Monday, January 04, 2010

“It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

An implacable, nigh invulnerable killing machine can be a terrifying prospect, especially when its been designed to walk like a duck, talk like a duck and look like a duck, but actually isn’t. Strip away the science fiction, the action sequences and all that other stuff and what you’ve got at the core of this movie is an unblinking, metal endoskeleton that is now a classic movie monster in 1984’s The Terminator.

In 1984 Los Angeles, a robot in the shape of large naked man appears in a flash of lightning then takes the clothes off a group of street punks led by Bill Paxton. Somewhere else in the city, another naked man appears in an identical flash and steals a hobo’s clothes. Both of these strangers in a strange time are after the same person, Sarah Connor, a down on her luck waitress who has no idea why anybody would want to see her dead. Chase scenes, shootouts, general violence and trying to explain time travel in a coherent way ensue.

Sarah Connor: Linda Hamilton is our main character and the center of this movie’s world. She’s a normal woman with a dead end job, friends who have more fun than her, and a pet lizard. In short, an average, unremarkable person except for all of quirks that make her unique… Then a cyborg from the future shows up to try to kill her. Yeah, you’d be confused too. Fortunately the other guy who came through time is both there to rescue her and explain what the hell’s going on. She is going to be the mother of John Connor, a man who’s going to save humanity from the machines when a computer system called SkyNet decides to Kill All Humans.

Kyle Reese: Michael Biehn is the human soldier sent through time by John Connor to protect Sarah Connor and also to conceive John Connor in 1984 so that adult John Connor can send Kyle Reese back in time to-- See, this is why Time Travel is a pain in the ass. Reese is actually a pretty likable hero and gets some great badass moments.

Lieutenant Ed Traxler and Detective Hal Vukovich: Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen are two cops trying to piece together what’s going on when a man shows up and starts killing women named “Sarah Connor” alphabetically according to their placement in the phone book. They get some fun scenes, but, well, the Terminator absolutely destroys a police station to get at Sarah, so don’t get too attached to them.

Dr. Peter Silberman: Earl Boen (who’s done a bajillion things in voice over work, including the undead pirate LeChuck from the awesome Monkey Island games) plays a psychologist who’s brought in by the police to analyze Reese. The obvious conclusion is that he’s nuttier than a bag of cashews, and Silberman has some fun scenes where he’s both amused by Reese’s shouting and implacably skeptical.

The T-800 Terminator: Arnold Schwarzenegger in a badass movie role. Who’dathunk? Anyway, he’s a cyborg sent by SkyNet to terminate Sarah Connor, and he’s basically perfect for it. Cold, implacable, stern-faced, emotionless and thoroughly imposing, he’s also very good at really making himself behave mechanically. Then, there’s the battle damage that the Terminator goes through, which just makes him even more monstrous as bits of flesh get taken off here and there. And then we finally get the flesh completely taken off and are left with a glorious Stan Winston creation that is just plain iconic. Yeah, you don’t want to mess with a Terminator.

James Cameron is a fantastic director. The movie, while in a lot of places (like the shootout in the nightclub) it is extraordinarily 80s in its visuals, also has a lasting quality too. Action scenes are beautifully arranged, especially the car chases and there’s just this unrelenting undercurrent of dread and inevitability as the Terminator just won’t stop. You knock him off a building, fill him with bullets, throw him into an explosion. That just buys you breathing room. The atmosphere is fantastic, and then it throws a fourth act into the mix which I’m sure floored audiences back then since, well, we finally have the endoskeleton revealed and an even more apocalyptic showdown inside a factory. Outstanding visuals combined with stunning practical effects from Stan Winston’s team.

James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd wrote the script (with William Wisher) based on ideas by temperamental Sci-Fi legend Harlan Ellison. The plot is heavy, grim and thick. In the 90s, SkyNet, a computer so sophisticated it becomes sentient, decides to nuke humanity to protect itself in an event called Judgment Day and its only in 2029 that humanity is able to win the war on the machines, but in a last ditch gambit, SkyNet sends an agent back in time to prevent John Connor from ever existing. Its all staple sci-fi stuff, but it really works in the context of the movie. And the plot, while crucial to the events going on, never gets too ponderous or confusing in those ways that time travel can be. Unrelenting in its grim portrait of the future, its also quite hopeful because it stresses that “there is no future but what we make.”

The score by Brad Fiedel uses a very computer based sound. Lots of synthesizers and drum beats, and it complements the movie perfectly. The Terminator theme is just outstanding at setting the mood over the opening titles, promising relentless action.

The Terminator is a fantastic monster movie disguised as a solid action thriller with a coat of sci-fi paint. The Terminator itself is just plain awesome and the plot is wonderfully coherent. Totally recommended.

No comments: