself up about being alone on a Friday night she goes to the cinema, then has dinner in a club.  By herself.  And this is to stop her feeling lonely?  She dines in Tech Noir, a good representation of what the 80s thought the future would look like, all flashing neon and corrugated iron.  There are aesthetic similarities to Aliens, which Cameron would direct two years later.

I imagine many people’s memories of Terminator, like mine, are of a film that takes itself very seriously.  So it’s strange to see Sarah’s flatmate as a comic character, having sex with earphones on, obliviously dancing to the music while her boyfriend is being whooped by Arnie.

The retro-trainer geek in me is delighted to see Reese don a pair of Nike Vandals.  All battles in films should be decided by who’s wearing the best trainers.

The concept behind Terminator is great.  Some have criticised it; Harlan Ellison claimed the idea was plagiarised from his work. Regardless, a robot travelling back in time to kill the mother of its foe, thus ensuring said foe doesn’t exist, is a great idea.  Terminator shows how well a Saturday night action movie fused with a good concept can work.  People criticise the logical problem with ‘go back in time and pump my mum so I can exist’ (to paraphrase).  My response: find me someone who’s tried it.

What exactly is it that makes John a leader of men?  Is sharing Reese’s DNA a requirement?  Say Sarah didn’t get stood up that night and, while Reese and Arnie were looking for her, she was making sweet love.  John is born without Reese’s hard-as-nails genetics.  Does he turn out differently?  Am I over-thinking this?  Yes?  Okay.

In one scene with Arnie driving his face takes on a strange rubbery look; his head is shiny enough to look like a prosthetic.  Seconds later it’s back to normal.  Strange.

Arnie finding Sarah in Tech Noir is surprisingly tense, though it’s obvious he’s not going to succeed in killing her.  Sarah leaning over just as Arnie makes his first pass, the slo-mo, the reveal of a shotgun-stashing Reese at the bar, it’s all done so well that it has all the drama of a final scene.

I have no gun knowledge, but why wasn’t Reese’s shotgun already cocked?  When he sees Arnie take aim he rises, takes a second to cock, and fires.  That’s an important second.  Was he afraid to blowing his nuts off?  And where did he get the money to buy a drink?  And does the concept of currency exist in the future?

My vague memories of the film gave the line “Come with me if you want to live” much more of a dramatic baritone weight.  But Michael Biehn delivers it quite matter-of-factly.

Darkness in films is rarely realistic – being unable to see isn’t much fun for the viewer.  So when Arnie knocks the lights out in the police station there’s little difference in brightness, except in the room Sarah’s hiding in.

As many have said, Arnie is perfect for this role.  His size, demeanour and complete lack of humanity works so well.  It must be a bit of a kick in the nuts, however, for people to tell you that your acting abilities are best suited to playing a machine.  Schwarzenegger towering over Michael Biehn gives a nice contrast to their respective roles too, the war between the powerful robots and the smaller, wilier humans encapsulated.  There’s a moment in the police station where Sarah hides under a desk.  An arm smashes the glass and unlocks the door.  Is it Arnie or is it Reese?  That arm is the size of an arm; not the size of a leg – every viewer knows it’s Kyle.

“I’ll be back” is one of the most iconic lines in cinema, yet it really serves no purpose.  The policeman Arnie says it to doesn’t care.  But it’s cool, and admittedly it does set up Arnie’s vehicular return.

Reese mentions working for the robots in factories.  Why would they even want humans to work for them, wouldn’t people be more hassle than they’re worth?  Couldn’t they just build their own workers?  Now I’m imagining a class war amongst robots, some working class droids rebelling against their masters.  Maybe they team up with the humans.  Maybe I should stop thinking about this.

The scene in which Arnie imitates Sarah’s mum’s voice quickly comes and goes.  But looking back, so much more could’ve been made of it, which would slow the pace down.  In a previous scene we saw Arnie find the mother’s address.  Then all we see is Arnie there when the phone rings.  No shots of her dying or Arnie breaking in, just the implication that she too has been terminated.  Keeping this kind of pace up is about knowing what to leave out.  Cameron handles this brilliantly.

If terminators are metal wrapped in skin, does that make them inverted fleshlights?  And if metal can time-travel as long as it’s wrapped in flesh, couldn’t Reese have shoved a gun up his arse?

