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Video Review: The Terminator (1984)

August 2, 2011
  • Dir. James Cameron
  • Released by Hemdale
  • Written by James Cameron, William Wisher, and Gale Anne Hurd
  • Rating ****
Original Laserdicks Review:

After being fired off of Piranha II, the schlocky sequel to a Joe Dante horror-comedy (why does that sound so familiar?), a relatively young, relatively not king-of-the-world James Cameron had a rather unpleasant nightmare involving a metallic skeleton with red glowing eyes emerging from a fire. Not being one to waste such a frightening image, this graduate of the Roger Corman school of no-budget pictures decided to develop the idea into a script that took a few hints from Harlan Ellison’s Outer Limits episode “Soldier” (a decision that would lead to a lawsuit). Upon finding financing and securing his stars, Cameron directed the cheap exploitation flick, which just happened to turn out as one of the best science fiction-horror-action films ever made.
Yes, before the animatronic Alien Queen, before the CG water tentacle, before the half-nude dancing of Jamie Lee Curtis, before the PG-13 Kate Winslet nude scene, before the blue Thundercats, there was the first movie for which James Cameron would place on his resume as director, one that would cost far less than any of those films just mentioned, and one that would inevitably produce a franchise that has been exploited far beyond hope for recovery. With one excellent sequel, one fairly good TV series, one okay 3D theme park attraction, two additional and rather unremarkable sequels, an unofficial Italian sequel, a widespread anthology of comic books, several tie-in novels, and a handful of lousy video games, Cameron’s first child has come just as far as he has…but to less acclaim as the years passed.
The original film should be taken on its own account, though, as a rather remarkable achievement in the 80s market of ultra-cheap action thrillers, a market dominated by an aging Charles Bronson at the time. Hemdale Film Corporation, which would later go on to produce such classics as The Return of the Living Dead, Hoosiers, and Howling II (that’s why it sounded familiar!), worked with Orion Pictures, which would later go on to release RoboCop (and would employ the Terminator theme in its trailer), and Pacific Western Productions, which would lead to Gale Anne Hurd’s involvement–both professional and otherwise–with James Cameron on subsequent projects and ensure her influence on the greater Terminator franchise (in part because she acquired a writing credit for the original film).
The story is anything but simple, with time travel, cyborgs, post-apocalyptic war, and evil AI being blended with car chases, shootouts, serial murders, police procedure, and, of course, a touching love story. The movie attempts–and amazingly enough, achieves–so many different styles and tones that one is astonished that the movie is even comprehensible, let alone compelling. And universally so, appealing to audiences across demographics despite the fact that it is largely a gory slasher flick with some special effects thrown in on occasion. The budding romance between time traveler Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and his modern-day protectee, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is just as fascinating as the deadly force of the inhuman killing machine (Arnold Schwarzenegger, in possibly the most important role of his career).
Although the movie is not perfect (the early Stan Winston effects are sometimes quite unconvincing, the editing has a few major blunders, and the time travel story inevitably raises plot holes), it is an ambitious effort that is well-scripted, superbly acted, tautly directed, memorably scored (by Brad Fidel, who produced some rather unnerving synthesizer music for the film), and effectively paced. It is scary, thrilling, moving, amusing, and thought-provoking, which is astonishing for a movie that at times resorts to illegally-filmed scenes and cigarette-enhanced effects shots to get around the lack of money available. Much like a film that obviously influenced it, 1978’s Halloween (which featured a relationship between John Carpenter and Debra Hill that was in many ways similar to that of Cameron and Hurd), The Terminator is a grand example of how spectacular a piece of low-budget independent filmmaking can be when creative and talented young people put their hearts into the product, and it secures a spot on the list of my all-time favorite films.

From → Film Criticism

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