80s Movie Challenge Week 5: The Terminator (1984)
We said we’d be back! More #80smc fun this week as Paul Childs and Andee Dee talk about the film that made both Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron household names. As with many of our 80s Movie Challenge pieces, spoilers lie ahead, so proceed with caution…
I grew up in a pretty liberal household, and while for whatever reason my parents had a bizarre aversion to naughty language, horror films were not only fair game, they were actively encouraged. Raised on a healthy diet of Jaws, The Fly (both versions), Cujo, Legend of the Werewolf, She, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, to name but a few, The Terminator, with its seamless blend of time travel and brutal monster slasher horror was, to use an American idiom, the peanut butter and jelly of movie genres. After numerous attempts to recapture the time-displacement electricity of the original, some great (T2), some dire (Genisys), going back to revisit the original film crushes each and every one of them like a hydraulic press.
Most time-travel scripts are intricate but this is brilliant; I have always been a sucker for the concept, and I think the quintuple whammy of T1/T2 and the Back to the Future trilogy (the latter two of which I would have seen around about the time I first saw The Terminator), cemented my fascination. Some of the film’s best sequences, the decimated future overrun by “the machines”, like the shark in Jaws, is used sparingly but just enough so that it both enthrals and terrifies us. There’s an old moviemaking mantra of “show, don’t tell”, but Michael Biehn gives a riveting performance throughout, and I would happily make a career out of this guy’s chilling war stories.
Two characters I’m glad were kept unblemished by some sort of misguided attempt to explore their backstory in some tedious prequel, are Detective Lt. Traxler and Detective Vukovich. They bring some much-needed levity to the proceedings and act as a great point of view to all the madness occurring with Sarah and Reese. Their mundane exchanges “That coffee’s two hours cold” “Mmm-hm?” “I put a cigarette out in it”, are just the kind of dry, grounded viewpoint the audience needs after Sarah has been whisked away on her timey-wimey adventure.
Arnie has never given a better performance than as the eponymous Termie. Although I do take issue with his decades of detractors; snag whatever low-hanging fruit you like about his abilities as a thespian, the man has far more range than people give him credit for. Even some of the comedies he was lumbered with in the mid-90s were more the fault of lacklustre scripts than any limitations on the part of his acting chops. True Lies showed that he had a genuine knack for dry wit delivery that was sadly overshadowed by his bumbling turns in films like Jingle All the Way and Batman & Robin.
I think one of my defining movie-going moments as a child was near the end of the movie: upon finally defeating their cybernetic stalker by way of exploding sixteen-wheeler, we see the chilling silhouette of the broken ‘bot topple over as the flames engulf it, finally bringing its relentless pursuit to a fiery end. Sarah stumbles through the burning wreckage in search for Reese, the frantic chase music from before limps to a slow, mournful-yet-satisfying close just as the Terminator did, and Reese finally emerges through the smoke and they embrace, exhausted, “We did it, Kyle… We got it.”
Woo! What a truly awesome movie, I was all ready to boot up the Amstrad for an afternoon of videogaming, as the credits were surely about to roll…
But no! Suddenly Brad Fiedel’s score cranks back up, and… holy crap what in the hell is that in the background? ErghmaGERRRD it’s the Terminator with all its flesh burned away, and it’s coming for us! Reese and Sarah make a dash for it, and I made a dash for it out of the living room because I had to gather up the fragments of my tiny mind that had just been blown around most of the house (not to mention the seat of my pants). This absolutely raised the game for me in how I expected movies to go – we weren’t just through the looking glass, we were beating the glass down with a metal pipe and frantically trying to undo the lock behind it.
