Films: The Terminator; Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Format: VHSs from personal collection on big ol’ television.
In the mid-1970s, Star Wars made science fiction not only cool, but socially acceptable. So, in the decades that have followed it, big-budget science fiction films have become a staple of the summer. At times, it feels like not a week goes by from May through late August that doesn’t feature a special effects extravaganza, and every year is littered with the metaphorical corpses of robots and aliens. We can be angry at George Lucas for what he’s subsequently done to the Star Wars franchise, but he deserves a lot of credit for allowing many of us to wear our geek badge proudly.
Of all of the 1980s science fiction films, perhaps none is more important than The Terminator, an ode to man-versus-machine warfare, time travel, and more. Okay, you could argue Aliens, and I wouldn’t fight that, but The Terminator is (and should be) mentioned in the same breath. The basic story is simple, but the execution is nearly flawless. There’s a reason that Schwarzenegger is still associated with this role more than 25 years and a political career later. It is arguably his best work, and that includes his governorship.
If you haven’t seen this film, you should. Now—like you should go rent it or move it to the top of your NetFlix queue right now. Seriously. Open up a new tab, move this to the top and drop everything and watch it when it shows up. Actually, it’s streaming at the moment, so put your reading on hold, watch it, and then come back.
Here’s the back story: in the future, a war for the survival of humanity occurs because a machine put in charge of national defense becomes self aware and determines that all of humanity is a threat. The machines are winning the war until a human named John Connor steps up and leads the humans to the brink of victory. However, the machines have an alternative plan; they send one of their human-like cyborgs, a machine covered in living tissue, back through time to kill the mother of John Connor before he is born. The humans send an agent of their own to stop it.
So, what we get is that battle that starts in the future and occurs in the film’s present. The machine, called a Terminator (and played convincingly by Arnold Schwarzenegger) is essentially an unstoppable force of killing and destruction. It arrives, steals some clothing and weaponry, and starts going through the phone book, killing everyone named Sarah Connor it can find. The Sarah Connor of importance here (Linda Hamilton) is a waitress and knows nothing of this until she is essentially kidnapped by her rescuer, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). The two then do everything they can to get away from the Terminator while battling cops because of the massive amounts of destruction caused.
The Terminator skirts the line between science fiction and horror. As a character, the Terminator is something straight out of a nightmare. While he tends to favor guns over things with blades, there are a lot of similarities between him and the classic slasher movie villains of the same era. He’s unstoppable, bent on killing and destruction, remorseless, brutal, and without mercy. And to most of the cast, he kills without a reason other than killing.
We spend a good amount of time in this film away from our three principle characters, and much of that time is spent in the company of the police trying to make sense of everything. The cops are led by Lt. Traxler (the vastly underappreciated Paul Winfield), who is assisted by Detective Vukovich (the equally underappreciated Lance Henriksen). We also get Dr. Silberman (that-guy Earl Boen) who gets involved as the criminal psychologist trying to understand the insane-sounding story of Kyle Reese.
Really, though, the three principle characters are the reason to watch here along with the inventive and entertaining story. Biehn is completely believable as a guy who goes back in time to rescue this name from the past, sacrificing everything to keep her safe. Linda Hamilton, who in future films became buff almost beyond recognition, works here as a plainly pretty, not-too-exceptional woman. But ultimately, this is Arnold’s movie, and while he has almost no lines, he makes a meal of this role.
What’s sad here is that The Terminator trades in a large part on its special effects, and the effects really haven’t aged well. There are moments, for instance, when we get an animatronic Terminator head, and it’s pretty obviously an effect. Late in the film when we see the fully unfleshed machine, the stop-motion work looks, well, like stop-motion work. It’s not terrible, it’s just obvious. Additionally, the score is awful. It’s not the iconic “Terminator” soundtrack you’re thinking of. Instead, it sounds like one guy with a midi keyboard rockin’ out with his feathered hair and parachute pants.
But none of this matters. The Terminator has entered into movie and cultural mythology for a good reason. Despite the effects looking their age, Cameron’s film is a dark fantasy that still resonates. We are, point of fact, in many ways controlled by the machines around us, and many of us (myself included) wouldn’t last too long without them. And, in addition to all of the allegory and meaning we can dig out of this, in the final analysis, The Terminator is a flat-out, kick-ass action film.
Many, if not most fans of Cameron’s mythos will claim that the sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the superior film. Having just watched both, I’m not sure I agree. Certainly the effects are worlds better, and many of them still look as good and clean today as they did 20 years ago. But this is a bigger film, with a larger budget and a larger core cast, and because of this, it doesn’t have the intensity of the original film. This isn’t to say it’s not worth watching (it is, absolutely worth watching), but seeing both right in a row, I seem to favor the more streamlined, compact original film over the more florid, explosion-heavy sequel.
