Part noir, part horror, part cyberpunk, the film that put both Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron on the map to Hollywood god-dom was 1984’s The Terminator, a clever and precise scifi thriller with budget action and true art design. It may be more important as a historical piece, but as a movie, it’s highly effective and endlessly entertaining.
The story is so classic it needs no mention, and what it also needs none of is a franchise. What happens here is there’s a war between mankind and evil machines in the future, beginning in 1997 and through 2029 at least, when mankind is turning the tide thanks to one John Connor. Time travel has been invented, and the machine race, Skynet, sends back an assassin to murder Connor’s mother — before he’s even born.
Let’s go ahead and forget all of that. The Terminator is really about — what? Let’s start with: “back an assassin to murder.” The key idea is that the villain of the film is someone (or something) that would not stop, no matter what. You could blow it up, and it’ll still come forward.
That makes for a low-down, Road Warrior-esque chase movie, which goes zero to sixty in, well… thirty or so minutes. And yet, it’s also a romance, and a twin character study. Michael Biehn plays Kyle Reese, future soldier who’s tasked with protecting Sarah Connor, but is haunted by memories of the future, in all its glorious miniature-work and stop-motion.
Sarah Connor grows, from put-upon waitress to the foundation for the hardcore soldier we see in T2. That’s what the movie is about, and it could’ve just been about some Russian assassin who was so crazy that you could shoot him and he’d keep coming, but James Cameron is a scifi kinda guy. So he creates this massive explanation, which is then folded into the film in a very graceful way.
From this massive explanation, we get a struggling mythology that barely sustained one sequel, and could not do the same for two, never mind three and a TV show. But that’s what happens with science-fiction. It’s a creative playground, with so much potential. Doesn’t matter if that potential was fulfilled in the first movie, let’s keep at it.
And I’m mixed on that front. I’ve enjoyed a lot of the Terminator franchise, sole exception being Terminator 3, and I don’t really buy into the whole ‘soiling the good name of the franchise.’ Maybe just because that’s what people are always on about, but honestly — Terminator 3 doesn’t make me look back on Terminator 2 and think ‘how dare you spawn such a demon seed.’
That being said, Terminator Salvation represents the greatest disappointment. It’s a good movie, I enjoy the robot action insofar as like: Terminator (1984) > Salvation > Robocop 2 (it can be slim pickin’). The thing I love the most about Terminator as an idea is the whole future war thing. We get tantalizing glimpses here, with two great scenes.
Like I was saying yesterday with Hard Boiled, these Terminator scenes were highly formative. They sent me down that dark road, the interest in science-fiction that led to the various revelations here: visuals and ideas. Nothing was more visually interesting than the future scenes of the Terminator movies, but what they needed was something more compelling than support for the green and blue parts of the film.
We’ll have to wait for that compelling something…