Reese goes toe-to-toe with the Terminator but is sadly no match; he ends up sacrificing himself for the good of humankind, and STILL, he comes a-crawlin’ for our heroine. Like all good monster movies, it pops up for one final scare (although even kid-me saw that coming). From the initial rise of the machine, the movie cranks into a gear I didn’t know existed and never lets up until Sarah delivers her final crushing blow to the chrome caitiff, “You’re terminated!” (the BBC version I had recorded off TV had excised the lewder language, so mum and dad were happy to give me the tape the following morning) – It was years later when I found the much gorier cut on BBC2 that retained the eye-gouging scene that solidified my squeamishness for all things involving eye stuff.
As a kid reared on horror movies, evil skellingtons are de rigour in my line of work, but ones made of metal with glowing red eyes that wear human skin and are immune to bonfires? The big reveal of the metal endoskeleton was my “no, I am your father” moment (I didn’t see The Empire Strikes back until nearly a decade later), and still gives me absolute chills whenever I rewatch it. The cybernetic dystopia and the potential perils of AI that this movie (and to a greater extent its sequel) conveys was a formative element in my love for the genre. Videogames, comics and anime that retain these tropes have an origin in my love for The Terminator, and it will be as firmly etched in my memory as the photo of Sarah was etched in Reese’s.
Come with me if you want to live…
Okay, that’s a bit dramatic. Er, come with me if you want to read more of my nostalgic ramblings!
Still with me? Great! In that case, do you remember the moment when you became a film fan? Not a person who watches films – we’ve all done that. No. I mean that defining moment when you’re watching a movie and suddenly everything clicks into place and you think “Now I understand”. That moment when you fall in love with film? I do.
For me, that epiphany came in the autumn of 1988 when I was thirteen. That school term my middle brother Lee, who is two years younger than me, was admitted to Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, north London, with a serious illness, and there he stayed, in a ward for boys, for several weeks while they prodded and poked and operated on him. During the week our mum would stay at the on-site accommodation in the hospital grounds while my dad looked after my little brother Barrie and I. Then on a Friday night Dad would go down to spend time with Mum and Lee while Baz and I were carted off to our grandparents’ house.
But now and again Grandpa would drive us down to visit Lee. And when we did, Lee would always rave about the films the nurses had shown the lads to keep them from getting bored. Lee was eleven at the time, and the youngest kid on the ward by quite a long way, so he often got to watch films far beyond his legal age rating. Predator and The Karate Kid were two of the films he got to enjoy.
So one particular Saturday, sometime in late November Grandpa took us to the hospital to see him. It just so happened that the nurses had hired out one of these legendary movies and put it on for the boys at around the same time as we arrived. I didn’t quite catch the beginning, so didn’t know what film it was, but what I did experience, sat there on the bed with Lee, was a gripping adventure about an evil robot from the future pursuing a young woman.
This movie stood out to me for a couple of reasons. While it was science-fiction, it was not the family fare I was accustomed to up to that point. Here was an intelligent thriller with a fantastical setting but which pulled no punches and didn’t talk down to its audience. Deaths were brutal unlike the bloodless murders perpetrated by Luke and his chums on Stormtroopers, the language used was like you heard in real life and the pace was just so relentless. From the moment the evil cyborg approached Sarah Connor in the nightclub until the highway chase my heart was pumping and I found myself holding my breath on more than one occasion.
And then we had to leave. Kyle Reese had been injured and now the cyborg was bearing down on the pair in an articulated lorry. What a point to end it on!
On the drive home, we listened to my new tape, NOW That’s What I Call Music! 13 in the car, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that film. How did it begin? How did it end? Most importantly of all, what was it called? Cue my good chum Mez, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of 18 certificate films soon relieved me of that answer at school that Monday.
A title I kind of recognised from schoolyard chat of forbidden movies, mentioned in the same whispered conversations as the likes of The Evil Dead and Porky’s – films for grown-ups. I had to see it again, in full this time – but how? My Young Members card at Anne’s Videos wouldn’t even let me hire a 15, never mind an 18, I was pretty sure my parents wouldn’t buy it for me like they were my VHS mule and Wikipedia was almost as far off in the future as the events in the film.
Well, that question was answered for me a few months later. By the spring of 1989, I had started working on Saturdays, pumping petrol at a Texaco garage and earning a whole, crisp ten-pound note for my day’s work (which to a fourteen-year-old in 1989 was a fortune). At about the same time The Terminator came out to purchase on VHS for the first time (a gap of over four years – not like the 4-5 months we wait for home video releases these days!). I saved up my earnings for a few weeks and when my mum went into Kettering one Saturday afternoon, I tagged along. Her and my nan disappeared into M&S to look at boring stuff like clothes and soft furnishings so I made my excuses, arranged when and where to meet them again (because mobile phones were anything but affordable, and now to think of it neither were they mobile, in 1989) and vanished off into the town, planning to hit up all the places I might find this film on VHS.
It was the Kettering branch of the now sadly departed Our Price where I found it proudly sat in the VHS Chart section. I took it down, trying to act like I was eighteen, wearing my new leather jacket and being all tall (I had reached my full height of 6’3″ by then). £9.99 was the cost. That was a lot of money – almost a whole day’s pay! But my mind was made up and after shopping around for some other bits and bobs, I took it to the till, fully prepared for the whole “Have you got ID?” thing.
Which never came.
I paid for my movie, an album on cassette (NOW That’s What I Call Music 14) and a ZX Spectrum game collection (We Are The Champions – featuring Renegade, Barbarian, Super Sprint, Rampage and IK+) and extremely unconfidently made my way to the exit, fully expecting to be stopped by a manager or security guard suddenly realising the terrible mistake they’d made or even an over-zealous member of the public looking to make a citizen’s arrest. I trod a fine line somewhere between slinking out as unobtrusively as I could and getting the hell out of there as quickly as possible. When I met up with my mum and nan in McDonald’s where, as always, my nan complained about the lack of cutlery and plates, I finally stopped looking over my shoulder.
I’d got away with it!
And that’s why The Terminator will always be a very special film for me. It kickstarted my movie buying habit and was the first of thousands of films I would own on various home video formats over the following 31 years (many of them, this film included, which have been upgraded and replaced across multiple platforms as technology advanced). I’ve watched it scores of times and each and every time never fails to deliver a rollercoaster ride.
Although my perceptions have changed as I’ve continued into and through adulthood, The Terminator has stuck with me and on reflection, as I rewatched it the other night for this piece, here are some observations as to why I think it has stood the test of time for me and continues to remain a firm favourite:
Time On Our Hands
The time travel element is extremely well done. I don’t think I’ve seen a film before or since – with maybe the exception of 2014’s Predestination, an episode of Murder Most Horrid‘s first series and the bit with Ted’s dad’s keys in the first Bill & Ted film – where the bootstrap paradox is pulled off with such effortless style. I have this thing with time travel films – while I do enjoy adventures like Back to the Future, Looper and Timecop, I get a greater degree of satisfaction from them when the person who has travelled back to put right a wrong actually causes the event to happen in the first place. Cause and effect, innit?
In the film’s epilogue, as Sarah struggles to come to terms with what has happened to her, and what she knows will happen, she laments “God, a person could go crazy thinking about this,” but she’s most definitely overthinking it. For me one of the wonderful things about The Terminator is that it manages, quite beautifully, to present a simple but very effective circular time travel story. Such a shame that, as enjoyable as it is as an adventure movie, 1991’s follow up, and then subsequent movies and TV spin-offs, would stamp all over that perfectly preserved time-loop by allowing events to be changed. Yes, Reese does say in the first film that “The future is not set,” but all evidence given to us in part one points to the contrary. As a standalone movie, The Terminator is a far more gratifying story than when it’s as a part of a series.
It’s A Small World
While the bigger picture of James Cameron’s story reveals world-changing consequences which we get to glimpse of courtesy of Reese’s PTSD induced flashbacks, during a dream sequence in T2, and in much more, horrifying detail in the third film and beyond, The Terminator works best as an intimate, small scale LA-based chase thriller. Yes, Arnie’s T-800 does carry out some huge atrocities, including letting loose with his Uzi 9mm on a nightclub crowd and riddling the entire contents of a police station with more holes than a New York bagel shop (seventeen of the thirty officers present were killed, we find out in T2).
