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All These Years Later, The Terminator is Still a Propulsive Shock

Never, ever bet against James Cameron.

Written by Chrishaun Baker
Originally Published: 

In six years, planet Earth will be a quiet wasteland. A charred heap of ash and rubble, the only sounds will come from the hushed whispers of survivors who have been driven underground, and the unfaltering march of the roving death machines tasked with their extermination above. Desperate and outnumbered pockets of resistance fight against a seemingly insurmountable threat, hoping against hope for a single chance to somehow turn back the clock, to strengthen their cause, to rewrite time.

So they do. They send back a nightmare: a feverish vision of a metallic skeleton, broken and bent, gripping a knife and dragging itself from the flames of some terrible carnage. And one night in 1982, during the production of Piranha II: The Spawning, their message was received by a young filmmaker named James Cameron. Two years later, his dream changed history. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, The Terminator was born into the world, forever imprinting unshakeable fears about the nature of artificial intelligence and technology onto worldwide audiences, and establishing Cameron as the long-reigning king of cinematic spectacle.

As Avatar: The Way of Water marches beyond the beat of $2 billion, it seems we’re once again reminded not to bet against Big Jim. But before 1984, it was hard for him to sell his vision. As the first ideas for The Terminator began to coalesce, cultivated by inspirations such as John Carpenter’s Halloween, 1950s sci-fi B movies, and the original ‘60s version of The Outer Limits, his agent rejected the idea of Cameron working on a horror movie, seeing it as beneath him. Cameron responded by firing him.

After writing several drafts of the script, Cameron finally began shopping it around, but was unable to find funding. It was only after agreeing to sell the rights to the project for a single dollar to producer and collaborator Gale Ann Hurd (who would go on to produce AMC’s The Walking Dead, amongst countless other projects) that Orion Pictures got involved. Although Cameron strongly regrets the sale now, it came with an important stipulation that was responsible for the success of his entire career: only he could direct the film if it was greenlit.

Almost 40 years later, it’s fundamentally impossible to imagine the movie in anyone else’s hands. With such a propulsive and high-concept premise, another director could have easily turned it into a hokey schlock-fest like so much forgotten ‘80s genre fare. But Cameron’s story of a future war, a time-displaced cyborg assassin, and the mother of mankind’s savior defies such simple execution. It bobs and weaves through genres in a way that keeps it feeling fresh and spellbinding all these years later. It’s a temporal-slasher movie executed with the visual flair of a Poverty Row noir; the movie even winks at its anachronisms, with Sarah Connor’s (Linda Hamilton) almost-murder taking place at a club called Tech-Noir.

The effects may be dated, but that doesn’t make their wizardry any less impressive.

Orion Pictures

It helps that, alongside Cameron’s visionary worldbuilding and atmosphere, were seasoned industry wizards like Gene Warren Jr. and Stan Winston working to ground the movie’s fantastical elements in a believable reality. The 2029 sequences were done through Warren’s SFX company Fantasy II, using a complicated mix of miniature work and intricate stop-motion. The task of bringing the T-800 to life was left to Winston and his crew, who created a puppet endoskeleton of clay and plaster, then reinforced it with steel and chrome plating. Despite showing its age, The Terminator’s immersive visuals are a staggering testament to the power of practical effects to give unbelievable images texture and tangibility.

Of course, to give credit exclusively to VFX would be to deny one of the most iconic performances in cinematic history. While Cameron initially wanted his friend and frequent collaborator Lance Henriksen to play the role of the Terminator, fate led Arnold Schwarzenegger to audition for the role of resistance soldier Kyle Reese. After meeting him face-to-face, Cameron became convinced that the up-and-coming star would be perfect for the villain instead, leaving Reese to be played by Michael Biehn. It turned out to be the right choice; Arnie’s imposing physique and deadened affectation is a one-to-one match of the rigid, unfeeling metal underneath, and his oppressive indefatigability would make even Jason Voorhees blush.

Against the T-800’s lifelessness, there’s perhaps no better foil than Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. Her wistful loneliness and relatable early-20s malaise set her up to be the protagonist of some kitschy coming-of-age film, but when Kyle Reese shows up to save her from certain death with an outstretched hand and the promise of “come with me if you want to live,” that narrative goes out the window. There’s something tragic about Sarah’s journey of self-discovery being denied by the fickle nature of predestination; before she can even find out who she is, she’s told she’s the mother of the resistance leader who will save the world, and that it’s her tenacity and strength that will set him on that path. Like Sarah, Hamilton herself rose to meet the challenge of the role: a week before filming started, she sprained her ankle, pushing through much of filming in real pain.

Linda Hamilton played a brooding badass in so many sequels that it’s easy to forget her compelling range in the original.

Orion Pictures

When she first crosses paths with the resistance soldier sent back to save her life, Sarah’s terrified by his volatile temper and emotional scars. But one of the most beautiful elements of the film is watching her ease Reese back into his humanity. Michael Biehn based his performance on World War 2’s Polish resistance fighters, as well as the testimonials of Jews who witnessed firsthand the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto. The result is a layered character, tortured by PTSD and hardened by the daily realities of the future, his only emotional expression filtered through a white-hot hatred for his enemy. It was the studio’s decision to focus more on the budding romance between Connor and Reese, and it pays off in spades, as the intimacy of their connection and their brief-yet-passionate love affair is the film’s firm rebuttal of the cold efficiency of machinery.

Both The Terminator and its best sequel, T2: Judgement Day, present the horrors of the future as a steadily creeping dread, a storm on the horizon inching closer every day. But the staying power of the franchise, and particularly the first film, lies in the stubborn inklings of hope that our heroes find even in the darkest timeline. Time may or may not be immutable, but if The Terminator teaches us anything, it’s that the most human thing we can do in the face of overwhelming odds is to try anyway.

The Terminator is streaming on HBO Max.

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