I’ll be bahck: The Terminator
Dir: James Cameron
Rating: 4.5 / 5 laser eyes from the future
Hello, world! It’s been a couple months! I’ve been watching movies, never fear, just nothing off The List. D and I have somehow fallen back into a Parks and Rec rewatching vortex, which takes up a lot of free time, and have been seeing a lot of movies in theaters — Texas summers are so extra that you actually can’t be outside unless it’s after midnight and / or 90% of your body is in cold water. We’re deep into that phase of summer right now, and will be for the next couple months, so life is lots of TV in the air conditioning, and lots of movies in the air conditioning when we absolutely have to leave the house.
Also, lots of travel! We hopped across the pond, explored a bit in the middle east for a wedding — the jet lag has abated but the culture shock remains — then took my first ever trip to Chicago (where we WERE on a mission from god, thankyouverymuch) — it’s been an exciting summer so far. But D just started taking a class, leaving me with some pre-scheduled wide open hours a week, so it’s time to start working through this movie list! For real this time.
Quick non-Ahnold sidebar before we dive in: we re-watched The Godfather for my millionth time earlier in this summer heat avoidance for the first time in a few years, and I have to rhapsodize publicly for a minute about how near-perfect that goddamn movie is. The opening shot, with the dim lighting hitting Bonasera’s forehead — he’s sweating, he’s nervous, why? — saying “I believe in America” gives me chills up and down my spine. That first line is the entire movie, the entire trilogy, in four words. The wedding scene is a crash course in filmmaking. We meet almost every important character we’ll need for the next three hours, but nothing feels like an introduction; we learn about personal histories and relationships and plans without getting a lecture or long expositional speeches — I was grinning like a fool for the entire opening sequence, and kept it up with alarming consistency, considering how much violence and death you run into. No one should be grinning with a body count that high, but it’s just so GOOD. Anyway, that’s not the point. Another post for another time.
So here I am, re-committed to my movie catchup goals, and starting with probably one of the more iconic films on the entire list. I started this experience with a lot of pre-conceptions and misunderstandings about The Terminator, least of which being that I didn’t realize there was a “the” in the title. I thought I had a basic understanding of the plot, I knew the “I’ll be bahck” and “Come with me if you want to live” quotes, so I figured I was just here to fill in some details and get set up for the sequel, about which I knew almost nothing. I also thought I was dealing with your average ’80s action flick, and thought I had a good understanding of Ahnold as a middling action movie talent with a little goofiness up his sleeve (Twins, anyone?).
HOW WRONG I WAS.
For some context, here are the things I “knew” about the first Terminator movie:
- It’s about Sarah Connor’s son, who is an actual character in the movie
- The Terminator character is the protagonist (deduced from the fact that I thought this was Ahnold’s star-making role)
- It was directed by someone I’ve never heard of / never seen any of their other movies since I don’t have a comprehensive handle on the action movie genre
I’ll give you a minute to finish laughing — I promise you D has not stopped laughing since I explained the intensely backward place from which I was approaching this movie. Obviously #3 was dispelled during the opening credits — my exact note is “didn’t realize this was a James Cameron joint” — but I held on to the other two for MANY minutes into the movie. Other notes as I was watching include “I thought Sarah Connor had a son? Maybe this is all about her iguana…” and “Ahnold really seems like the bad guy here…” (the latter after he kills Sarah’s friends in cold blood without even checking who he was killing first, eesh!) The iguana was an attempt at humor, of course, but still. I was confused, I was lost, and I think that made the experience of actually watching the movie that much sweeter. Because this movie was effing sweet.
Overall, The Terminator is about humanity’s upcoming struggle to survive, and the power of machines in our increasingly interconnected world. It opens with a questionably naked, super built man-looking being showing up in a junkyard in a seemingly self-created electrical storm. He immediately fucks some shit up, steals some clothes from a few horribly misguided punx, and sallies off into the world, proving himself pretty quickly to be a killing machine, though we don’t know yet how literal that assessment actually is. Another man-looking being shows up in a similar place, in an identical electrical storm, gets some clothes through slightly less violent means, and heads out in pursuit of our first recently-naked arrival. Everyone seems to be looking for a woman named Sarah Connor, who we eventually meet as a nice, young waitress living with a goofy roommate who LOVES her walkman. From here, naked arrival #1 spends the rest of the movie on a brutal killing spree in pursuit of Sarah, who realizes she’s being hunted, links up with naked arrival #2, and they proceed to go to ground together, hoping to stay alive and kill the machine that’s trying to kill them first. We learn that both naked arrivals are from the future, where a neural net called SkyNet has overtaken humanity post-nuclear apocalypse, and the arrivals are on opposing sides of the struggle for survival — arrival #1 (the Terminator) is programmed to bring home a win for the machines, and arrival #2 (Reese) is a soldier in the human resistance. Sarah is going to have a baby who will eventually lead the humans to fight back against their machine overlords — if the Terminator has his way, she’ll die before any such baby can exist; if Reese wins, he’ll not only ensure Sarah’s survival, but will play a very personal role in Sarah’s son being created and born. There are chases, explosions, love scenes, and eventually (spoiler alert) the side of the angels wins the day, but only just barely and at great cost, as with any satisfying victory.
