Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Terminator (1984) Review

The Terminator
Watch this movie if you want to live

Here I am again, with another chance to go back in time and review an entire franchise. Unlike my Alien trip though, there is some relevancy in going back to watch the Terminator movies again with the new one, Terminator Salvation, opening recently. It is strange, going back to watch an old movie and realizing how much has really changed since the movie came out. Expectations are exponentially higher than they once were, special effects have greatly advanced over time, and new technology has allowed for even more wild and crazy things to be shown within movies. It then becomes a great surprise when watching this older movie that it becomes evident that you don’t need nine-figure budgets, slick CGI effects, and stylized visuals to create an effective action picture. The Terminator is the movie that truly shows that the most.

Plot Synopsis: By the year 2029, Judgment Day and nuclear apocalypse has occurred, and the human race is on the brink of extinction in their war against the machine menace known as Skynet, a self-aware computer system that caused Judgment Day. But the humans have been fighting an uphill battle with the help of their leader, John Connor, and now the machines are losing the war. Cut back to 1984, where we meet Sarah Connor, John's mother, who is living a relatively boring life, working at a dead-end job, and generally just hanging out with her roommate Ginger. But Sarah's life that she knows is about to come crashing down with the appearance of two men from the future. One of them is Kyle Reese, a human resistance soldier that fought against the machines after Judgment Day. The other is a terminator, a machine with a human exterior, who was sent back in time to kill Sarah so that John cannot be born. Now Kyle must find Sarah and save her before the terminator can change the course of history in Skynet's favor.


But with no mind-blowing effects, heavily modified visuals, and 20-story explosions, what is there to The Terminator that makes it hold up? It is simple actually; something that newer movies should take cues from. The answer is suspense and build-up. Watch the Tech Noir club scene and you’ll see what I mean. The terminator doesn’t enter the place guns blazing or move particularly quickly. Instead, he takes his time, as his eyes slowly wander from side to side searching for Sarah and missing her when he is so close to catching her. But then he finally finds her and zones in, his eyes narrowing as he walks through the dancing crowd. At the same time, Kyle becomes aware of the terminator’s presence and quickly gets his weapon out. Had Kyle waited one more second to react, he may have cost Sarah her life. Director James Cameron sets up the movie as one long chase, with a couple of chances to take a breather that are then interrupted by the persistent terminator (the police station shootout is another winner).

It comes to my great surprise that even after 25 years, the once innovative special effects mostly hold up after all these years. Cameron’s vision for the dilapidated Los Angeles in 2029 holds up the best, as the rear projection and model work are seamlessly integrated onto the bombed-out sets and actors. The terminator tanks and hunter killers are well portrayed and designed here, as they are kept more in the background as an imposing presence while the human resistance fighters move around undetected. Even the life-size terminator model used in the factory climax holds up well. Part of that is because the terminator has such a unique design that I doubt you’ve seen any other cinematic robot (sorry, cybernetic organism) like it before. There are occasional moments where the rear-screen projection on the terminator sticks out like a sore thumb, but they are few and far between.


To give the action some substance though, you need to take the time to build up your characters and their relationships. Michael Biehn, sadly without much work recently, gives his best performance here as Kyle Reese. Reese’s intense determination and willingness to put his life on the line for Sarah make him a strong character, but he is also haunted by his memories of fighting the machines in the future. Linda Hamilton also puts in a good, if occasionally uneven, performance as Sarah. Seeing her as the person who doesn’t know what’s going on is a far cry from the cool, confident Sarah from Terminator 2. Actually, her transformation between movies is actually hinted at when she starts to become more of a fighter near the ending. The real killer (yes, pun intended) though is Arnold Schwarzenegger as the nearly unstoppable terminator. Arnold’s immense and intimidating physicality adds just that extra layer of fear to the terminator that really paints him as a force to be reckoned with.

In fact, the movie is almost set up like a horror movie. Brad Fidel’s foreboding music score, combined with the gritty tone and grimy atmosphere, only add to the sense of dread and fear that emits from the terminator. While it was still a long way till the franchise got more slick and blockbuster-esque, The Terminator proved that you only needed the right actors, a unique story, and strong direction to make a lean, mean action-thriller.


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