Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.

THE TERMINATOR (1984)

terminator_poster

Oh. Hell. Yes.

If you’ve actually made it this far in life without seeing this movie or being told any part of the plot, drop everything and rent it now. Honestly. Nobody will enjoy the experience as much as you can in this pure, unaffected state.

When you’re done, meet me back here.

THE STORY:
I know, right?!

Isn’t it great?

Even those of us seeing it for the first time had at least heard something about the future war stuff or the robots or the “I’ll be back,” but you! You got to drink in the mystery and the action and the awesome firsthand and you loved every minute of it!

And now you’re faced with a terrible decision.

To T2 or not to T2?

The first film in the franchise is a self-contained work of brilliance, and while your friends may have avoided telling you anything about it, they’re immediately going to inform you that Judgment Day is even better. They’re right about the action, but from a “time travel logic that makes a lick of sense” standpoint, they’re sending you down a rabbit-hole that so utterly skullfucks the original’s airtight story that I have no idea how I’m going to talk about the sequels without saying anything that hasn’t been pointed out before.

But back to how this movie kicks all of the ass.

The Terminator is great because you don’t get everything spelled out for you. You see a crappy laser war, they cut to 1984, now figure it out for yourself, dummy. Who’s the good guy? Who’s the bad guy? And why are they so obsessed with Linda Hamilton?

“Sign this DVD of Dante’s Peak if you want to live.”

Even after you learn the master plan, you still get an awesome twist that, again, makes perfect sense until the later installments poke at it, but this is not the time to complain about them. Right here, in this singular incredible movie, we get a simple but gripping story with great character arcs, birth symbolism, messages about destiny and hubris, and a nightmare-inducing climax.

“I don’t want anyone to sleep ever again.” – James Cameron.

THE ACTING:
Oh, come on, give Arnold a break.

I’m not even going to spell his name with an “H.”

No, Schwarzenegger isn’t a master thespian, but he’s definitely the last guy you want to see holding a gun in your rearview mirror, so at least give it up for the casting department. You need a murder-bot, you get Arnold.

Admit it, those crazy eyes are all his.

Michael Biehn brings all the desperation of an apocalypse survivor to his role as Kyle Reese, but he still manages to turn down the grizzle for the more human moments.

“High five for saving the human race?”

The best performance, though, is from Linda Hamilton, without a doubt. Over the course of the movie, she goes from a timid Jane Q. Anybody to a full-on action heroine as preparation for her inevitable place in humanity’s freedom from robot oppression. Few protagonists answer the call to adventure quite like Sarah Connor.

The robocall to adventure, technically.

THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
Unfortunately, some are badass and some are goofy. But, let’s start with the good. The time travel wisely leaves a little to the imagination by happening partially offscreen, accompanied by smoke, flashes of light, and classic ’80s lightning.

Bzzt.

The shithole future is made of grimy sets and miniatures. They’re realistic enough, though there’s a hovering drone ship that honestly might have looked better on strings than with the not-quite-natural go motion effect they opted for.

Come on, stop shooting at Sinbad the Sailor.

I find the most impressive effects to be the puppetry used to show severe Terminator damage. When this puppet head is moving around, sure, it’s a little fake, but tell me this still frame doesn’t look just like Arnold Schwarzenegger with a robot eye.

Compared to the Dennis Hopper puppet from My Science Project, it’s flawless.

The Terminator’s skeleton is especially impressive when you can see all the metal gizmos whirring and flexing. Unfortunately, while the mechanical puppet legitimately terrifies me, the go motion version… makes me giggle a bit.

It’s like a heavy metal album cover having a seizure.

OTHER (SPOILERY) STUFF:

  • If there’s one department where you could actually claim that this film is the worst in the franchise, it may just be the music. I’d forgotten how dated and annoying the score is before today. The main theme is pretty dramatic, of course, but a lot of the time Sarah and Kyle spend running is accompanied by the terrible boing-boing-boing and squelch-squelch-squelch of synthesizers that may not yet have been up to the task of creating what scientists call “music.” And I am in no way crapping on electronic scores. I love ‘em. Adore them, even. But these compositions really do sound like the early days of electronic music, where the musicians knew less about synthesizers than the mathematicians. I get it, movie. Robots. But it’s distracting.
  • You know what films with profound, ambiguous endings shouldn’t have? Sequels.

THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
I picked this scene solely for the “take that, you time-traveling pain in the ass” attitude, but while dressing Kyle’s wounds, Sarah makes this complaint before yanking the bandage good and tight:

“You’re talking about things I haven’t done yet in the past tense. It’s driving me crazy!” *yank*

FINAL THOUGHTS:
It’s amazing. I think this and Back to the Future go together as the two best time travel films of the ’80s, and especially because they work as foils to each other. They’re almost complete tonal opposites, they operate on different time travel rules, and the stakes range from the existence of a single person to the entirety of the human race. If you read this before watching The Terminator, I will slap you.

And now to trudge through the sequels.

LATER THIS WEEK:
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), Terminator Salvation (2009)

Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.