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Classic Film Review: The Terminator [1984]

terminatorThe Terminator is one of the most intelligent and emotionally complex films of its kind and reductive pop culture snobbery has no place minimising its allegorical humanism. So there!

In 1984, a Cyborg has been sent from the future on a deadly mission. It has been programmed to kill a young woman named Sarah Connor! Sarah’s life will have a staggering effect on the fate of mankind for she will be the mother of the greatest resistance leader the world has ever seen! He will stop the machines when they rise up against mankind! And that future machine sent to the past is called… The Terminator!

Slash: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Because, let’s be honest, they have become one and the same in your mind. The film would be nothing without Schwarzenegger’s performance. That perfect body and creepily monotone, off-base voice suggest a slightly imperfect interpretation of a model human being. But The Terminator is a killer cyborg with a metal robo-skeleton encased in human flesh.

Although it spawned a string of pointless, inferior sequels, the first Terminator is clearly James Cameron’s best film. With it he can stand up to Spielberg and Carpenter. The film has verve and blistering excitement with such storytelling firepower that plot holes are barely noticeable…

Sort of.

At its core, The Terminator is a meditation on mankind’s thirst for progress and the likely fallout that results from a lack of self-regulation, extinction being the ultimate punishment for the sin of creation without moral consideration. This all sounds a little too metaphorically frank and cerebral for an action film but its tech noir trappings lend a pulpy intensity. Also. Explosions.

Those concentrated visceral bursts are not unlike punctuation marks among something altogether more brooding. Particularly in the first half hour, which has rather a lot of ground laying before the first clash. Although it then returns to visions of the post-apocalypse- in which aerial Hunter/Killers and tanks the size of buildings scout for humans amid the skull-infested, burned-out wasteland- the film leaves things relatively unexplained.

I for one am a fan of a film that makes the audience work for the answers, especially if there is a lot of action involved! Rubber shrieks and bullets fly as the only breathers are those enjoyed by the protagonists, which, given the Terminator’s unending persistence and chameleonesque ability to disguise itself are few and far between.

Although this is Cameron’s best film (and it’s no coincidence this is also his only to clock in at under two hours) it is also plainly from a very inexperienced director who is working with a not particularly large budget. But I find that works in his favour. His relative weaknesses and the cost-cutting technical ones provide an authentic layer to the grunge of the piece.

Dialogue that can only be described as ‘On-the-nose’ suggests real people losing it amid unimaginable stress. The dated effects, such as Arnold’s rubber head, effectively reinforce the non-humanness of his character.

The Terminator is, unexpectedly, one of the most hopeful films ever made. And it is one we can take much from. The final shot of Sarah Connor is one of acceptance of profound responsibility. The film argues that every life is meaningful and important to the final equation. On the eve of self-destruction, mankind is still worth saving.