Movie Review | The Terminator
Movie summary: A seemingly indestructible robot is sent from 2029 to 1984 to assassinate a young waitress, whose unborn son will lead humanity in a war against sentient machines, while a human soldier from the same war is sent to protect her at all costs. (IMDb)
It's funny to watch The Terminator and think about how the first two movies in this franchise mirror the Alien movies: the second movie is a science-fiction action epic, but the first movie in each series share more elements with horror than any other type of genre. And, as far as The Terminator goes, not just a single type of horror either.
The movie starts off with the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in the role of serial killer, matching that type of murderer perfectly by choosing mostly female victims that share something in common between them - here being the name of Sarah Connor. The cyborg is incapable of empathy or emotion, coolly working his way through a list of targets.
It then becomes almost a zombie movie when Sarah (Linda Hamilton) and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) finally meet, with simply shooting the Terminator does stop it - it just keeps getting up and coming after the pair. The movie then becomes a thriller, with the machine figuring out how to track its last target, before the reveal of what would be the true supernatural element of a horror movie, as the Terminator's skeleton rises from the dead.
Not to say that the sci-fi elements are played down, with time travel and cyborgs front and centre, never mind multiple scenes set in the future showing off the fantastic designs of the machines warring with humanity in that far-off time of 2029(!). The make-up work and prosthetics used on Arnie are also pretty damn cool to look at and it's no surprise that they became instantly iconic - especially that single glowing red eye.
It's also interesting to look back on the casting for this movie and the difference between the man, Reese, and the machine thanks to how views of masculinity have changed over the years. As Eighties action movies would go on to show, the huge musclebound star was to become the ideal and not the relatively scrawny guy we get as the hero in The Terminator.
But look at it from today's point of view: the huge, muscular and more 'ideally masculine' powerhouse is a villain to fear and hate, while the smaller, relatively scrawny guy who dedicates his life to lifting up a woman so she can save the world is the hero of the piece. Well, the male hero of the movie anyway - Sarah's the one who actually displays the most bravery of the pair.
I say that because Reese is a soldier whose life has been entirely about fighting these machines. This might not be just another mission for him - as he eventually reveals to Sarah - but it is closer to his 'normal' life than to hers. Hell, Sarah is introduced in bright sunshine and light, cheerful music that feels like a scene from an entirely different movie.
To go from that to fighting angrily for her life and others, persisting despite the constant threat and danger to her life, shows just how tough and capable she could always have been if ever given the opportunity. Is it any wonder that Sarah Connor is viewed as one of the great feminist heroes of cinema when taking that into account?
Another thing I noticed on watching The Terminator again is how much it operates like - get ready - Big and Groundhog Day in one particular way: it doesn't feel the need to explain itself. How does the time travel work? Who cares, it just does. How did Skynet create the Terminators and how do they work? Kyle's response: "I don't know tech stuff."
Or how about skipping over Reese and the Terminator adapting so quickly to the past? Reese flat out states that he was born after the war with the machines began and the Terminators definitely weren't around pre-war. These details aren't the point of the story though, so the movie - and audience - correctly leave these issues aside, ignoring them as the trivial matters they are.
Then there is that iconic theme that acts as an audio identity for the movie, although I think it does stand out thanks to it standing out from the other music. A lot of the synthesised score reminded me of the first Mass Effect game, which makes sense as that was intentionally taking inspiration from Eighties science-fiction, so the percussion-based title theme really sets itself apart from the rest of the music.
The last 'new' thing I spotted after watching it again - I say 'new' because I probably did notice it before, but had just forgotten about - relates to the barcode burnt into Reese's arm, as he explains how the machines rounded humans up and put them into camps for orderly disposal. Yes, the movie paints the Terminator and the rest of the machines as Nazis, aided by the Teutonic presence of Schwarzenegger as the supreme villainous Übermensch.
The only thing stopping me from rating The Terminator more highly is that I think it fails in a very critical area: it doesn't do enough to sell the audience on just how high the stakes are. I know this isn't really the focus of the movie, which is centred squarely on the relationship between Sarah and Reese, but the plot is about saving humanity by keeping Sarah alive.
Thanks to the character work, you do absolutely want Sarah to live because you like her so much, but there's never that level of anxiety you'd expect from a movie about saving the entire human race from oblivion at the hands of the machines. While I do appreciate the horror aspect to the story, it does lead to the story feeling like trying to prevent a serial killer from completing his murderous goals rather than trying to save the world.
The Terminator is still a great movie even thirty-five years after it came out, although it feels more like a horror movie than straight-up science-fiction most of the time. Yes, things are a little dated, but that doesn't really detract from the story revolving around the core trio: Sarah and Reese running from the Terminator, with Schwarzenegger as one of the most perfect castings ever here.