There were some touches in The Terminator that I really loved, especially if you imagine watching it with no frame of reference at all (even less than the broken frame I had). You don’t actually know that the Terminator is a cyborg for the first half hour or so — it’s not until you get the behind-his-eyes shot as he’s running towards TechNoir and see that he’s a GODDAMN COMPUTER that you know we’re dealing with something that won’t be so easily killed. It’s doubly satisfying since there have been such heavy references to machines in the time leading up to that shot, and if you know nothing about the plot, you gotta wonder like, why such a focus on machines in this movie about a waitress in trouble? OH BECAUSE A MACHINE IS HUNTING HER OK. Any time the audience is asked to do a little thinking, asked to wait a little while and just observe and learn before the plot and goals become clear, I’m a happy camper. Don’t give me a speech or exchange explaining the whole movie, put me in the middle of the action and let me figure it out for myself! Respecting the audience’s intelligence always, always leads to a better movie.
Then by the time we get Reese’s explanation of the whole backstory — he’s from the future, really, humans are at war with machines, Sarah Connor’s son is a big deal in the human resistance and Reese has been sent back to make sure her son is born (in more ways than we know when he’s saying it, heh heh) — we have enough context to want and understand that much explaining, rather than getting it at the outset and just watching things play out as we expect. Excellent storytelling, Mr. Cameron.
Also, since I was so delusional in my pre-viewing plot understanding, I thought that both of the beings coming from the future were cyborgs — had no idea about the humans-vs-machines plot (so, the whole plot) — so that, combined with my assumption that Ahnold was the good guy, led to an intensely confusing chase scene while Ahnold is obviously trying to kill the heroine, Reese seems to be trying to save her, and my poor lil brain is still trying to make Reese the bad guy AND a cyborg. Once I got straightened out — right around the time that Reese says “Come with me if you want to live” — I was able to ride along with this adventure in complete comfort.
I know the point of this movie is the cyborgs and explosions and whatnot, but I must say that I also really enjoyed how the romantic relationship between Sarah and Reese (or Kyle, if you like) developed. It’s a really important one — can’t have a sequel or human-saving John Connor without that relationship — and it could have been handled SO poorly. It could have been forced (physically or narratively), it could have been sappy, it could have been confusing, but it was none of those things. When we first meet Reese, even when they first meet each other, I wasn’t hit over the head with like, HERE’S THE ROMANTIC SUBPLOT Y’ALL, GET PUMPED. They don’t know each other for long, but by the end, the fact that they make a make a humanity-saving baby together makes sense. And I mean, saying “I came across time for you, Sarah” doesn’t hurt. It’s a little heavy-handed, but it works! It makes sense for the character — he’s this focused, intense dude, so it follows that his personal feelings would be as heavy and on his sleeve as his care for humanity, for his commander, for the cause. And even though I am notoriously bad at anticipating plot points, by the time they were working on making John a reality, my note was “Prediction: Reese dies, Sarah has his baby, names it John.” We see it coming, but we’re bought in and along for the ride at that point, so it’s a nice little call out rather than clunky storytelling.
There’s a lot more to unpack and enjoy about this movie — the final gas tanker explosion is incredibly satisfying without being over the top; the intensely ’80s soundtrack and costumes; the fact that in a dark scifi action movie directed by a man, the female character gets a not-cringey romantic relationship and is STILL the only one with agency and arc and growth (still pissed about Blade Runner, Ridley Scott 😡) and her arc and growth are from hesitant waitress into apocalypse-ready badass, carrying the savior of humanity in her womb, but her story isn’t solely about her being a vessel for a male character, it’s about HER — this is an awesome movie. The action is satisfying, the plot is involved but not confusing, and the relationships feel developed and real — I think I ended up caring about the fate of almost every character with more than a couple lines. You don’t have to sacrifice the FX and explosions and violence to make an action movie with real human (or non-human) stories we invest in. Thanks, James Cameron.
(Also thanks for Titantic — that two-VHS madness is still a dang masterpiece.)
Iconic? I don’t think I even have to answer this. Obviously yes.
Re-watchable? Sure — it probably won’t come back through the ranks for a while, but that has more to do with how many OTHER movies I want to watch than with any flaws in this one.
Favorite moment? The whole chase scene culminating in the shootout at TechNoir and Reese getting to say “come with me if you want to live” was pretty great, and was the only time we see Ahnold and Reese in the same shot. This was also a satisfying moment personally since it’s when I finally figured out who I was supposed to be rooting for (lordy), but there were a bunch of little gems throughout — tough to pick just one.
Hated? The only thing I really disliked in this whole thing was the blatant Nike product placement — when Reese gets some clothes together after time-traveling, there’s an unnecessarily long shot of his sweet Nike kicks, and then there are subsequent unnecessarily long shots of his sweet Nike kicks! They get dirty and bloody, and we keep checking back in with them — it sets the scene solidly in the ’80s, but it also really took me out of the movie and into “hey, product placement, how’s it going?”
Bechdel test? Just by a hair — Sarah and her soon-to-be-dead friend talk about going out dancing for just a minute before the talk turns to men, and they clearly have a deep, real friendship that we see too little of; after her friend dies, Sarah doesn’t get any other female characters to talk to. Unsurprising, but forgivable given Sarah’s badass character arc.
[NEW METRIC ALERT!] Favorite IMDB trivia fact? “Arnold Schwarzenegger had his eyebrows insured at Lloyds of London as he feared that they might not grow back properly after he shaved them for the scene where he runs over a car on fire in the alley after the Tech Noir shootout.”