I’ll never forget the first time I saw James Cameron’s The Terminator. I must have watched that movie at least 100 times during my youth. But during the 101st viewing, the VHS copy I stole from my uncle Dave’s video collection was eaten by my crappy old-school, top-loading VHS player. Damn, that sucked.
The Terminator stands as a personal favorite. Schwarzenegger was in his prime in the 1980s – in guilty pleasures like Commando, Raw Deal, Predator, Conan The Barbarian and The Running Man. But he gave many kids my age something to hang on to during the Reagan years. Schwarzenegger was our generation’s John Wayne, a muscle-bound bodyguard extracting his own kind of vengeance from a cold and dangerous world. He was always the good guy, but it’s almost ironic that his first indelible impression on our minds was that of a killer robot from the future sent back in time to murder a hot coffee shop waitress.
The Terminator was actually conceived from a dream that James Cameron had of a killer robot from the future that was sent to kill him. In the 21st century, a war between man and machine has just about wiped out humanity. The war is due mainly to the inception of artificial intelligence in the early part of the 20th century, which triggered a nuclear war in the year 1997. The problem is that the machines are finally losing the war due to a human named John Connor and his band of resistance fighters.
The machines decide that the only way to kill Connor is to send one of their own cyborg Terminator T-800 robots (Schwarzenegger) into the past to kill John’s mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton) and thus remove him completely from the biological cycle. To protect his momma from the big bad killer robot, Connor sends Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) into the past to save her and somehow destroy the indestructible Terminator. The only problem is that this particular robot has a really bad Austrian accent, a taste for guns and knives, and likes to drive around at night with his sunglasses on just like Corey Hart.
Sound like an episode of The Outer Limits? Well, one of the original writers for that show, Harlan Ellison, who wrote one of the show’s best episodes ("Demon with a Glass Hand"), was later given screenplay credit for the film’s original story.
The ingeniousness of The Terminator is in giving us one of the most memorable and brilliant villains ever printed on celluloid. Schwarzenegger’s cyborg requires no motivation for his crimes. He kills without remorse or shame. His actions and his attitudes are governed not by morals but by binary code. If one of his coronary units is damaged, he plucks it out with a sharp knife. There is no reasoning with this character, no evolution or transgression from his purpose of killing this woman Sarah Connor. The size of Schwarzenegger and his deadpan, monotone voice lends an unnerving edge to all of his sixteen lines of dialogue and all of the bodies he leaves in his wake as he hunts Sarah Connor.
The relationship between the befuddled and frightened Sarah Connor and her unexpected savior/hero Kyle Reese is also a high point. Michael Biehn has never been better in the role that fully defined his career. Cameron’s use of a love story underlying an action film – which he would repeat in virtually all of his films from The Abyss to Titanic to True Lies – makes it raw and emotional.
The Terminator is a profound reminder that science fiction can entertain while working as a warning about the future. It also makes you pray that a big Austrian guy with a bad haircut never shows up at your door asking for “Sarah Connah?”
Highlights on the excellent DVD include a retrospective chat between Schwarzenegger and Cameron, deleted scenes, and an exquisite surround sound transfer.
Dead or alive, you’re going with him.
Review by Max Messier © 2001 filmcritic.com