RogerBW's Blog

The Terminator 15 March 2022

1984 science fiction, dir. James Cameron, Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger: IMDb / allmovie. Two soldiers from the future fight to kill, or save, the mother of the revolution.

This was expected to be just another disposable 1980s action film, maybe a step on the road to better things for some of the people involved, but not impressive in itself. And looking at it, there's quite a bit of what I now recognise as Eighties action filler: for example, here's the shot where they drive along the pavement for no obvious reason, which adds nothing to the progress of the story but takes up a bit of screen time.

But what it gets right, what Cameron at his best does get right, is the two-way flow of information between plot and action: because of these character moments, the next action scene looks like this, and the outcome of the action feeds into the way the next talky bit will work. This seems as though it ought to be obvious, but I think the more common approach to action film is what you see in Raiders of the Lost Ark, to start with the set-pieces (constrained by budgets and practicality), then paste in some cursory material to link them together.

(And for me "Cameron at his best" is bookended by this and Terminator 2, with Aliens and The Abyss in between. True Lies has its fans, but plenty of other directors could have done it just as well. Then there was Titanic. And Avatar.)

I'm perhaps less impressed by Linda Hamilton than I should be; I saw Terminator 2 before I saw this, and by comparison here she's screechy as well as, more reasonably, terrified. It's fair enough, I suppose, but it's a bit drawn-out for my taste. On the other hand we do have the Standard Feminism Trope that shows up repeatedly in Cameron's films, though for me the best example is in Blood Simple: although all the good guys have tried to help the female lead, eventually they all fail and she has to do the necessary thing on her own.

On the other hand, Michael Biehn got the part because, among lots of actors who were happy to portray tough guys, he was the one who also showed something like empathy, making the somewhat forced story of a true love that finds its culmination in the few hours when both parties are actually alive seem more like something that could actually happen.

And Arnie… well, he was probably still known more as a bodybuilder than as an actor at this point. But he takes advantage of that to make his face look even more unnatural, and while he doesn't have many lines his physical acting is great. (Not exactly an "infiltration unit", but hey ho.)

Stan Winston did the effects, which almost work – but there's that one sequence, of the skeleton walking along a catwalk, which shows that it just doesn't have the inertia that a solid metal object ought to have. Oh well. On the other hand there's a moment when Sarah is flung along a wall by the fuel tanker explosion which is just perfect.

I can certainly see the flaws here, but everything works at least reasonably well and most of it better than that.

If you want more of my witterings, you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

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