' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Terminator (1984)

Friday, May 14, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Terminator (1984)

“The Terminator” (1984) famously concludes in the mode of a slasher movie as the cyborg assassin (Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent from the future to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), mother of John Connor, future human resistance leader in a war against machines, will not die, coming back to robotic life again and again, eventually reduced to merely its metal endoskeleton, that mortifying red eye glowing in the dark. It might as well be a metaphor for “The Terminator” itself, in which writer/director James Cameron, both from his own storytelling ingenuity and out of financial necessity, reduces the film’s narrative to just the bare bones essential. True, in crafting that narrative Cameron pilfered from all manner of places: Greek myths, the Nativity, and from an episode of the 1960s television show “Outer Limits” so liberally a closing credit acknowledged it. For so many sources, though, “The Terminator” never feels convoluted, just elegant in its own brawny way, grafting any essential exposition into the few moments of necessary falling action, or even occasionally into the action itself, like a car chase, living out the inexorableness of the cyborg assassin itself, ultimately existing as the sort of cinematic experience the screenwriter Paul Schrader recently lamented as having neared extinction in an age of streaming, IP and endless prestige TV: “concise stories which land like a punch to the face.”

The basic storyline and all its attendant backstory, fleshed out over so many sequels, is so ingrained in the culture at this point that it’s sort of stunning to revisit “The Terminator” almost 40 years later and realize just how little we know upfront, how Cameron deftly unspools each informational kernel, keeping us on the proverbial edge of our seats. Two title cards break down the future (2029) and the present (1984), the rise of the machines and John Connor’s opposition, so that we have some sense when The Terminator and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) appear in weird flashes of light that they are likely not from this world. Even then, though, Cameron withholds. While he hints at their differences in the ease with which The Terminator acquires clothes and weaponry and the struggle of Reese to do the same, we do not learn who Reese is until he finally confronts The Terminator just as we do not discover The Terminator’s true cyborg nature until, in the middle of that confrontation, the movie switches to the character’s digital readout point-of-view. The identity of Sarah Connor is revealed by connecting scenes of pages ripped from the telephone book by both men listing all the Sarah Connors in Los Angeles to a scene of Sarah seeing a news report of another dead Sarah Connor on the TV, evoking how Cameron consistently dramatizes information rather than spoon-feeding, ensuring the pace never slackens.  

That pace comes to life in the performance of Schwarzenegger, finding the perfect story and director to utilize his specific muscular presence, where simply placing him in a car, narrow his eyes and scowl, mechanically look right and look left paint an unforgettable picture of a remorseless, relentless killer. As Reese, who is resourceful rather than inevitable, Biehn’s desperate humanity works as the key counterpart to the purposely emotionless Schwarzenegger. Hamilton, meanwhile, is a far cry from the chiseled action hero she would become in later movies, evincing an arc from blissfully unaware to almost preternaturally stoic in facing up to her destiny. And even Paul Winfield scores in a bit part as the kindly if overmatched detective offering aid and shelter to Sarah; the way Winfield moves with a cup of coffee in his hand, eyes looking up over reading glasses, through a cacophonous precinct epitomizes someone who has found a way to live on Pacific time amid a world gone mad.

All these years later, The Terminator’s assault against the entire police precinct, triggered by the famed “I’ll be back” declaration, still imbues a distinct guttural sense of helplessness, though the defining action sequence remains the shootout in the dance club where Sarah briefly takes shelter. It’s not just that Cameron deftly converges all the storylines at once before spinning off into another direction, but that the dance club itself became the literal emblem for the entire genre “The Terminator” helped to create. Cameron called the club Tech Noir to evoke a hybrid of American noir and a sort of dystopian sci fi, a fatalistic sense that technology has both taken over and ruined us. Indeed, the few flash-forwards to apocalyptic 2029 do not look especially different from 1984, save for the lasers and flying machines. The present day atmosphere is akin to the Los Angeles of John Carpenter’s “They Live” (1988), a burned out wasteland suggesting we have turned our backs on humanity, lending credence to the idea of opting for faith in machines instead, transforming the emergent romance of Sarah and Reese into something like the divine without having to expressly say it, and all wrapped up in Brad Fiedel’s score, that sinister metallic rumble juxtaposed against the majestic like-a-phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes melody. 

The success of “The Terminator” demanded a sequel, of course, and so it came to pass in 1991 with “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.” Flashing ahead a few years, with a scarred Sarah and her son now a teenager, the impending apocalypse was not only acknowledged but averted, rewriting the future. It did that well, certainly, though the darkly grand climax of the original endures. It is at once deterministic and hopeful, contradictory ideas rattling around in Sarah’s tape recording for her future son, winning the day to lose the battle to win the war, or something, brought home in that Biblical matte painting storm into which she drives as the credits roll, destiny decreeing the rainbow is only on the other side of hell.

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