Exactly 30 years ago this coming Sunday, a low-budget sci-fi B-movie, for which the releasing studio had but low expectations, directed by the unheralded filmmaker behind “Piranha II: The Spawning,” starring a heavily accented ex-Mr Universe, opened on just over a thousand screens across the U.S. Spin forward three decades and we can rewrite almost every element of that sentence: instead of a down-and-dirty sci-fi cheapie, we’re talking about a franchise-starting behemoth that would spawn sequels, reboots, TV shows, arcade games and other merchandise, all adding up to one of the most lucrative properties the movies have ever seen.
The neophyte filmmaker of course grew up to be James Cameron, world-conquering director of both the number one and number two highest-grossing films of all time; the bodybuilder/punchline Arnold Schwarzenegger became the biggest star in the world prior to becoming Governator of California; and far from trading in low expectations, these days the various studios who’ve had a hand in the franchise to date have fallen over themselves to mount ever more expensive and involved sequels and spin offs to wildly varying levels of success. Indeed, next year we’ll see the reboot, beg pardon, reset “Terminator: Genisys” come to screens on July 1, 2015. (Which means there’s still plenty of time to do something about that awful title, guys! No one will judge you harshly for changing it!) Loving the original as much as we do, and wanting to mark the occasion of its 30th birthday, we thought we’d take an appreciative look back at the film that started it all, the little movie that could (and did): 1984’s “The Terminator.”
The first thing to note is just how well the film holds up over time. No doubt relentlessly perfectionist technophile James Cameron might look at it today and cringe, and for sure the practical effects, especially the jerky stop-motion animation and the model building of Schwarzenegger’s head when half his skull is blown away to reveal his metal endoskeleton and skull, are pretty rough around the edges to a modern eye. But they also have a handmade, in-camera charm to them, and if they momentarily take you out of the film nowadays, what’s remarkable is how little that matters, even on the fifth or sixth or twenty-seventh viewing. As much as Cameron has subsequently earned a reputation for astonishing effects work, there’s a reason he, and not King of Empty Spectacle Michael Bay, for example, holds those two top spots in the box office pantheon. Cameron seems (at times almost grudgingly) to know that whatever his own predilections, audiences want story.
He seldom gets the props as a storyteller that he deserves, but the fact is that as unsubtle and broad strokes as they may be, his films invariably follow classic, resonant narrative arcs for which his pioneering technological gloss is merely the window dressing. Arguably back in 1984 when the financing he could hope to get was of an order that probably wouldn’t cover the chihuahua budget on the “Avatar” sequels (yes I know there are no chihuahuas in “Avatar,” but only a fool would definitively conclude that there’s therefore no chihuahua budget), story took a primacy that he’s never truly embraced as much since. “The Terminator” is not just a good yarn, it’s a complex, layered and surprisingly thoughtful one, especially for a film so lean, boasting such relentless forward momentum.
Back in the day, of course, the provenance of that story was controversial. Cameron maintains that the idea evolved from a dream he had, as related to his biographer Rebecca Keegan in “The Futurist: The Life and Times of James Cameron.” But on seeing the finished film, already well on its way to becoming a cult hit, writer Harlan Ellison sued Orion, claiming that the film was based on an episode of “The Outer Limits,” titled “Soldier,” that he had written. “Soldier” does indeed have some shared elements, such as two relentless killers being sent back in time where one eventually sacrifices himself to rid the “present” of the other, but beyond that the similarities are not all that marked. In fact, the real strength of “The Terminator” is in the interesting way it plays with determinism — both the machine and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) are sent back in time deliberately by their superiors, and in so doing they create an unbreakable Grandfather Paradox loop of inescapable destiny; in “Soldier” the men are both accidentally beamed away from the battlefield of the future, one to 1964 and the other to a kind of gradually decaying limbo.
While Orion settled with Ellison out of court and he was given a credit on the home video release, Cameron always opposed that. And for once we’re on the notorious egomaniac’s side here, not least because later, when success had made him pretty much untouchable, he came out with the delightful Cameronism, also reported by Keegan, that “Harlan Ellison is a parasite who can kiss my ass.” Ellison may very well have served up the inspiration for the script, for all we know, but the things that made it “The Terminator” — the action, the love story, the man vs. machine apocalyptic futureworld — are all Cameron. There’s a reason we’re not here to celebrate the 50th anniversary (which happened in September, trivia hounds) of the “Soldier” episode of “the Outer Limits,” after all.
The story also goes that Cameron’s original idea for the script involved two Terminators being sent back, one a metal-and-living-tissue cyborg, and the other a liquid metal machine that will sound familiar to fans of “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” (i.e. everyone). Realizing that he didn’t have the tech to make the liquid metal effect a reality back then, Cameron rewrote the script into the incarnation he then went on to shoot, only to return to the idea seven years later for the film’s infinitely more bombastic sequel when the software had finally caught up to his imagination.
But as much as we have a lot of time for the still-awesome power ballad/stadium rock ballsiness of ‘T2,’ it’s the original film that remains somehow the more impressive achievement; shot for a fraction of the 1991 film’s budget (‘T2’ famously crossed the $100m barrier; “The Terminator” was made for $6.5m and some pocket lint) the original film had a sincerity, a realism and a heartfelt, albeit despairing quality that was replaced by broad-stokes adventure-cum-buddy-movie in the second installment. And let’s not even get started on the third (not great but maybe unfairly maligned Jonathan Mostow film) or the fourth (terrible McG version). Cameron, of course, would pull off a similar trick with another sci-fi sequel where he took the horror-inflected inventiveness of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and parlayed it into the thrillingly tense action/adventure of “Aliens.” It’s hard to say which is actually the “better” film as, despite being in the same franchise, they actually occupy different genres.
