“The Terminator” (1984) is a pivotal movie in sci-fi history. Wanting to make his own “Star Wars”-level blockbuster, director James Cameron drew upon the tropes of time travel and robots – and more specifically and controversially, a couple of “Outer Limits” episodes (which is why Harlan Ellison is credited in the closing scrawl) — to launch a hugely popular franchise. Thirty-one years later, it has spanned four movies (with a fifth, “Terminator Genysis,” coming in July and giving me an excuse to embark on this flashback series), a TV show and myriad books and comics.
While its first sequel was at the leading edge of computer effects, the original marks a delicious one-last-taste of stop-motion effects after the Terminator gets his human skin burned off in the final act. Lacking motion blur, the metal endoskeleton moves in a herky-jerky fashion like the skeletons in “Jason and the Argonauts.” But that actually adds to the creepiness, especially when the Terminator limps down the hall as Sarah and a badly injured Reese frantically shut the door. The transitional scenes between Arnold Schwarzenegger and the endoskeleton feature a droopy, fake-looking mold of the actor’s face (most notable when he’s performing repairs on his eye), but that also has an eerie charm.
I go back and forth between ranking Michael Biehn or Linda Hamilton as my favorite actor in this film. They have great chemistry and feed off each others’ performances. Born after Judgment Day (although that term isn’t used in this movie), Reese has known only war and – as Sarah puts it – “so much pain.” For Sarah’s part, she’s sweet and innocent (notice her giggle when she answers the phone and Matt describes his sexual plans for Ginger) and not at all a warrior woman who – with the sequel — will be hailed as one of the first great female action heroes. But in their few hours together, Sarah and Kyle change each other for the better (just as John changed Reese and Sarah will change John) and a viewer buys it when Sarah says “we loved a lifetime’s worth.”
Above all, I love the 1984-ness of “The Terminator,” with Ginger’s tape player, the roommates’ answering machine, the Tech Noir pay phone, and – most notable of all – Brad Fiedel’s relentless duh-da-duh-da-dum score with an Eighties/futuristic synthesizer underlay. There’s also an old-school gritty cop-show vibe thanks to the banter between Traxler and Vukovich (“How do I look?” “Like sh–, boss.”)
In 2015, we are much closer to 2029 than we are to 1984, and I find myself looking at “The Terminator” from the perspective of the apocalyptic future (even though we aren’t quite there yet, and even though our ruin will probably come from the collapse of the U.S. dollar, not due to computers turning on us) rather than the more innocent “present day” 1984 of the film. For all the advancements in moviemaking today, it would be impossible to capture the mid-Eighties as well as this film does. The elements that root “The Terminator” in its time make it a treasure.
CHARACTERS AND ACTORS
John Connor: Despite being the main character of the saga, John does not appear in “The Terminator.” But Reese tells Sarah about her future son, and he becomes a mythical figure to viewers — the man who rallies humans to fight back against the machines.
Sarah Connor: Hamilton takes Sarah through her Joseph Campbell heroes’ journey, from a waitress who can’t balance her checkbook to someone infused with confidence and purpose thanks to Reese’s teachings. In the final scene of Sarah stopping at a Mexican gas station, we get a hint of the “T2” Sarah (gun: check; dog: check; tape recorder for diary: check).
Kyle Reese: Biehn plays the Everyman hero who made female viewers’ hearts swoon by traveling across time for Sarah. No contemporary man can compete with that. In this movie, we are told Kyle was born after the war. He volunteers for the time-travel mission, having been slyly molded by John into a great soldier who – thanks to the Polaroid and John’s tales — loves Sarah.
Other roles: A lot of film buffs know about Bill Paxton’s small role one of the Terminator’s punker victims, the one who says “F— you, a–h—” when the cyborg asks for his clothes. Less talked about is that another of the punkers is Brian Thompson, who a decade later would play the Terminator-esque alien bounty hunter on the “The X-Files.” The Season 2 episodes “Colony” and “End Game” even feature music similar to Fiedel’s.
Shamefully, I sometimes forget that Lance Henriksen is one of the two cops (Vukovich) in “The Terminator.”
T-800: Schwarzenegger’s character is part of the 800 series, with a model number of 101. The 800 is the first series that looks completely human; however, they don’t all look like Arnold. For one thing, Reese doesn’t recognize him as a Terminator when he first enters Tech Noir. For another, we see a non-Arnold T-800 (apparently a different model number) mow down a bunker of humans in one of Reese’s memories. Reese mentions that the 600 series – Skynet’s first attempt at infiltrator units — was easy to spot because they looked like rubber. One of the novelizations references a 700 series, as well.
Since this is the first entry in the saga, there’s not much to say here. In future flashback posts, I’ll talk about how the stories link with each other.
