With the latest instalment in the Terminator franchise due in cinemas next week, I thought now was an opportune moment to continue my occasional series on favourite films by favourite directors, with James Cameron.
An action director par excellence, Cameron has helmed some truly great movies, including Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. It is also generally true that the bigger his budgets, the less interesting his movies get. He has held the claim on the most expensive movie ever made no less than five times – with The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies, Titanic and the current most expensive, Avatar. But with the exception of Terminator 2, it is true to say that each of those films is less interesting than its predecessor. By the time you get to Avatar, you get to the first James Cameron film that simply fails to satisfy. However, for me his finest hour remains The Terminator. Here are just ten reasons why.
NOTE: spoilers from this point.
“Nice night for a walk.”
The arrival of the naked Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger in a role he has never bettered) is dark, mysterious and brutally violent, as Bill Paxton’s punk discovers after refusing to surrender his clothes. A cyborg sent back through time to kill Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), mother of the future saviour of the human race, the Terminator is immediately established as one of the greatest screen antagonists of all time.
“Come with me if you want to live.”
Sent back to defend Sarah from the Terminator is Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). His suspenseful arrival in the tech noir nightclub set piece is hugely memorable; as he goes from apparent stalker to protector, culminating in the above iconic one-liner.
“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.”
The essential plot exposition is delivered via intense exchanges during a car chase. Cameron’s direction and scripting is superb. Not only are the action scenes brilliantly shot, but the exposition is so breathlessly delivered, the entire movie feels non-stop and relentless in an entirely appropriate way – just like the Terminator itself. The film has an economy, a tightness, a leanness that is sadly lacking in some of Cameron’s later, more expensive films.
The surgery scene
Stan Winston’s stop motion visual effects and the appealing lo-fi Terminator make-up are gruesomely appealing throughout. In particular, the scene where the Terminator performs wince inducing surgery on his arm and eye is very well done. The sequence also has a wonderful little moment of humour where the Terminator adjusts his hair in the mirror afterwards. It appears this cyborg has also been programmed to be a little vain.
“I hate the weird press cases.”
Police detectives Vukovitch (Lance Henriksen) and Traxler (Paul Winfield) find themselves investigating the Terminator murders, and at the same time Cameron pokes fun at police movie clichés (jokes about coffee and cigarettes, for instance). Although the detectives are essentially one-note characters, the script and performances enable them to be memorable (Vukovitch talks too much, Traxler is warm and humane). Their banter and dark humour provides an amusing counterpoint to the grimness of the situation that will inevitably eventually kill them.
“I’ll be back.”
Speaking of which, the Terminator’s assault on the police station remains one of the most brutal and frightening sequences in the film, even though it kicks off with the oft-quoted comedic line that Arnold Schwarzenegger is most famous for.
“I came across time for you.”
People often talk of The Terminator being a great action or sci-fi horror movie, but they never speak of it being a great love story. I actually really like the romance that develops between Sarah and Reese. It never feels contrived, and their relationship is compassionately and sensitively handled. Of course it ultimately proves to be essentially to the plot; the big twist being that unbeknownst to him Reese is in fact the father of John Connor, the future saviour of mankind.
The chase sequences in the finale are still some of the best action scenes in the James Cameron back catalogue. I particularly love the huge tanker explosion that burns the Terminator to its metal skeleton, thus providing a terrific false ending.
“On your feet soldier!”
When Sarah yells the above to a wounded Kyle Reese, it is a vital moment in her character arc, where she stops being the hunted victim and becomes the Sarah Connor of legend. This plays out subsequently in the resourceful way she finally puts an end to the murderous pursuit.
“A person could go crazy thinking about this stuff.”
The final scene of the film manfully admits the time travel paradoxes inherent in the material by having Sarah speak them aloud to get them straight in her head, then essentially give up trying, subtly signally the audience to do the same. The gambit pays off, not least because the scene is a very emotional one, with Sarah coming to terms not only with the coming nuclear apocalypse, but also the death of Reese. This is underscored by the beautiful moment when it transpires the photograph Reese saw of Sarah in the future – the photo he fell in love with, where he always wondered what she was thinking – that she was thinking of him when it was taken. I’ve always been a sucker for doomed romances, and that is another reason why for me the first Terminator film nudges ahead of the second in my affections.