Anyway, I’ve jumped ahead of myself. We flash forward from the end of the original film to a few years in the future. John Connor (Edward Furlong) is a misdirected youth of (allegedly) 10, although he certainly looks more like 13. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton again) has gotten rid of the baby fat and replaced it with solid buffitude, and has also gotten herself institutionalized for constantly waxing philosophic about the coming war against the machines. And once again, there’s trouble from the future.
This time, though, rather than send back a frail human being to protect himself, the future John Connor sends back a reprogrammed pet Terminator (Schwarzenegger again) to keep his past self safe. This is necessary, because this time, the machines aren’t playing around. Rather than send back a simple Terminator, they’ve sent back a T-1000 (lop-eared Robert Patrick), a machine made of liquid metal, able to duplicate anything it touches and any person it encounters. The Terminator’s job is to protect the young John Connor so that he can grow up to lead the human revolution in the future. The machines, naturally, would like to prevent this, and so we get all sorts of funky time paradox just like last time.
See, last time, the company that eventually creates SkyNet, which destroys humanity, discovered the remains of the first Terminator. Specifically, they found a hand and a highly advanced cybernetic chip. And, unbeknownst to pretty much everyone in the world, the company is working on developing anything they can from this found technology. Essentially, SkyNet and the nasty machines are created because the nasty machines planted evidence of themselves for their creators, who built them capable of planting evidence of themselves in the past…yeah, you know what? Let’s forget about the time paradox and just enjoy the damn film.
Anyway, the film revolves initially around getting Sarah out of the institution and keeping John safe from the deadly T-1000. We learn a little of the past few years. John, for instance, has become something of a budding delinquent, able to scam ATMs, build pipe bombs, and reload pistols without having to think too much about it. We learn that Sarah essentially became sort of a knowledge gold digger, hooking up with any survivalist or former military wingnut who could teach her anything about weaponry, survival, or similar topics. We also learn that the project to create the machine that creates the chaos is underway and is headed by a guy named Miles Dyson (Joe Morton).
In many ways, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a genre shift from the original, much like Cameron’s Aliens moved genres from its original film. Both The Terminator and its sequel are smack in the heart of science fiction, but the first has a number of horror elements, while the second film is almost pure special effects and big budget romp. This is not a bad thing—as big budget action films go, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of the best ever made, a statement that remains true after 20 years. Much of the horror is lost, though, in favor of pushing the science fiction envelope.
And the effects really are still cool. Most of them center around the T-1000 and his morphing capabilities. We see him impaled, for instance, only to pull the offending implement through his side and immediately heal up. A fist to his head causes his body to shift, turning an arm into a new head and his former head into a grasping hand. Slammed face first into a wall, the T-1000 simply reverses itself, the face coming out the back rather than turning around. The best effect, though, is seeing the machine spread itself out over a tile floor and then slowly rise up behind a potential victim, reforming as the victim’s doppelganger. Regardless of age, this still works and still looks fantastic.
But (and you could sense that, couldn’t you?) this is not a perfect film. The larger budget allows for some fantastic explosions and effects, but it also allows the story to grow more expansively. While this does give us additional insights into things, some of the effects—like the dream of nuclear war—are really there for no other reason than to spend the budget. This film is a good half hour longer than its predecessor, and not all of that half hour is really needed. The film feels a bit less focused than the original in the series, and what it gains in exposition it loses in flat-out intensity.
And then there’s John Connor. I’m certain that Edward Furlong was told to play John like the world’s most annoying individual, and if that is the case, the kid deserved an Oscar. John Connor is kid that, if you met him in real life, you’d want to punch repeatedly in the face. There are times when I think that maybe trading him for the survival of humanity is a fair trade—if he’s the best and brightest of the future, then we are Planet of the Apes-level degraded as a species. John is a self-centered, smug little prick, and whatever “cool” Cameron thought he was giving the character by making him a rebellious youth he lost ten times over by making the character a whiny little bastard.
But again, so what? This is an incredibly entertaining film, and a spectacle that remains fresh today despite the years and the dependence on special effects. It’s further proof that good science fiction is possible and that great science fiction is special. This film has held up in part because of those effects, in part because of Schwarzenegger’s relatively nuanced performance, and in part because, at its heart, it’s a great story.
Why to watch The Terminator: If you need me to tell you why to watch this, you’re not allowed to read this site anymore.
Why not to watch: Cheesy ‘80s music.
Why to watch Terminator 2: Judgment Day: Ridiculous special effects and bad-ass Ahhnold.
Why not to watch: At times, saving John Connor (and thus all of humanity) seems like a really bad idea.