Being the very first “Terminator” story, the movie’s time-displacement scenario is relatively straightforward: John and Skynet each send back a warrior from 2029 to 1984. Now Comics’ “All My Future’s Past” explains the logistics at the 2029 end.
The “Terminator” franchise deals with two seemingly contradictory themes: 1) Fate, and 2) free will. The heroes’ journeys through time include some things are destined to happen, but also the notion that “the future is not set.” In a way, they fight fate, with “the future is not set” as their mantra. In my flashback posts, I’m going to list the evidence for “fate” and the evidence that “the future is not set.” I hope to eventually compile a unified theory of “Terminator’s” time travel rules.
Evidence for “fate”:
- Sarah gets her picture taken at the Mexican gas station, and the Polaroid is identical to the photo that John later gives to Reese.
- John believes he is fated to send Kyle back through the time bubble otherwise he will not be born. He seems to believe the Sarah-John-Kyle-Sarah-John cycle is fated to operate in a loop, and he must dutifully play his part.
Evidence that “the future is not set”:
- John, via the message that Kyle memorized, straight-up tells Sarah that “the future is not set.”
- Skynet believes it can change the outcome of the war by going into the past and retroactively aborting John by killing his mother.
- John believes he must send Kyle back through the time bubble – both to stop the Terminator and to impregnate Sarah — otherwise he will not be born, and the machines will eradicate the human race. (Wisely, John does not blatantly instruct Kyle to impregnate Sarah. Rather, he gives him a picture that will allow him to fall in love with her, then he lets fate do the rest.)
- Kyle tells Sarah he’s from “one possible future, from your point of view.” But he admits “I don’t know tech stuff.”
“The Terminator” features two novelizations: A 1984 British version by Shaun Hutson and a 1985 American version by Randall Frakes and Bill Wisher, the latter of whom also did a script polish for screenwriters Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd. Cameron wanted to make a blockbuster hit, and he succeeded, but the year’s delay before the U.S. novelization suggests that the marketing team wasn’t wholly confident of “The Terminator’s” prospects.
The Hutson version is hardboiled and, well, British, featuring explicit sex scenes. It has some grammatical errors (such as using “which” instead of “that”) but flows pretty well. Hutson acts as an omniscient narrator. The Frakes/Wisher version tells the story through vignettes. For example, we get the point-of-view of the guy who is torn away from the phone booth by the Terminator.
Hutson’s book, like most novelizations, is based a version of the script before it went final, whereas Frakes and Wisher had access to the finished movie. There are bonus scenes and info in each, but Hutson’s tend to be paths not taken by the filmmakers, whereas Frakes’ and Wisher’s insights are more likely to be canonical.
Here are some oddities from Hutson’s book:
- Tech Noir is instead called Stoker’s, which would become the name of the pizza parlor in the film.
- The nuclear missile defense system is called Titan, rather than Skynet.
- Reese’s “partner didn’t make it” through the time bubble. In the movie, Reese is the only human time traveler.
- The Terminator says “I’ll come back,” rather than the iconic “I’ll be back.”
- Sarah finds Cyberdyne in the phone book and suggests to Reese that they destroy it. In a final twist, we see that the factory from the final act actually is Cyberdyne, and a couple of workers plan to take the Terminator’s “microcomputer chasis” to Research & Development. The origin of Cyberdyne is not addressed in the movie.
- Sarah tells Kyle that “John is our son,” whereas the movie wisely plays this revelation more subtly. It’s not clear if Kyle puts the pieces together before he dies, which is part of the film’s sad beauty.
And from the Frakes/Wisher book:
- John somehow knows Sarah’s specific location at a specific time, which allows Kyle to track her. In the movie, Kyle and the Terminator (both drawing from Skynet records) know that Sarah lives in L.A. in 1984, and Kyle has the bonus knowledge of what Sarah looks like. In this book, the Terminator somehow knows about a pin in her leg (but he has the chronology mixed up, because she actually gets the pin later).
- Reese briefly wonders if this Terminator is from the 700 series before deciding it is an 800 series, model 101. The 600s had rubber skin and could be easily spotted, so we can extrapolate that the 700s were of an in-between quality.
- There’s an unnecessary subplot of a metal pin in Sarah’s leg. The Terminator cuts open the first two Sarah Connors looking for the pin. At the story’s end, Sarah gets a pin in her leg to repair her injury at the end of the factory sequence.
- Two workers at the factory, Greg and Jack, find an electronic chip from the Terminator. We learn that they will go on to form Cyberdyne. The origin of Cyberdyne is not addressed in the movie, but this element – along with the alternate Cyberdyne origin in Hutson’s book — suggests that the link between this Terminator’s metal remains and the rise of the machines was ingrained in Cameron’s story even before the sequel.