Rewatching The Terminator (1984) prodded into being a question to which there may be no answer: Is James Cameron a better director when he has a comparatively small budget to work with, or has he just lost his touch as he’s got older and more megalomaniacal? In the 1980s, he made The Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss. By the time of The Abyss (an experience the cast found so horrific they renamed it among themselves as “The Abuse”), the budgets and the effects were already starting to get overegged. And then there was that movie about the sinking ship, and that other one about the human-sized smurfs.
Sure, Cameron’s movies still pack out theatres and make squillions of dollars (as well they should, given how much they cost to make). Much like George Lucas, Cameron can’t write dialogue for toffee but the audience doesn’t come for the witty repartee and the Tarantino-esque realism: they come to ooh and ah at the CGI awesomeness. Which is fine, but it’s not story telling. If you’re making an action movie, you only need to focus on storytelling when you don’t have the budget to spend on special effects that will, like a magician’s sleight of hand, divert the audience’s attention from the utter cobbler’s you’re trying to pass off as plot and characterisation.
This is what makes The Terminator stick out from Cameron’s current oeuvre. In essence, The Terminator is a bog-standard chase film with a love story tacked on to it. Weirdly, given my memories of it as a bombastic couple of hours of whoop-ass, it’s actually characterised by its smallness: small cast, compact sets, economically filmed battles and sparingly used special effects. That’s not to say that there aren’t more explosions, car chases and shootings than you can shake a sawn-off shotgun at – there are plenty of those. This is still, after all, a blockbuster movie. But I had forgotten quite how much time Cameron devoted to building his back story and the relationship between Sarah and Kyle.
I had also forgotten how synth-tastic the soundtrack is (it makes the scoring of John Carpenter sound lush and orchestral by comparison) and how thrilling the opening scenes are. The arrivals of the cyborg and Michael Biehn’s puny human from the year 2029, via lightening filled portals in the LA night, are a study in contrasts. Schwarzenegger is still in the physical condition that won him all those Mr Universe titles, and the audience’s first view of him is suitably cowing. Completely naked, (yes, you do get to see the Schwarzeneggerette – albeit briefly), muscles gleaming in the headlights of a truck, and crouched over like Atlas shouldering the globe, Schwarzenegger looks awe-inspiring and superhuman even before he draws himself up to his full height, which is 6ft 2, if you care.
His despatching of the gang of punks unlucky enough to be his first human encounter is brutal (one of them simply has is innards ripped out), but efficient and over very quickly. Fun fact #1: their leader is a pre-fame Bill Paxton, practising his obnoxious dickhead routine for his role in Near Dark, directed by Cameron’s then-future wife Kathryn Bigelow. The cyborg looks suitably bad ass in the army surplus clothes that he strips from the punks, and then off he goes to steal an arsenal in a very logical, violent way. Fun fact #2: according to rumour, Schwarzenegger wasn’t allowed to dub his own lines into German because it was thought that, to German audiences, his Austrian accent made him sound like a farmer. (It’d be the equivalent of Darth Vader speaking like a West Country farmer).
Contrast this with the arrival of Kyle Reese, Sarah Connor’s would-be saviour. He arrives in a painful heap on top of some rubbish bins in a back alley and has to steal his trousers from a drunken homeless guy. Whereas the cyborg comes through his portal unscathed, Reese’s slender frame is covered in burns. Before our protagonists even meet, it’s obvious that humanity should be fucked, but we know it won’t be because that’s not how blockbuster movies end.
The audience is almost right, of course: that’s not quite how the movie ends. But Sarah and Kyle don’t get a happy ever after, and the fact that she’s pregnant with John Connor doesn’t change the fact that Skynet is going to go ahead and condemn the world to a nuclear holocaust. The cyborg is crushed, but humanity is still pretty much fucked. As a product of the zeitgeist, The Terminator can’t end any other way.
While the rich still own our butts, at least we’re no longer as worried as we were that one of them will push a red button and blow us all to hell. In the mid-1980s, however, the apocalypse was just around the corner. Films like Blade Runner and literature like The Watchmen tapped into Cold War paranoia and derived their aesthetic from the bleak urban landscapes that were rapidly becoming overpopulated with the unemployed, the desperate, the criminal underclasses and the dispossessed. The world belonged to Thatcher, Reagan, and yuppies and, for the first time, America had to acknowledge that it wasn’t a classless society. Class is all over this film like cheap polyester: It’s no wonder that the “mother of the future” (as Sarah refers to herself at one point) is a lowly diner waitress, or that the cyborg has no effort blasting away an entire station filled with blue collar cops. Fun fact #3: Lance Henriksen, one of those blue collar cops, was originally slated for the title role.
There is a lot, lot more to say about The Terminator; how well the special effects have stood up, for example, as compared with the already dated CGI stylings of the first Harry Potter film, or its noir aesthetics, or its debatable feminist credentials, or the way technology is taking over our lives. But that it continues to be a reference point for other, inferior, films – I lost count of the number of nods Drive Angry made – is proof that this was not another dumb, disposable action flick (more about Eraser later). It’s a classic of dystopian sci-fi because it captures an eternal truth about the future. And that truth is that we are terrified of the future because we’re the ones who are making it right now, and we are our own worst enemies.