If you forget all the increasingly desperate sequels and get back to what the original Terminator was all about you will see at its core it is a horror movie. Right from the opening moments when we see bolts of lightning bursting out of nowhere on a deserted city street we are in horror territory. It’s like something out of a Frankenstein movie with that storm and then the monster-like Arnold Schwarznegger standing up out of the gloom. Moments later he is killing punks (including the, so sadly, late Bill Paxton) and murdering women on their doorsteps.
The Terminator is, as pointed out in the movie, nothing more than a killing machine. He has no personality, no sympathy, nothing – all he wants to do is kill. He is like a robotic version of Jason Voorhees. However, despite all this, somehow, he DOES have a personality – its why Arnold became such a superstar – and also why they kept on making Terminator movies and couldn’t make them without him. Even the future-set Terminator Salvation has a CG Terminator because he is so iconic. Making a Terminator without THE terminator would be like making a Superman movie but only concentrating on little Jimmy Olsen.
What is it that makes The Terminator such a fantastic movie monster? It certainly is his violent relentless: he has an understanding of guns that would make a grown American weep “.45 long slide, with laser sighting…, phased plasma rifle in the 40 watt range.” “Hey, just what you see pal”) and is happy to dish out the death without hesitation. But he is also hilarious even if he doesn’t mean to be. “Hey buddy, you got a dead cat in there?” a caretaker asks, standing at The Terminator’s apartment door. It takes a moment for the machine to select the correct response before replying with an insult the caretaker accepts with a shrug and moves on: “Fuck you Asshole”.
Even the much repeated, mostly by Arnold over the years, “I’ll be back” is actually a line before the punchline. When The Terminator isn’t allowed into the police station to see/kill Sarah Connor, he responds with that line before actually coming BACK in the form of a car that he drives straight through the police desk.
The Terminator and the cyborg itself are also pretty gory. From tearing open his arm to plucking out his damaged eyeball (with flies feeding off his rotting flesh) the body horror imagery is classic genre fair. It was partly because make up effects came on leaps and bounds during the eighties, but also because film makers were fascinated by body horror at that time (and it would reach some kind of zenith two years later with Cronenberg’s The Fly).
Then of course James Cameron shoots these effects and more on an impossibly small budget. He manages to create a whole future post-apocalyptic world which seems like one long never ending nightmare, along with all the different forms of killing machines. Sure some of the models and back projections don’t hold up quite so well in this modern Hi Def world but it’s not just about making everything perfect here. There is a roughness to The Terminator which doesn’t distract from the world building but somehow make it more real. James Cameron’s imagination and creativity is so fierce that how could this film NOT succeed?
Well, if the lead characters The Terminator was up against had been bland nobodies then that is would be one way the film could have failed. But no, Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor and Michael Bean as Kyle Reese are beautifully tragic lovers. When Terminator Genysis came out and the facsimiles of Connor and Reese met in some higgildy-piggildy alternative reality, Reece told Connor that he time travelled because he “thought you were kinda pretty.” Hmph… if ever somebody did not GET what makes this romance so special then it was the makers of Terminator Genysis…
“I came across time for you Sarah” Kyle Reese proclaims. He sacrificed his life, his world and his future, not for the fight against the machines and not because of his loyalty to John Connor. He did something no one else had ever done in the history of humanity and travelled back in time because he loved a woman with all of his heart.
It’s no wonder Sarah nails him on the spot.
Such a pity that he does it with tramp shit all over his trousers. Yes, that’s another thing you will notice in the glory of Blu Ray. When Reece first arrives back in 1984 he steals a tramp’s pair of trousers. Police suddenly show up and shine their spotlight on him as he pulls the pants up. You can clearly see a big dark stain on the bum of the trousers. Throughout the rest of the film, despite managing to liberate a coat, t-shirt and cool high-top sneakers, Reece never changes his trousers. The upshot of all this is that not only did he have to fight the Terminator to the bitter end in kacky pants but he also managed to pull Sarah Connor smelling like tramp turd. If you’ve ever worked in Soho, London then you know that smell ain’t pretty. Still… that’s love for you.
The Terminator stands up as well now as it did in 1984. If you forget all of what came later (obviously we all love T2 but that feels much more like a proper sci fi action blockbuster) and get back to the core of what this incredible story was about then you will see a frightening, thrilling and completely riveting movie that works as brilliantly as a horror movie as it does a love story. Or a sci fi movie. Or an action movie…