Escapist Friday: The Terminator (1984)

1 07 2011

The early ’80s were a great time for blockbuster movies, perhaps the best time. With films like “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, adventure movies were unique, occasionally dark, and just an overall thrill-ride. “The Terminator” continued this tradition of iconic lines and frantic action in one of the most pure sci-fi films ever made. The plot revolves around three individuals: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a young women who will mother a future freedom-fighter; Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the Cyborg sent back in time to kill her before that can happen; and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), the man from the future attempting to protect her. After the premise is very effectively set up, James Cameron directs “The Terminator” into an elaborate chase movie with high speeds and big explosions. In a sense, “The Terminator” may be the best science-fiction movie ever made. No, it isn’t better than “Star Wars”, or “2001: A Space Odyssey” or a number of others judged on the qualities of the film medium, but it has everything you could possibly want from the genre including killer robots, time travel, lasers, a post-apocalyptic world, explosions, and a little nudity didn’t hurt either. In fact all we need are some spaceships before hitting science-fiction bingo. The best part about “The Terminator” may be how well it manages all those elements, it would be very easy to lose focus or overwhelm the viewer, yet Cameron manages them exceptionally well into a streamlined experience than starts at a more timid pace but evolves into a high-flying action film.

“Are you saying it’s from the future?”

Atmosphere is perhaps the most important part to any science fiction film. The Director is changing the reality that we know so he or she must make the world believable, and James Cameron does an excellent job in this regard. The film splits it’s setting between the apocalyptic future where Kyle Reese is from and a Sarah Connor’s modern day (~1984). The future is predictably grim; full of ruins, misty wasteland, and an ongoing war between robots and the last of man. While it is effective in it’s own right, the future really helps to compliment the present day scenes. Aside from a couple minutes at the beginning, the whole film takes place at night so when we switch between the future and the present it feels much more seamless. The grim atmosphere carries over to Sarah’s world making her situation feel all that more dire. Another bit of credit needs to be given for Cameron avoiding, for the most part, the distinct ’80’s tinge that seems to infect many movies of the decade. Let’s be honest, the ’80s were a very distinct period in recent cultural history and most movies set in the present day 1980’s have a distinct feel. Most of that has to do with the music including synth-heavy scores and pop song infused scenes. “The Terminator” does have these moments but they are constructed exceptionally well, injecting them realistically into scenes as part of plot devices. This hampers the ’80s stamp, which although I don’t mind that much, can really put a distinct mark on a movie that can even be distracting now that we’ve moved so far past that time in history.

“Come with me if you want to live”

At it’s core, “The Terminator” is an action movie. It is full of gunfights and chases and explosions. Although many of these scenes highlight the film, I also found several close combat scenes poorly edited. Given the restrictions of the technology at the time I can understand how hard some of these scenes would have been to produce, nevertheless they are far removed from today’s standards and look quite shoddy in retrospect. Luckily, that cannot be said of the rest of the film. The explosions and chases are top notch and creates enormous amounts of tension.

“The Terminator” can only be described as a classic. It has several iconic lines and scenes as well as spawning a huge franchise that, while it has fallen since the second movie, is a enormous achievement in the science-fiction genre. It also holds up very well today, almost 30 years later, making it still and incredibly enjoyable film.

Score: 89/100

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