Reese says “Nobody goes home” in reference to him and Arnie as the scene cuts between the two preparing for battle: Reese bandaging up and making explosives, Arnie taking his bad eye out.  Reese and Sarah work on chemistry, both with making explosives and also making love.  Their love is explosive.  Sarah lights Reese’s fuse with her caress, he—

It’s strange that Reese tells Sarah that he loved her because of a photo.  You’d have to be a stud like Michael Biehn to get away with it.  If I tried that I’d be thrown out of the room, Jazz from The Fresh Prince-style.  I wonder if John would’ve sent someone else if he knew the truth:

“Go back in time and save my mother”
“I will.  I love your mother”
“Sorry?”
“I’m sexually attracted to your mother.  I want to make you with my semens”
“….Barnes, you go instead”

Even in the war-torn future I refuse to believe Reese never had a woman.

Arnie repairing his damaged eye is the first of two bad special effects in the film, but generally the effects hold up well.

The synth score is mostly great, and its absence makes the silent moments feel heavier.  I say the most part, because a different song kicks in when Sarah and Reese flee the hotel and, quite simply, it’s not very good.

We see much more of the future than I remember.  It is strange that the last we see of it is Reese on the ground, under fire from a terminator, while the photo of Sarah burns.

Another way to compress the storytelling: keeping John hidden.  This film is a masterclass in efficiency.

I know Arnie cares not for police intervention, but riding a motorbike with a shotgun beside you probably isn’t the stealthiest way to go about your business.

And we’ve arrived at the finale.  Seconds before the truck explodes, Reese jumps into a bin instead of hiding behind it.  That might’ve been the right decision, but it’s funny to see the bin on fire seconds later.

Victory!  Arnie must have been destroyed in that explosion.  Reese and Sarah share a triumph-hug mere feet from the explosion.  That was sudden.  But wait!  The two are framed to the left of the screen.  What’s all this excess space for?  Well now, who’s that rising from the flames?  It’s at this juncture that I regret calling the T-800 ‘Arnie’ throughout, cos all the Arnie bits have been burned off.

The stop-motion terminator really does look bad.  Cameron at least recognised this limitation and used so many close-ups (that work well) so the thing could be puppeted, but there’s enough animation to ruin the mood.

It’s only here that the problem with such a pace rears its head.  Most films up the drama and action for their finale, but Terminator has already been on full-bore for nearly 90 minutes.  I’ve been desensitised, there’s no extra level of tension to rise to.

Incredibly, for an 80s action film, there’s only one line I cringed at.  Sarah tries to motivate an injured Reese with “On your feet, soldier”.  I get it, she’s trying to take advantage of his military instincts, and this might give us our first glimpse of the hard Sarah of T2, but it doesn’t work with her character at this point in time.

One thing that annoys me about zombie films is how inconsistent they are with the time it takes characters to zombify.  Depending on the story’s requirements, some people change within seconds, some within minutes.  This often breaks my suspension of disbelief.  Reese shoves an explosive into the T-800’s chest.  The same explosives that detonated within seconds earlier in the film.  Yet, due to the need for drama, this one takes a relative age to explode.

The film makes up for this flaw with another moment of efficiency: Reese’s death.  Sarah turns his body over, he’s already gone.  No farewell speech or further claims of love as his eyes glaze over, no instructions, just deid.  The way it should be.

Sarah’s has now physically slowed, in that she’s went from driving, to running, to crawling.  Yet the pace of the film itself keeps pushing forward.

“You’re terminated, fucker”.  I’ll take it.  It’s not a great line but it’ll do.  My worry is that if I rewatch T3 I’ll hear that line reused in some horribly overt reference.

I remember watching T1 and 2 in quick succession years ago and being bored by the ending of both.  But this finale is well-handled, dramatic and efficient.  I don’t know what my problem was.  If I watch T2 again, though, I don’t expect it’s ending to be so neat.

Epilogue now, we’re almost done.  A pregnant, more confident and determined Sarah pulls into a petrol station.  What happened immediately after she destroyed the terminator?  Do the police have her registered as a missing person?  Do they think Reese killed all those officers at the police station and then abducted Sarah?  Throughout the film dogs barked at terminators.  Dogs just know, you know?  Sarah’s now owns one, which rides in the passenger seat, presumably as a terminator early-warning system.  Sarah doesn’t hint at why it’s there, the film again not needing to labour a point.  An audience can think for itself sometimes.

The gaskeep mentions there’s storm coming.  Sarah approaches it regardless.  The symbolic point is made, the theme music kicks in and the film ends.  A good ending to a great film.  If the franchise ended here it would be very well respected.  Sadly, the Terminator name has been sullied with sequels, but the first film stands alone as a classic.


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