When you look at James Cameron’s recent work (if you can consider the fact that Avatar was released over 10 years ago, recent) it’s so easy to forget what he could achieve with a fraction of the budget and technology that he gets to work with now. Without the staggering digital advancements in movie making – a fair chunk of which HE pioneered – he was more than capable of turning in a tight, genre busting masterpiece that was effortlessly iconic and fittingly timeless.
The best example of this is The Terminator, stunningly only Cameron’s sophomore effort after – ahem – Piranha II, and is in many ways a perfect movie, which not only cemented his career but also that of one Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’s accention to the top of Hollywood began the second he uttered THAT three word phrase.
Ridiculously tight, the plot tells a tale of classic (and literal) future shock when a human looking cyborg assassin from a post-apocalyptic shithole arrives via time machine to snuff out the leader of the human resistance before he’s even conceived by putting as many bullet holes into his mother, Sarah Connor (a wholesome Linda Hamilton armed with uber-80’s hair and quite possibly one of the greatest character arcs for a woman ever), as it takes. However, also travelling through time is Kyle Reese (Cameron regular Michael Biehn magnificently treading that tightrope between tough and tender than anyone before or since), a soldier also from that time given the unenviable task of protecting Sarah with weapons from the present that, to be honest, isn’t really gonna do shit.
And so begins a breathless chase movie, both cruelly cold blooded and romantically hopeful, with sterling character work that belays it’s obvious B-list trappings.
Cameron, like so many other of his generation, was a student of super-producer Roger Corman and years under his regime of stupidly tight schedules and budgets had given him first hand experience of how to make $100 look like $1000 on screen and he utilises this resplendently, unleashing iconic scenes virtually back to back (The Tech-Noir club! The DIY robo-surgery! “Fuck you, asshole!”) and all set to the moaning synths of Brad Fiedel’s mercilessly driving score.
Then there’s it’s broad backed title star, putting in a phenomenal physical performance and oddly, due to the fact that Arnie was still quite stilted as an actor at this point, utterly convinces as a hulking, emotionless, murder utensil that feels neither pity or remorse. His callous dispatching of countless hapless meat sacks via various calibres of hand cannons and his general invincibility almost puts him in the realms of a nightmarish horror character, a fact virtually confirmed by his final form, that of a metallic skeleton with burning red eyes emerging from an inferno.
The script, already bursting with incident and sublime character arcs, is loaded with subtle nuances such as a running thread of other machines thwarting the flesh and blood cast at regular intervals. Witness, for example, Sarah’s flat mate Ginger unaware of her boyfriend’s grisly fate as her Walkman drowns out the sounds of him getting beaten to death, or an answering machine alerting The Terminator to the fact that he’s mistakenly gunned down the wrong victim. Or the beginnings of Sarah becoming a stronger person marked by her taking the dominant position in the middle of making love.
It’s details like this that make the Terminator quite simply one of the greatest films of it’s kind, and it absolutely will not stop. Ever.