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The Terminator (1984)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

A thoroughly tense update of a universal fear, The Terminator is cast to perfection. In the near future, humanity is being pushed to the verge of extinction by sentient machines (after coming through a nuclear apocalypse). To win the war before it even starts, a cyborg assassin, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), is sent back through time by the machines. Arriving in a flash of light, during a dirty 1984 evening, the Terminator pauses at a view over Los Angeles, almost as if it can sense its prey already. Moments later another flash bleaches the shadows of an alley, spewing Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) from within its temporal belly.

Since both the Terminator and Reese have emerged from the future as naked as new-born babes, they both need to locate contemporary clothing. The big difference in approach is that the Terminator beats up some greaseball punks for his snazzy leather outfit while Reese is reduced to stealing his trousers from a nearby tramp. Their objectives are also identical, involving the location of someone named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and either killing or protecting her. There are three people in the phone book with the correct name, so the Terminator methodically moves towards wiping them all out (luckily Reese has a bit of inside information which means that he can track down Connor slightly more easily.

Meanwhile, Connor goes about her business oblivious to the gathering storm. Life as a waitress ain't pretty, particularly for someone as ditzy as Connor, but at least she's got a night out with her room-mate Ginger (Bess Motta) to look forward to. A news bulletin regarding the bloody killing of one of her namesakes briefly catches her attention, but it doesn't amount to much for someone hardened to living in LA. Slowly the net tightens, with the Terminator moving inexorably towards Connor while Reese can only watch and wait (hoping that the cops don't pick him up). Since he doesn't actually know what the Terminator looks like, he has to sit back until the last possible moment before shooting it - a temporary distraction for the Terminator, at best. This begins the nightmare for Connor.

The central theme of The Terminator is one endlessly recycled in all forms of entertainment, testament to its intrinsic power and numerous psychological hooks. An assassin who is not merely implacable but also seemingly invulnerable strikes right at the base of our deepest fears, threatening to upset our stability. The choice of Schwarzenegger for the cyborg role was a stroke of genius (even though he and Biehn were initially cast in each other's character). With his pumped-up, inhuman musculature and inexpressive features, there is little difficulty in imagining that he is an ultimate killing machine, sent from the future.

Interestingly, Reese is portrayed as a double-edged warrior; the exact opposite of the Terminator and yet almost exactly like his nemesis. This makes sense (given where he's come from) but it's pretty eerie when Reese launches into compact future-speak and shrugs off bullet wounds as a minor scratch. Biehn does a fine job as a fish-out-of-water, brought up to fight and lumbered with the task of explaining everything to a sceptical Connor. She is the antithesis of the organised, tough mother of the future saviour of mankind that Reese might have expected - an excellent piece of script-writing. Her transformation and gradual coming to terms with the coming holocaust never feels outlandish, thanks to the well pitched performance of Hamilton.

An unusual feature of The Terminator is that it puts forward a strong script to complement the impressive special effects, a result of its low-budget origins. Events are tightly plotted, if rather contrived, under the direction of James Cameron, ensuring that the tension gradually notches ever higher. It's also refreshing to find a movie where the timelines of present and future are synchronised properly, without lots of absurd hops back and forth in time. Altogether this ensures that The Terminator is a landmark science-fiction film, a benchmark for others to aim for and one of Schwarzenegger's finest performances.

This film was nominated for review by Fior Minaya.

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