The T-800, as well as Sarah and Kyle should have been subject to a massive nationwide manhunt but what makes The Terminator so effective for me is that it keeps all that large-scale stuff as background detail, never letting that side of things become the central story. Yes, it’s there, as evidenced when our heroes are brought into the police station for protection, or in the news broadcasts seen throughout the first half of the film – but on the whole, the story is presented as an incredibly intimate tale between three characters: one pursuer, one quarry and one protector – anyone else is just background noise. This really does ratchet up the tension and keep the chase moving at what feels like a breakneck pace until the final confrontation, echoing and nearly fulfilling Reese’s words to Sarah soon after he meets her:
“That Terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear and it absolutely will not stop ever until you are dead.”
Just as the T-800 is focussed on its sole purpose, we as viewers become a part of that obsession, focusing on nothing but the deadly game of Cat-And-Mouse which takes us through a grubby motel, an underground parking lot, a fetid back alley and a freeway underpass. And it’s sweating all this small stuff which really gives The Terminator its beating heart and makes it feel personal like it could, one day, happen to us. The juxtaposition of the normal and the outrageous is a recurring theme, in fact, it’s The Terminator’s raison d’être, and it’s what makes everything that happens to Sarah so heart-wrenchingly horrifying.
It’s this relentless nature as the T-800 strives to complete its mission at any cost which leads to the third reason why I love this movie so much. While there is no denying that it is most definitely a science-fiction adventure, many have been blinded by the sci-fi heavy sequels to the fact that The Terminator is, at its heart, a horror movie – specifically, a fairly brutal slasher. By the early 80s, popularity in that subgenre was waning and filmmakers were coming up with fantastical gimmicks to revive interest (e.g. A Nightmare On Elm Street, Children of the Corn) and by 1985 slashers were all but consigned to the Direct-To-Video bucket, where they would, on the whole, remain (Freddy and Jason sequels aside) until Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven renewed interest with Scream (and all the clones that film generated).
And The Terminator IS scary. Over time we’ve kind of forgotten that because it’s a robot, not a dream-ghost or a supernaturally indestructible murderer doing the chasing. But let’s not forget James Cameron’s inspiration for The Terminator – a nightmare in which a killer pursued him and who he was unable to get away from. In fact, the scene when Sarah first encounters the T-800 in the Tech Noir night club was deliberately edited to feel like a bad dream where everything slows down and you are mired to the spot, unable to do anything except wait for your worst fear to catch up with you.
As well as the nightmare premise, James Cameron also used many of the techniques from the horror director’s bag of tricks, like jump scares, false starts, a fair amount of pretty gross (for the time) body horror, and expert utilisation of space on the screen. When I watched my newly acquired VHS for the first time and got past the highway chase (virgin territory for me) to the moment when Reese destroys the truck driven by the T-800 and he and Sarah embrace in front of the burning wreckage, Cameron expertly uses the void behind them to create a sense of unease before something inevitably appears in that blank canvas to give us a giant scare. A technique used to amazing effect almost a decade earlier in Jaws.
So that’s just a few of the myriad reasons why I love The Terminator, why it will always remain in my top five movies of all time. and why, whenever I hear any of the songs from NOW 13 or 14, I get a hankering to watch it again.
Oh, and in case you were wondering Lee recovered. He was discharged in mid-December ’88, we had a great Christmas and he was back in school by the New Year. But the movie that he came home from hospital talking about more than any of those he saw during his incarceration is another fondly remembered classic from 1984 which we’re going to come back to later in this series…
Join us next week for more of Paul’s long tangents on the films of his formative years as he takes us to Ceti Alpha VI via his Auntie Ann’s house with 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.