But back to the lore of “The Terminator.” Schwarzenegger was famously mooted for the Michael Biehn role originally (at which the mind sort of boggles) with O.J. Simpson put forward as a suggestion for the killing machine. But having met the Austrian Oak, Cameron cast him as the machine, gave him 18 lines (65 words, we believe) and launched a stratospheric career. Of those sixty-five life-changing words, the most iconic three, “I’ll be back” apparently caused Schwarzenegger such problems that he asked to have them changed (“I will be back” was the alternate phrasing that Cameron vetoed). His accent made them difficult to say and he was particularly self-conscious about the line, yet as Cameron would say later, “Somehow, even [the] accent worked…It had a strange synthesized quality, like they hadn’t gotten the voice thing quite worked out.” And thanks to Arnold, an entire generation of moviegoers would grow up with the impression that the obvious voice for a robot to speak in naturally (even a robot that could precisely mimic other people’s voices and speech patterns) would be that of a monotone suburban bodybuilder from outside Graz in Austria. (Those three words, delivered awkwardly with equal stress on each syllable, were recently voted the 37th best movie line of all time by the AFI.)
Meantime Sting was considered for Reese, Rosanna Arquette auditioned for Sarah and “The Godfather” visual effects master Dick Smith was sought to create the models and puppetry needed for the Terminator. It was just a twist of fate, or several, that an initially reluctant Michael Biehn, and a hot-off “The Children of the Corn” Linda Hamilton were preferred in the final analysis, while Smith turned down the job, but suggested a friend of his, the now-legendary Stan Winston.
There was no way of anticipating the stickiness of that one throwaway line, or the culty, obsessive fandom that the film would inspire and that would goose its take to a very respectable $78m worldwide. In fact, Orion was so unsure about the film they held only one press screening prior to its opening and released it with very little fanfare. But sometimes justice is done. The film found an audience and the trend for merchandising the hell out of anything remotely successful kicked off. Within a few months a novelization was on the shelves (oh the ‘80s), several “Terminator” games were developed for the Sega and Nintendo platforms, and the excellent Brad Fiedel soundtrack, including the now iconic synthy theme tune, did well as a separate soundtrack release. And finally appearing on home video and laserdisc, the film found a whole new audience; indeed it was with a battered VHS copy that this writer got her first grimy metallic taste of this broken, doomed pre-apocalyptic world, and it’s a setting that, despite its bleakness, I’ve enjoyed returning to with some frequency ever since.
Which comes back to story. As much as the stars and the action and the then-cutting-edge special effects may have got us all in the door once, it is the story that can bring us back time and again. And yet it’s a story that is so fundamentally illogical that by rights it should be alienating: so John has to remember to send back his own dad, who is his age, to meet his mom, otherwise he’ll never be born? As suspension of disbelief goes, it’s a pretty big pill to swallow. Yet once you accept that barmy, self-contradictory premise, everything else unfolds with perfect, relentlessly linear logic, and the little breadcrumb trail of mini mysteries laid out along the way (what was she thinking when that photo was taken? Why was it Reese who was chosen to be sent back? ) are all given their own satisfying reveals.
Thematically too, it remains resonant. The technophobia it elicits (ironic considering Cameron’s real-life embrace of all that is new-fangled and gadgety), is manifested in the macro narrative of the killing machine, but also in the small details, like how it’s Ginger’s walkman that distracts her from the carnage happening in the bedroom, or that it’s an answering machine that betrays Sarah’s whereabouts or that the digger that Reese watches idly while waiting in the car triggers a flashback to the future and to the ruined landscape of skulls being crushed beneath the treads of massive tanks. And it’s a paranoia that if anything has grown in the intervening decades as we knit the machines we create and nominally control ever closer into our lives. The gloomier among us, in fact, could suggest that we don’t have to worry about humanity’s coming obliteration at the hands of sentient machines: it’s already kind of happening and we’re going along with it.
So yes, if you choose to find it, in “The Terminator” there is despair, there is doom and there is death, to be sure. But perhaps what makes it so beloved is that really the main arc, unusually situated in a young woman, is of the painful but irrevocable discovery of inner self-worth and resourcefulness. Reese dies for her; but it is up to Sarah ultimately to save herself, her unborn child and therefore the future of humankind. And that’s the ridiculous truth of movie storytelling that Cameron has leveraged time and again, and did so for the first time here: let the personal play out against as enormous a backdrop as you like — an apocalypse, a planetary invasion, the sinking of the biggest ship ever built — and we as viewers will invest all the drama of a crumbling civilization into one person’s survival, or one person’s vanquishing of their personal demons. “The Terminator,” on a shoestring budget with a B-level cast, created a franchise, launched the King of the World TM, gave birth to one of the most recognizably iconic of movie characters, and instantly became part of the pop culture vernacular. But it is also simply one of the best stories James Cameron ever told, a pared back, tense, impossibly engaging, swift-moving, time-hopping movie of ideas that, with its dodgy hairstyles, sci-fi paradoxes and cronky effects, yet also its undiminished dynamism and internal kinetic energy, feels like it was beamed here intact from thirty years ago, ever ready to thrill us all over again. The obvious concluding quote here should of course be some reference to “I’ll be back,” but the thing is, “The Terminator” never really went away.