Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Classics That Aren't All They're Cracked Up To Be: Before Today, I Actually Hadn't Seen The Terminator!

The Good: Good concept, Moments of character and acting, DVD Bonus features
The Bad: Some truly hammy acting, Genre conceits, Soundtrack
The Basics: Fairly well done in many ways, The Terminator is still not the best science fiction film ever produced, though it does have a clever concept behind it!

Believe it or not, before today, I had never actually seen The Terminator. I have watched the sequel films and enjoyed them, but somehow I never got around to watching the original. With an increasing number of people advising me to watch The Sarah Connor Chronicles, I figured it was time to go back and watch how it all began. Truth be told, it took watching The Terminator for me to realize why almost everyone considers Terminator 2: Judgment Day better. It's a shame, but it's true; The Terminator is hampered by enough problems that the sequel is a bit better than the original.

The thing that caught me most, though, was actually how unnecessary a lot of the problems with The Terminator were. Director James Cameron had other science fiction and science fiction horror films to reference that he could have used to avoid problems, most notably, Alien (reviewed here!). Ridley Scott's Alien did a decent number of things that it seems Cameron tries to do . . . poorly, in The Terminator, most notably presenting a strong female character who is thrust into a situation well beyond her experiences. There are moments in The Terminator where Cameron and those he is directing just fail to hit their marks and the result is a film that seems remarkably dated. And to eliminate the easy argument, there are plenty of early '80's science fiction films that present an alternate version of the '80's (big hair and all) that are perfect films, most notably V (reviewed here!). The Terminator simply does not carry a larger sense of greater themes that other, similar, works do.

A man appears naked in Los Angeles amid an electrical storm, sent back from a bleak future where machines have overrun the world and are hunting humans for no other reason than they can. Another man appears elsewhere in Los Angeles, also naked and both men quickly procure clothes, avoid police and attempt to find Sarah Connor. One of them, who has armed himself with quite an arsenal of firearms, manages to find two Sarah Connors in the Los Angeles area and kill them. Surprised by a news report of her death, waitress Sarah Connor's bad day becomes worse when she comes to believe that there is a man following her. Unfortunately for her, she is right.

One man is there to protect her, armed only with a sawed-off shotgun and his wits. He is Kyle Reese and he tells Sarah a story about how he was sent from the future to protect her. The other man is not a man at all, but rather a cyborg: a robot covered in human skin. His mission is to kill Sarah Connor, thus preventing her from having a son, a son whose existence leads to a human victory over the machines. Unfortunately, as the police become involved in the killings surrounding both men, Reese and Sarah become more and more boxed in, which allows the terminator to move in for the kill!

First, what The Terminator does right; the plot is remarkably solid and more than a little clever. Rather than killing the great general of the war, the machines move to prevent his entire existence. It might be a bit more creative than an A.I. is usually assumed to be, but with that conceit, everything else is wrapped pretty tight. The idea that "if this one fails, why can't they send back more" is addressed, which makes perfect sense and works. Similarly, the story as told in this movie is remarkably well structured, sometimes in contradiction to maintaining a sense of pacing that is engaging.

So, for example, the story unfolds for quite a bit of time without revealing who Reese or the other man is. We see the Terminator killing, but for much of the movie, he is simply a cold-blooded killer. The clever aspect about the plot structure of The Terminator is that it is only when Reese reveals everything to the police and is written off as a crazy person that Cameron reveals just how right the actually is. It's incredibly clever that we are not shown any evidence of the Terminator's nature until late in the film.

Unfortunately, Cameron and co-writer Gale Anne Hurd surrender to the usual horror conceits. After extensive chases and near misses, the end is a series of rather predictable continuations of a fight that is hardly as tense as one might like it to be. I blame the lack of tension on the soundtrack. Cameron uses a soundtrack much like the techno-leaning one Ridley Scott used on Legend and here it telegraphs the emotions, most notably the "feel tense!" vibe. There are moments when the synthesizers and percussion are just plain distracting in this movie.

Returning to what works, the limited amount of character work there is is well-executed. Sarah Connor is believable as a woman pulled out of obscurity for the task of saving the world and what makes her character work is her utter disbelief of Reese. Indeed, the police lieutenant and detective who deal with Connor are remarkably worldly and when Sarah Connor turns to them to talk her out of believing Reese's story, it rings very true. Having that element of disbelief allows us as the viewer to buy the premise completely.

Also, Reese is far more convincing than he is crazy. Reese is pretty wonderful in that he is shell-shocked and wiley and in flashbacks to the future, we see some of what he has been through. If anything, it is unfortunate that there were not scenes included where he was simply taking a moment to enjoy being in the sunlight again!

But what makes Reese work so well is largely the acting talents of Michael Biehn. Biehn never gets enough credit for his work in The Terminator and that is unfortunate. Indeed, there is an entire scene that becomes unnecessary solely because of the strength of Biehn's acting. Reese finds himself staring at a construction site at one moment and without any words, Biehn expresses the abject fear and distrust Reese has in that moment, long before director James Cameron flashes forward to illustrate the comparison Reese is making between the equipment he sees and the killer droids he has fought. We, the viewers, get it.

The Terminator is lauded as one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's great performances, but it's not much of a stretch. He walks in, shoots lots of guns and is not charged with any real extensive acting. Still, it was remarkably fun the moment he first says "I'll Be Back."

But much of the film rests on the acting talent of Linda Hamilton. Hamilton is given the difficult task of both playing a woman who is just a normal woman having a truly rotten day and one who has a potential to train the general who will save the world. It's a tough balance to play but Hamilton makes it work. While her character transforms from a mild-mannered waitress to a woman on the run for her life, Hamilton evolves her body language from slouching to a more solid stance. In combination with other changes - like eye contact, Hamilton shows well what the story tells! This is a remarkably good performance on her part.

On DVD, there are documentary featurettes, deleted scenes and a featurette on The Terminator in relation to the budding franchise, but there are noticeable lacks as well. There is no commentary track running through the feature (at least not on the "Special Edition" I watched) and the trailers are fun, but not terribly insightful.

And in the end, The Terminator is a fairly simple concept stretched out with car chases, gun fights and a lot of killing (the last part is fine by me in this context). But it's not the flawless gem so many want to make it out to be. Even with its rough edges, it's still a worthwhile film, but those who want something more than a basic science fiction chase story will not find it here.

For other science fiction classics, please check out my reviews of:
Star Wars
The Back To The Future Trilogy
The Indiana Jones Trilogy


For other film reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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