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The Terminator (1984)

R 108 minutes

Directed by James Cameron
Written by James Cameron, Gale Hurd

 · Arnold Schwarzenegger
 · Michael Biehn
 · Linda Hamilton
 · Lance Henriksen
 · Paul Winfield

Review by Reel American Hero (Mike Keskeys)

In the year 2008, The Terminator, James Cameron's iconic film was preserved by the Library of Congress as being a culturally significant film.  And it is a culturally significant film, it begat the Terminator franchise that we know today.  As well as it put James Cameron on the hollywood map.     Now, with a fourth film in the franchise hitting theaters now I figured it was time to go back in time myself so to speak and revisit the films that brought us to this point, to see how they all hold up today. 


First up, the original 1984 film many herald as the best of the bunch, and classic.  I'm afraid though that I have to disagree on this point.  It's an entertaining  film, with loads of iconic images, scenes, and dialouge.  But the picture itself as a whole is a bit of a mess.





   The Terminator opens with a dark vision of the future.  It's the year 2029, in a world that the machines have taken over.   But the machines have lost, what remains of humanity, led by John Connor, has won.  The machines have one last chance to survive, send one of their own (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger)  back in time to 1984 to kill the mother of John, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). 

John Connor also sends back one of his soldiers, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn-Aliens) in order to save his mother and in effect his own existence. What comes next is a race against time as both the Terminator and Kyle try to find Sarah Connor, with the future in the balance.


  So, just from the description alone you know that you're not walking into a Merchant Ivory picture here.  It's meant to be pure entertainment.  And I'll give it that, it is an entertaining film, but it's not that great a movie as everyone remembers it to be.   It's has good things in it however.  Arnold Schwarzenegger is  intimidating and believable as the Terminator, though I suppose saying an actor is believable as a machine isn't really that much of a compliment to his craft.


 The real credit for carrying this picture though, lies in the underrated work of Michael Biehn, who has to convey a whole other world that the movie didn't really have the budget to show at the time, so his performance has to convey this essential plot information, and be believable as well.  I was quite impressed with his work here, and am surprised that he never really became a star outside of genre work.   One of the most underrated actors of the 1980's.  


    I also have to give credit to Linda Hamilton's performance here, she has one particularly bad line towards the end of the film, but overall she does a great job in this, going from victim to hero.  One of the strongest written female characters of that time, along with Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley from the Aliens films.


 And the credit to that comes from James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd's script, which itself is flawed, and built upon a paradox that film fans have been debating for years, but it sets up the world of the Terminator, so in that aspect he's rather successful.


 Brad Fiedel's score is one of the weaker points of the film, aside from the iconic theme heard throughout the movie, the synthesizer heavy score falls flat, and in certain scenes proves to be somewhat of a distraction from the rest of the movie.  


 Another of the film's biggest flaws is the cinematography by Adam Greenberg (Snakes On A Plane).  His rather close up heavy work makes the film feel more like something from tv rather than a movie, save for a few great shots the camera work here is visually boring, and I almost fell asleep a few times watching the movie from the lack of visual style.













   The special effects, something that James Cameron are usually known for innovative and stunning work was not quite present here at this point in his career it seems.  As there many flaws to the effects when looked at from a contemporary standpoint.  I know it was a low budget movie, from the early 1980's no less, but there are some scenes, for example when the Terminator removes the damaged skin from his eye revealing the machine underneath that should look awesome, but for some curious reason the makeup department made a full on fake Schwarzenegger head for the scene, rather than just a bit of makeup applied to the eye, the resulting look took me right out of the movie. 

 And the climax of the movie  a;lso falls flat due to the lack of budget, starting out as a car chase through a tunnel while C-4 grenades are being tossed at the Terminator comes off laughable as the 'explosion' is nothing more than a smoke bomb.  Again, I know it was low budget, but they could have done something different there, rather than saying they're tossing grenades at the Terminator, which blow up in puffs of smoke that the stuntman can ride through safely and the characters wonder why the 'explosions' aren't stopping the Terminator.  Seriously.

 Eventually they manage to take out the Terminator in a pretty impressive actual explosion, which burns the flesh from his body revealing fully the machine underneath.  It's one of the things people remember most about the movie (I actually remember being frightened of this as a child)  There's  a great reveal shot there, but the resulting stop motion effects during his final chase for Sarah Connor look laughable and took me out of the movie yet again.  



 Am I judging the movie too harshly, perhaps.  But in comparison to what came later in the franchise, namely it's immediate sequel T2: Judgment Day (which I'll have a retro review up for at a later date) and in effect the movie itself does not hold up.  It's entertaining, but what people remember most of from the movie and why it's so highly regarded today is based more the world it set up, and a few classic lines of dialogue and scenes and shots.  Everybody remembers 'I'll be back.' but wisely forgets 'You're terminated, #$%%!'.     It's remembered more for it's moments of greatness in my opinion more than the film as a whole. 

1080 Words Published: 23 May 2009

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