Friday, 9 September 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 84 - The Terminator

#17 - The Terminator

It was back in the early 1980s that a fledgling young director nobody had heard of called James Cameron was living in his car in Los Angeles. He started to develop an idea for a nifty new sci-fi film, drawing inspiration from 1950s stuff such as The Outer Limits, and contemporary films like Mad Max 2 and The Driver. Apparently he even sold the rights to it for one dollar under the condition that he would direct the film. The rest is history and we now have a relatively well-known sci-fi franchise though you can see I left out the other films from this list. I have seen the second film, but not the others and for some reason I prefer this one. Shall we begin?

Sarah Connor is a young waitress living a relatively normal life in Los Angeles. One day however she sees a strange news report that says two other woman in the area also named Sarah Connor have been murdered the same day. Her paranoia goes up even higher when she checks the phone book and realises that she comes after the two women who have already in murdered. Convinced that she is being followed, she hides out in a downtown club. The man following her pulls out a gun...and saves her from another man with a gun. He tells her his name is Kyle Reese and he is from the future, having been sent back in time to protect her from a cyborg ordered to assassinate her. Reese tells her that in the future mankind is at war with the machines and she is destined to give birth to a son that will lead the humans in the resistance. Of course that all depends on whether or not they can stop the near-indestructible Terminator trying to murder Sarah.

If you ask me, the 1980s saw a big change in the typical formulas and clich├ęs seen in sci-fi films. Back in the 1950s they were really B-films often shown in grindhouses with hokey special effects, pretty much being so bad they were good. Star Wars acted as a bit of a reconstruction for the sci-fi genre and as such many films followed suit in making sci-fi films being taken seriously. We had already seen some before that such as 2001 and Planet of the Apes but the success of Star Wars made them films that the general public would want to see as opposed to just nerds. This film in particular followed in the footsteps of Star Wars, blending sci-fi and action while placing these two genres in a modern (at the time) and realistic place instead of in space or other planets. It’s very cool to see Cameron’s early work when I’m such a fan of his since here he’s trying to figure out exactly what will work and developing all his techniques. Apparently the whole plot came from a nightmare he had while sick about a mechanical demon emerging from a wall of fire and chasing after him. I guess all struggling filmmakers should try this fever for themselves and see where their career goes.

We have three principal actors in the lead roles here, two of them being James Cameron’s typical favourites. First up is Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role that jumpstarted his career (one of his early films was so bad, the rights were sold on E-Bay). Believe it or not, he was originally up for the role of Kyle Reese which Cameron didn’t like and he only interviewed Schwarzenegger to humour him but he realised he would be perfect as the Terminator. OJ Simpson was considered for the role but hilariously Cameron didn’t think people would buy him as a bad guy. You can’t really say much about Arnold’s acting except he makes the role his own and he certainly looks badass, as well as genuinely intimidating with his eyebrows burned off and face cut up. Linda Hamilton plays Sarah Connor and I enjoyed her much more in this film than in the second one. Cameron himself said we’re not supposed to like her in the second film and she’s not this paragon of feminism people make her out to be. Here in this film you can empathise with her as a woman who gets pretty much her whole destiny dumped on her in the space of a few hours, and evolves into a strong and capable fighter, as opposed to the hardened ruthless bitch she is in the second film. My main man Michael Biehn plays Kyle Reese, and it pains me to say this since I worship the ground he walks on, but he doesn’t do that good a job. He overdoes it in most of his scenes and does ruin a couple of moments with his weird delivery but I guess that’s the type of person Reese is. I mean, who’s to say we wouldn’t be like that if we’d had to experience that future? There is a nice little moment where Sarah throws a pillow at him and we see him laugh for the first time in the film. I’m going into denial and state that Michael Biehn played him like that on purpose. The other Cameron favourite is Lance Henriksen playing a policeman (his turn as the robot would come eventually) and Bill Paxton of all people has a small role at the start as a punk on the street. That gives him the distinction of being the only actor killed by an Alien, Predator and Terminator.

The action scenes are really a credit to this film. I’ll admit that sometimes re-watching action scenes in films makes me lose interest in some cases but the ones in this film are pretty gripping. The scene of Arnold slowly approaching Sarah with the gun out in the club, her cold defeated look and then Reese coming out of nowhere to help her was a pretty tense moment for me when I first watched it and I still felt that same tension watching it back. The raid on the police station is another good one as Arnold drives a car straight through the front doors and makes short work of all the cops while Reese tries to find Sarah. The car chase scene near the end is another nice one, almost as good as the underpass scene in the second film. If I’m being honest about that infamous ending action scene then it fell short. The really bad stop motion effects used for the metal skeleton really make it look cheesy and almost as bad as the big reveal when we see the monster in IT. That’s a shame because the part when it first gets revealed is actually pretty terrifying. I don’t know why people hate Sarah’s “on your feet, soldier” line so much since I never had a problem with it.
For the non-action scenes, there’s an absolutely sick (in a good way) scene where Arnold has been shot in the face and so goes back to a motel room and literally gouges out his eye and reveals his robotic eye underneath. It’s a little squicky but it’s pretty cool at the same time. The motel scene between Reese and Sarah where he describes the picture of her he once saw is nicely written and Michael Biehn’s delivery of lines is actually alright. The sex scene was pretty sweetly done as well and Linda Hamilton certainly had things going on back then. 

Believe it or not Cameron was working on two other films at the same time as this one. He was in full production of a sequel to Rambo while this film was being delayed for a few months while Arnold was shooting Conan The Barbarian, and he was also in the early planning stages to do Aliens. In fact this was the film that convinced people that Aliens could work. There was originally no hope at all for the film and the studio didn’t think it would do well at all, so it came as quite a shock when it topped the box office for two weeks in a row and made plenty of money, thereby opening the doors for the sequels, the interquel and the TV series not to mention all the other merchandising and the big fingerprint it has left in pop culture history. That’s it for today people so follow me on Twitter and tomorrow I’ll be back.

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