Saturday, 20 June 2015

Film Review: The Terminator (1984)

© MGM Home Entertainment | Source: ArrowInTheHead

USA, UK; 107 min.; action, sci-fi, drama
Director: James Cameron
Writing: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd
Cinematography: Adam Greenberg
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, Earl Boen, Bess Motta

“Come on! Do I look like the mother of the future? Am I tough? Organised? I can’t even balance my chequebook!”  -- Sarah Connor 

Sometimes, watching The Terminator makes me kind of sad. Sad that I don’t have my own little time machine available to go back to 1984 and experience the sensation of watching James Cameron’s sci-fi classic for the very first time. By now, the Terminator has become a figure deeply rooted in pop culture. We know it inside out, the dead eyes, the skilled gun-wielding, the “I’ll be back”-ing. I wonder how marvellous it must have been to go into the movie on a clean slate. Not knowing what to expect from it, its storyline and characters; to sense the originality behind the whole project, to be surprised by its twists and turns. Of course, all this is not to say that I don’t enjoy watching The Terminator in the present day since, well, I really, really do. But sometimes, you know, sometimes, it seems like a good idea to revisit the past.

If we take a look at the outline of the film, I guess it’s safe to say that my motives for time travelling are much more positive than the ones depicted there. In a 2029 setting, the machines have taken over power and plan to extinguish the entire human race. A group of rebels, lead by a certain John Connor, manages to keep the machines at bay and gain momentum. In order to get rid of Connor and his influential rebellious spark, the artificial intelligence creates a cyborg assassin, the Terminator T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Sent back to the year 1984, it is meant to kill Connor’s mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) and, thus, prevent her from ever giving birth to a son. Keen on saving his own life as well as humanity, Connor, in turn, sends his soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to stop the Terminator’s deadly mission.

All this sounds rather grim and darkly futuristic, and director Cameron pulls all the right strings to also make it look and feel that way. The film opens with a sombre sequence of warfare between machines and humans. The sky is covered by dark vapours. Deadly laser beams shoot through the air. A heavy tank rolls over a whole pile of human skulls. A musical score with heavy synthesisers delivers robotic, metallic sounds. There is no hope in this place, just misery; a lack of humanity, later perfectly embodied in the Terminator. Its first action, once it reaches 1984, is to brutally, and rather graphically, kill a man for clothes. By uniting this relentlessness of the title protagonist and a general gloomy, violent tone, Cameron masterly creates an atmosphere of suppression, constant danger and hopelessness.

The film, however, manages to find a good balance between dystopian depression and fast-paced entertainment. Adam Greenberg’s dynamic camera work and Mark Goldblatt’s precise and quick editing contribute to a thrilling, pulse-raising movie experience. I find it hard to take my eyes off the speedy car chases or on-foot pursuits. Well-performed stunts involving tumbling vehicles or exploding trucks turn The Terminator into a fun action feast. Additionally, Cameron provides short yet effective snippets of comedy, which lighten the overall aura of the movie.

I find the interpersonal relationships to be the weak point of an otherwise splendidly crafted film. While Cameron is able to subtly comment on a society blindly reliant on technological gadgets, he has a hard time portraying the blossoming relationship between Sarah and Kyle in a comprehensible manner. Granted since the film’s focus is on its brilliant thrill and action, I can mostly overlook the emotional short-comings. But, still, since Sarah and Kyle are meant to function as a counterpart to the cold and sterile world of the machines, I’d prefer to sense more spark between them. Cameron rushes them into a romance only to sustain his story. He doesn’t allow them proper room to fall for each other, making it difficult for me to believe their emotional journey together.

Maybe Biehn’s portrayal is partly to blame as well. His performance as Kyle walks a thin line between the right amount of tension and sheer overacting. Unfortunately, the line is crossed more than once. Hamilton, in her iconic role as Sarah Connor, strikes all the right chords. Her transformation from happy-go-lucky twenty-something, whose greatest problem so far has been the occasional boy trouble, into a responsible freedom fighter is hinted at sufficiently. She performs well as both the sweet, careless girl as well as the toughened woman trying to save her own skin. Furthermore, she musters the right amount of shock and emotionality. The highlight, however, is, lo and behold, Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator. Endowed with great make-up and special effects, he brings a necessary deadness and uncompromising nature to the character. As a former successful bodybuilder, he has an impressive, towering appearance, enhanced by some wonderful cinematography. His voice, without any signs of emotion or care, does the rest. While Schwarzenegger certainly is far from being considered a true acting talent, it is hard to imagine anyone else in the role of the T-800.

With a good balance between dystopian exploration and light-hearted thrill ride, The Terminator is a fine example of suspenseful action flicks with socio-critical dimensions. Featuring splendid camera work, editing, music and special effects, the film only falters in fleshing out its love story. So, as preparation for the upcoming release of Terminator Genisys in about two weeks, now is as good a time as ever to get hold of The Terminator and, you know, revisit the past.


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