He Comes From the Future... But Not For Good
The Terminator (1984)
I know that, long ago, we already covered the Terminator series. It might seems strange to go back and cover it again, but I have a few reasons for it. Along with the basic desire to watch movies I like over and over again (and needing an excuse to do so), there's also the fact that a new Terminator movie is in development. James Cameron has control of his series once more and is producing a new sequel to his first two films. That along gives us reason to want to go back and really look at the original films again.
But then there's also the fact that cinema is designed to be consumed again and again. Sure, back in the early days of film, home video wasn't a thing and the theater was an event. "Come see this movie before it disappears, potentially forever." Those days have been gone for a long time, though, and most movies are designed now with the idea that audiences will come back, again and again, to experience their favorite thrills another time. It's not just home video but streaming that gives us this ability, and also allows us to binge through a series, see call backs, trends, and in general watch the evolution of a cinematic series.
If anything, the Terminator series is an interesting case study in what not to do when continuing a movie series. The first two films (both James Cameron films) are well regarded, but every sequel produced since has been met by sighs from general audiences. None of them were outright flops, but they also weren't real successes, and a lot of that stems from the fact hat they fail to capture the magic of the original. They have the characters, and the Terminators, but the mix of action along with dystopian speculative ideas has eluded every filmmaker after James Cameron left the series.
Of course, that's probably because Cameron said everything he needed to say in his two movies (whether or not he's able to make a functional third film that truly extends the series is besides the point right now). The first movie establishes the world of the movie (present and future), creating a self-contained story that works on its own without any need for sequels. It's a time travel movie with a time loop that's self-sustaining. It doesn't beg for further exploration, instead riding on on its thrills right up until the credits roll. It's a tough act to follow, which might explain why only one other movie in the series has managed the feat.
In The Terminator, we're introduced to Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a waitress just getting by with her roommate in downtown L.A. Her world comes crashing down around her, though, when she becomes the target of a seeming serial killer, someone going through the phone book killing everyone with the name of "Sarah Connor". Two different men both seem to come for her, one who swears he's there to help while the other seems to be absolutely unkillable. Her protector, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), swears up and down he's from the future, one that exists after a nuclear apocalypse launched by A.I.-controlled military computers. The computer tried to wipe out humanity and ever since humanity has been fighting back. In the future they nearly won, all thanks to a single leader: John Connor.
That's why everything is happening now. Sarah hasn't even had her future-son yet, but the machines want to remove him from the time line altogether by killing him before he's even conceived. They sent back in time an immortal machine, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), to hunt down Sarah Connor (whichever one might have actually been his mother) and turn the tide of the war. Kyle was then sent back by the humans to save her. But it's going to take her trust, and his wits, to win the day in an era without the needed weaponry to take out one of these machines.
From the outset, The Terminator should be a really goofy movie. The concept of a dude being sent back in time to stop a machine from killing a woman who, eventually, will give birth to the savior of mankind seems like the ravings of a mad man (something the film doesn't shy away from highlighting). It's not hard to imagine a different movie playing this plot line for laughs, finding comedy in these two people thrown together (of course, it's wouldn't be a sci-fi thriller and the guy really would be a nut job in that case). The film gets a lot of mileage, though, out of how serious everyone takes the story. Credit for that absolutely has to go to Biehn for being the requisite info-dump character, Kyle Reese, who has to duty to not only protect Sarah but also tell us everything we have to know about the future awaiting us after the machines nuke the Earth.
It's that hook, the dystopian future, that also gives us the other big winner of the movie: the Terminator. Credit absolutely has to go to Arnie for playing the cold, killing machine and doing it so well. As highlighted in even his returning performances even Arnie couldn't do something like this more than once without letting the character become too broad, a little less cold and unfeeling. His first turn as the immortal killing machine is perfect as he truly gives the film a worthy villain. He's aided, of course, by great special effects that highlight the robotic body under Arnie's skin, but without the actor the movie would have been very different.
That said, Arnold is not essential to the franchise in the same way that Biehn's Reese or Hamilton's scared-witless Connor are required. While he's fantastic here, it's a one-off role that didn't need him to come back, again and again, in future installments. Other actors have tried on the role of a terminator (Robert Patrick in the sequel, Garret Dillahunt in the TV series) to great success. Sure, it does take a specific kind of actor to be able to pull off the role, but saying that Arnold is the glue that holds this series together oversells his character. He's great here, but I think the series would be better off, long term, if it could just ditch Arnold entirely.
The reason I say this is because, in this first movie, the Terminator functions much like Freddy or Jason in a slasher film -- the nameless "Shape" that lurks behind the Final Girl and is always stalking her, waiting for just that right moment to come in for the kill. The Terminator is, essentially, the last act of slasher movie, the big chase between killer and victim, drawn out over the course of a whole movie. He works as the stuff of nightmares in the first movie, but the second you bring him back (in any form) in future installments you diminish his mystique. Like Freddy or Jason, our Terminator had to develop a personality in his repeat performances. He stops being "The Shape" and becomes an actual character.
Think how much more interesting the follow-up movies would have been in Arnold hadn't come back -- we, like the characters in the movies, would never really know who was a terminator and who wasn't. There's a power to that, the thrill of always being on the lookout for another machine stalking its prey. More importantly, though, is the fact that when you change out who plays the Terminator each time, the previous incarnations maintain their dark power. Just by having Arnold revisit the role, even once, we build a bond with the character that diminishes his first appearance. "He's evil here, but he'll be good soon." Even knowing that each incarnation of the Arnold Terminator is technical a different bot doesn't change our emotional attachment to the character. He like him because of his later appearances and that changes out dynamic with him in this first movie.
There's also the fact that having Arnold come back in future installments doesn't make a whole lot of sense in the context of this movie. Reese tells us about the terminators, how they're anonymous cyborgs designed to secretly infiltrate human bases and wipe them out from the inside. If all the machines (at least of this particular model) look the same, that's not exactly anonymous. Every human resistance base would have a picture of Arnold hanging by the door, ready for the next terminator to show up.
Obviously Arnold was a star, so it was inevitable that he would come back for a sequel to one of his movies. He's an indelible part of the series, and the only recurring actor throughout the whole series. While that might diminish his evil mystique in the first movie, he's also the draw that keeps audiences coming back at all. At this point Arnold is the Terminator series for most people.
For me, though, the most important aspect of this movie is its story. Specifically, I'm always impressed by the tightly-plotted time-loop at the core of the film. The machines have to kill Sarah to stop her from having her son, John, but inevitably their own interference in the time line puts Sarah on the exact path to have John. If the machines would have left well enough alone John would never have been born. It functions tightly, answering it's own paradoxical questions in a way most time travel movies never manage. John has to be born because otherwise the machines would never send someone back to kill him. One has to stem from the other or the time line collapses (something we did discuss in a prior article).
Obviously, later films (and especially the TV show) put their own spins on this material, adding twists and turns that only complicated the time line This first film, though, keeps it all nice and neat -- the events play out exactly as they have to because anything else would lead to a paradox.
That's the magic of this first film. It presents a great slasher-style killer, layers on an interesting, sci-fi setup for the events, and the plays it out over a satisfying, self-contained story. If the rest of the series had never occurred this movie would still function brilliantly on its own without any need for further answers or exploration.
Of course, we did get a sequel that understood the magic of this movie. Once, at least, the Terminator series was continued in a satisfying manner...