“Terminator 1″ Review

by Dan on May 24, 2009

Terminator 1 poster

Note:  Spoilers below.  If you haven’t seen the movie yet, and care about the surprise of major plot points, hold off on reading.

Since I reviewed “Terminator: Salvation” yesterday, I thought it would be fitting to follow it up with a review of the original Terminator movie from 1984.  After looking in two Blockbusters last night, I was able to find it, and enjoy the original experience.

At the time, this was a real blockbuster of a science fiction film.  James Cameron was an unknown, and while Arnold Schwarzenegger was already a star, this would be the series to take him to the next level.

There are some things really dated about the movie.  For one thing, the special effects are laughable at first.  What was advanced for science fiction back then now looks very poor.  If you watch “Empire Strikes Back,” for example, Yoda looks like a Muppet, compared to the realistic creature we have in the new Star Wars movies.  Similarly, when the T-800 has damage done to his face, he is noticeably wearing a prosthetic mask, which looks really plastic and lacks any facial expression.  Terminator 2, which won an academy award for its makeup technology, shows how far the industry had gone in the 7 years since.

Additionally, the music comes off very cheesy.  What was suspenseful background music at the time is now unintentionally humorous synth pop which seems very cliche now.  If this movie could be remade with the same actors at the same age, but with modern effects, I can only imagine how striking it would be for modern viewers.

Other things that are laughable just reflect the style of the time, and not the filmmaking.  During the mid 1980’s, the clothing and hair styles were rather outrageous at times, and the dancing looks pretty silly as well.  There is something lost that can never be returned once a classic ages beyond its time period.  You can never see 1933’s “King Kong” like it was meant to be experienced.  You can appreciate it, and might even cry watching it, but it will never compare to the horror your parents or grandparents experienced while seeing that giant black and white ape fist come at them on the giant screen.

Are there any timeless movies?  I believe so, but they are fewer and harder to identify than reviewers or professors would let you to think.  “Classic” and “Timeless” are two terms that critics enjoy interchangeably but have drastically different meanings.  “Classic” attests to the perpetual appreciation and/or influence of the masterwork, long after it is originally released.  “Timeless” however reflects the piece’s ability to accomplish the same entertainment and emotional impact in the same way to mass audience after mass audience, forever.

As an example:

The Beatles aren’t timeless.

Classical Music is not timeless

Jazz isn’t timeless.

Shakespeare is not timeless.

Anything that requires a degree in the subject, a high IQ, or “being sophisticated” in order to know it’s timeless, is not timeless.

I can hear a bunch of “blasphemy” chants outside my window right now, so let me clarify if it wasn’t clear.  Most music before the mid 1970’s does not have good enough production to continually impress modern audiences who aren’t prepared to accept it as an influential work.  If the Beatles recorded their music in a modern studio, I might say differently, but for no fault of their own, their music is now forever dated, no matter how many fans they may have now.

Hamlet’s story is wonderful, and the writing is phenomenal, but since so much of the language cannot be understood to an audience who doesn’t have the time to read the script, page by page, with commentary, it is definitely not timeless.  If it could be rewritten by an author with Shakespeare’s skill, then Shakespeare’s original impact would actually be presented better to audiences, not diminished.  When this hasn’t worked with modern interpretations, it is always the fault of the re-writer, not the intention of the project, itself.

If I had to pick a timeless song, “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen would come to mind.  The digitally remastered version sounds like it was recorded in a modern studio, despite being 34 years old.  The emotional intent of the song comes through unfaded by the years we have gone through since, and there are only a couple words you don’t hear in regular use today, all which are obviously understood by the surrounding context regardless.  It’s a song that could be played at any informal public gathering, and people could rock their heads to it and enjoy it without needing any nostalgia to resonate with it.  Try doing that with “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles.  Very unlikely.

Movies have a similar automatic dating issue, as production keeps getting better and better.  Cop movies in the 1980’s, which used relatively little technology, are still dated by the stiff-looking camera usage and the grainier visuals.  Still, there are some films that let you “forgive” the footage and experience the film producers’ intent.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” conveys the emotional issues of war perfectly despite being 79 years old, and even taking place in a war that few Americans can clearly describe the issues about.  There’s very little “realistic” violence, yet you can go through what the soldiers are experiencing.  What’s more, it’s actually entertaining.  It doesn’t feel like a film history lesson, but a fun viewing experience if you haven’t seen it before.  I would say the same thing about “High Noon” in terms of western films.

