The Terminator

Director: James Cameron
Screenplay: James Cameron with Gale Anne Hurd
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator), Michael Biehn (Kyle Reese), Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1984
Country: U.S.
The Terminator Blu-Ray
The TerminatorJames Cameron's The Terminator is a film that is obsessed with, yet is ultimately about the fear of, machines.

Although this was clear when the movie premiered back in 1984, with its retro-time-travelling plot about a postapocalyptic future in which killer machines have risen from the ashes and are busy exterminating the human race (the fact that the nuclear war was started by machines, not by the Soviet Union, the great enemy of the U.S. during the Reagan years, is especially telling), it has become even more crystalline given Cameron’s later films, most of which are techno-rabid morality tales about machinery either failing or turning on the human characters. In Aliens (1986), a high-tech “terraforming” facility becomes so much rubble once the titular aliens take over, all the machinery in the world not worth a damn in the face of the drooling, acid-bleeding xenomorphs. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) continued many of the same themes as the original Terminator, but with millions of dollars in striking digital effects. More recently, 1997’s Titanic, while primarily a romance, is also about the greatest technological failure of the 20th century, the sinking of the ship that couldn’t be sunk, and 2009’s Avatar, probably the most technically sophisticated film ever made, focuses on the destruction of the natural world by human industrialization.

Thus, in The Terminator, Cameron achieves his most effective moments by pitting the human against the mechanical, flesh and blood against steel, the human brain against microprocessors. In the movie’s opening moments, with huge “hunter-killer” tanks rumbling across crushed humans skulls in the wasteland of Los Angeles in 2029, Cameron establishes the movie’s central dialectic and then allows it play out within the confines of fast-paced, kick-ass sci-fi action spectacle. Cameron’s greatest skill has always been his ability to meld significant sociocultural themes into movies that blow you out of your seat, thrilling both your racing heart and your mind, and The Terminator is no different. It seamlessly melds the best narrative mind tricks of science fiction literature with the visceral violence of the best action movies.

The Terminator has a deliciously simple set-up that has deep, never-answerable ramifications you can spend hours wrapping your mind around. In the future, the ruling machines send a Cyborg Terminator (a mechanical endoskeleton covered with living human flesh) back through time to 1984 in order to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the woman who will eventually give birth to the leader of the human resistance. The future human resistance manages to send back a lone soldier, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), to protect her. And, with that set-up, it’s off to the races.

The Terminator is played, of course, by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in what turned out to be the shrewdest casting choice of his career. Still struggling to find a place in Hollywood even after the success of Conan the Barbarian (1982), Schwarzenegger found in the Terminator the perfect role. Taking advantage of his sheer bulk and sizable screen presence without requiring any emoting, the Terminator plays up all of Arnold's best screen qualities and plays down his weaknesses. To his credit, though, Schwarzenegger did not just play the role as a dull robot, but rather as a cryptic, fiercely intelligent and unstoppable killing machine. Watch his performance more than once, and you will realize the many subtleties that he brought to the role and how the most minor body movements add to the sensation that you are watching a machine trying to emulate human movements (in one scene where he approaches a phone booth, Arnold bounds up a sidewalk with a little too much spring in his step--a moment of performative failure that emphasizes just how good the rest of his performance is).

Most of the movie is played out at night in back allies of Los Angeles in 1984 as Reese tries to protect Sarah from the relentless Cyborg. Cameron’s script, cowritten with producer Gale Anne Hurd, is lean and economical, giving us tons of expository dialogue during the most hectic chase sequences, thus allowing them to get the main points across without boring us to death. In Sarah Connor, Linda Hamilton is allowed to create a fully embodied character who develops from a regular, everyday person (like most of Cameron’s heroes, she is a blue-collar worker, a waitress) into someone of great strength and resilience. The idea is that the strength was always there, but Sarah just needed to be faced with great adversity for it to come out.

The Terminator, despite being shot on a rather limited budget, is filled with eye-popping action sequences and well-done special effects. The soundtrack roars with the sounds of screeching tires, crashing cars, machine guns spewing bullets, and massive explosions, including one of a tanker truck. Special effects guru Stan Winston (Jurassic Park) was responsible for the excellent Terminator special effects, including a grisly sequence in which the Terminator must operate on himself, cutting away the bloody human flesh around his wounds to expose pistons in his arms and a glowering red eye beneath his brow.

There were few expectations for The Terminator when it was first released, and it wound up surprising everyone, as it was both a huge critical and commercial success. It was one of those moments when everything came together--acting, directing, and special effects all coalescing to create a memorable science fiction spectacle. It was a harbinger of things to come, as Cameron has yet to make a bad movie. With The Terminator, he showed that he is one of the rare action directors with a heart, a man who loves melodrama as much as he likes blowing stuff up, and the fact that he does both with shameless aplomb and exquisite technical skill is something to be cherished.

The Terminator Limited Edition Blu-Ray Book

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio
  • English PCM 5.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Subtitles English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, Korean, Chinese
    Supplements
  • “The Making of The Terminator: A Retrospective” featurette
  • “Creating The Terminator: Visual Effects and Music” featurette
  • Seven deleted scenes
  • DistributorMGM / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    SRP$34.98
    Release DateMay 10, 2011

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Although it is packaged in a slick new limited edition book, the disc inside features the same high-def master from the film’s first Blu-Ray release back in 2006 (I believe this is now the fourth packaging). While the transfer is now five years old and has borne its share of complaints, it does increase the overall clarity of the image from the earlier DVDs, which were quite good for their time. Because much of the film was shot in dark alleyways and in dim buildings, shadow detail and black levels are crucial, and the higher resolution transfer helps make the murkier scenes at least a little less murky. Bear in mind that the film has an overall soft look, partially because it was a low-budget effort and partially because so much of it was shot at night (the image looks like it could stand for some digital restoration, as there are instances of age and wear that probably could be fixed). The high-def image certainly improves what we’ve seen before, but don’t expect it to look like Avatar (which is what I think many people are secretly hoping for). The Blu-Ray also features a lossless PCM 5.1-channel surround soundtrack that reminds us how crucial sound is to the film’s effectiveness (it is amazing to think that the film was originally released in monaural). Brad Fiedel’s pulsating, New Wave-influenced electronic musical score benefits the most, as the ominous, synthesized rhythms are given depth and resonance that add to their effectiveness. The surround channels are used quite extensively for the sound effects in the action sequences, and even if some of it sounds a bit forced at time, the majority sounds quite natural. Imaging and directionality are used creatively to expand the movie’s aural scope and create a palpable you-are-there experience.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    The supplements are an odd mix from previous releases that is far from comprehensive. “The Making of The Terminator: A Retrospective” is an 18-minute featurette composed of bits from a 1986 interview with Cameron and a staged interview/conversation between Cameron and Schwarzenegger filmed in 1992. There’s not a lot here, but there are some interesting anecdotes, and listening to Cameron and Schwarzenegger talk about their conception of The Terminator as a character gave me a new appreciation for Schwarzenegger's performance. We also have the 12-minute “Creating The Terminator: Visual Effects & Music,” which delves into many of the film’s special effects (although nothing about Stan Winston’s prosthetic and animatronic effects) and Brad Fiedel’s score. Finally, we have seven “terminated” scenes, most of which are extensions of sequences already in the movie, although several of them are part of an entire deleted subplot involving Sarah Connor’s plan to destroy Cyberdyne, which would become a crucial plot element in Terminator 2.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © MGM / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)




    James Kendrick

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