In terms of science fiction, I would like to say “The Matrix” is timeless, but there hasn’t been enough time to confidently say so.  Additionally, I’m already noticing production faults that no one saw as an issue at the time, but have since been corrected by modern movies.  Time will tell how new audiences react.  The special effects in Terminator 2, as I recall, are still realistic looking, but I’ll have to see it again before I make a final comment on the subject.

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Now what is timeless about The Terminator?  Some things shine through the production very clearly as we’re taken through a two night chase involving three major characters.  The dread of seeing the T-800 come at you still remains.  He is clearly “one who can never be reasoned with, one who feels no compassion, no remorse, no pity.”  You can feel the inevitability of the chase, that no matter what you do, he’ll catch up with you eventually.  The scenes of him brutally shooting Sarah Connor’s roommate while she crawls away on the floor is as horrifying today.

This is not reflected only in Schwarzenegger’s performance, but with actors Linda Hamilton, and Michael Biehn, especially.  The character Kyle Reese is someone who is necessarily bold, courageous, and passionate, but clearly lacking full confidence in his ability to finish his mission.  You can see in several scenes that he has doubt whether he can stop the T-800.  Sarah Connor complements his performance by both her verbal and non-verbal recognition that he is not sure he can stop the machine, and you see her trying to hold onto hope, while resignation seems like the more realistic option.

In this film, Kyle shows the heroic qualities often missing from today’s movies.  Often enough, there is a hero called to sacrifice himself to detonate a bomb to stop an alien invader, or foreign attacker.  Kyle takes this a large step further, as he’s come back in time to fight the T-800 with 100% certainty he will never return, yet holding zero certainty that he will win.  It’s completely up in the air, yet he is putting everything he has into a purpose bigger than himself.

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Additionally, you can see how the trauma of the future has affected Kyle as not only a soldier, but a person.  He’s someone lacking necessary social intuition when dealing with law enforcement or Sarah.  He’s never had a romantic relationship… ever.  Even his initial kissing with Sarah is awkward, as it’s clear he has not had experience with that.

While some of the flashbacks of him fighting in the future are dated, you still can feel the horror and devastation of growing up in that time period, when you look at the poor and the sick that are huddling underground to hide from the machines.

Last but not least, is the growth of Sarah Connor in the movie.  There is more believable character development in her in one movie than most characters have over several sequels.  She starts off as a somewhat scattered-minded waitress who is endearingly clumsy, and lacks assertiveness.  She is dating a guy who flakes on her without notice, and she tolerates it.  Once she’s thrust into this chase, she constantly asks “Why me?  I didn’t ask for this!” and just wants to return to her normal, unassuming life.

Through the two nights of being chased, she transforms from a damsel who must be protected, into a woman who can stand up for herself.  She gradually screams less often, begins to pick up guns without Kyle instructing her, and when necessary, she protects Kyle, instead of the other way around.  He “passes the torch” to her, so to speak, and as she helps keep him alive, she is getting ready to train and protect her son to be a future leader.  In the end, it is she who finally stops the T-800.  She lets out an expletive laden final line as she kills the machine, which is commonly found in other movies as a smug, memorable marketing slogan, but serves a different meaning here.  When Sarah says the F-word while giving the killing blow, it is her symbol of taking a new attitude, of being a woman who has unleashed her inner warrior and will act as necessary to defeat anyone who stands in the way of her and her son’s future.

With that, there is a very strong supporting cast of the police force who try their best to protect Sarah, and to figure out what’s going on in Kyle Reese’s mind.  Unlike many movies where a hero has to explain something unbelievable to police, the cops do not react with contempt and derisive amusement.  Instead, they are compassionate, even while not believing him in the slightest.  The police psychologist is fascinated with Kyle’s story, and wants him to get better, not to make fun of him.  Completely professional.

The other policemen are driven to protect Sarah, and you can feel their sorrow when they realize that they can’t, once the T-800 breaks into the police station.  The police have no fault in not believing Kyle, but are doing their jobs to the best of their abilities and are behaving how any police officer should, when given this situation on a normal non-robot filled day.

Overall, this is a very well done movie that can be enjoyed immensely if you can get past the dated elements.  Its influence still remains today, and it is the only film you need to understand the new Terminator movie, if you haven’t seen it yet.

–Dan

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 KrisBelucci June 1, 2009 at 7:11 pm

I really liked this post. Can I copy it to my site? Thank you in advance.

2 donnaboouch January 6, 2013 at 7:23 am

The MIDI music that everyone seems to disparage, actually made the movie scarier to me.

Arnold chasing down reese and sara with those video arcade suspenseful beeps freaked me out.

3 omalone1 June 11, 2013 at 9:37 am

G wiz, cool review. An observing rewatch is due

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