The movie that transformed Arnold Schwarzenegger into a global megastar
Conan the Barbarian may have provided Arnold Schwarzenegger with a Hollywood platform, but it was James Cameron’s sci-fi classic The Terminator that would make him a household name.
Ironically, Arnie initially read for the part of Kyle Reese, and it took some persuasion from James Cameron to convince him that the role of the T-800 was better suited. Arnie was still riding high after box office success as the heroic Conan, so it was something of a risk for Cameron to challenge his leading man, particularly after struggling for so long to get his second movie made having only one other director’s credit in Piranha II: The Spawning. The fact that the studio were pushing to have American football star O.J. Simpson play the role had perhaps convinced Cameron that it was a risk worth taking.
Interestingly, Lance Henriksen, who went on to play Detective Hal Vukovich in the movie, had been the first actor to dress as the T-800, but it is hard to imagine anyone else playing the role that would come to define Arnie’s career, one that he is still synonymous with more than three decades later, and if that doesn’t strike you as incredible in itself, then let us take a moment to put it all into context.
As well as winning numerous Mr Olympia and Mr Universe awards, Schwarzenegger has featured in a total of 48 movies, becoming the highest paid actor and starring in the world’s most expensive movie in the process. Blockbusters such as Total Recall, Commando and Predator have all become cult classics, the latter spawning a mega-money franchise that is still going strong today. Still, The Terminator is the role that stands head and shoulders above the rest — ironic when you consider that the Tom Selleck led Runaway, a kitsch and horribly dated Michael Crichton endeavour released at around the same time, was the movie pegged for critical and commercial domination while The Terminator was written off as a potential low-budget dud. Fully aware of the his mainstream resonance, Arnie even referenced the the character during his election campaign to become the governor of California, famously acquiring the moniker ‘The Governator’ along the way. Yes, the movie’s legacy was even enough to see the Austrian-born weightlifter elected into office.
Back in 1984, Arnie was infamous for largely wooden acting, possessing the kind of stiff movements and awkward Eastern drawl that had long-stunted his ambitions of becoming the world’s biggest movie star, but the T-800 fit like a glove, Cameron accentuating both his positive and negative attributes to devastating effect. The fact that Schwarzenegger tried to have the famous line ‘I’ll be back’ altered to ‘I will be back’ following problems with pronunciation is one of those make-or-break moments that can alter career paths irrevocably, one beautifully lampooned in hyper-referential cultural juggernaut The Simpsons during the infamous Radioactive Man episode. Thanks to Cameron’s acerbic screenplay, Arnie would become more than just a musclebound void who looked good on a Hollywood marquee. There is nothing dryer than having a killer robot reel off puns in a manner that lacks total self-awareness, and that translated to a then robotic actor, a delicious sense of irony that provided the basis for the most recognisable action movie career of the late 20th century.
In The Terminator, Arnie plays a relentless cyborg assassin sent back in time to kill the mother of the unborn leader of a future resistance, a synthetic soldier from a time when Skynet and artificial intelligence have designs on eradicating the human race. Essentially, the T-800 is a sci-fi re-imagining of the popular stalk-and-slash killer, a machine that will stop at nothing to reach its objective, and for the most part it’s just as grainy and aesthetically unnerving as those exploitative, low-budget horror productions. With every robotic movement or mechanical twitch of the finger, Arnie oozed inhuman menace, his herculean frame and potential for life-crushing brutality bringing an almost futile aura to proceedings. While the likes of Michael Myers disguised the monster beneath by overtly embellishing it, in a sense The Terminator goes the opposite way. In some ways Arnie’s human frame is even more intimidating than the red-eyed endoskeleton that lies beneath.
Still, you can’t take anything away from the mechanical design of The Terminator. Originally, the studio wanted the T-800 to have a cyborg canine sidekick, which makes the end product seem like even more of a miracle. Made on a relatively minuscule budget of $6,400,000, the movie came out of nowhere, generating very little fanfare before entering theatres, but thanks to Cameron’s ingenuity — he even designed the endoskeleton — the movie looked positively high-tech. Visual touches like the T-800’s torn flesh and mechanical eyeball have all the hallmarks of a horror movie creation, while the novelty of the machine’s laser-sighted pistol proves a wonderful extension of its deadly precision, as well as providing a superb hook for the gimmick-laden ’80s.
Kyle Reese – Listen, and understand! That Terminator is out there! 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!
Aesthetically, Cameron and his crew would work miracles, particularly during those nightmarish flashback sequences experienced by hero Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), who is sent back in time along with the T-800 to protect the correct Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and try to ensure that she survives long enough to give birth to the leader of the human resistance. Theirs is a disassociated romance born from a picture of Sarah, one which Reese clings to as he fights a future war on a landscape of giant, skull-crushing machines, as surviving soldiers scurry across veritable boneyards like rodents in the nuclear dust. This image is soon echoed back in present day Los Angeles, Arnie’s unceasing killer pulling up to the wrong Sarah Connor’s home, crushing a toy truck under the wheel of his car and foreshadowing one possible fate for humanity.
At this juncture, it’s hard to imagine that Sarah could give birth to and train the heroic saviour of the human race, but over time she would grow to become one of cinema’s most memorable heroines. When we first meet her, she is a million miles away from the resourceful warrior we find in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Frizzy, frumpy and armed with little more than a moped, Sarah is wholly unprepared for the apocalyptic struggles she will one day face, and that is where love interest Reese comes in. In a typically dizzying time travel twist, he is the one who teaches her the survival tactics she will one day need to get by, ultimately passing them on to his future son, a leader he had once fought alongside.
Sarah Connor – Should I tell you about your father? Boy, that’s a tough one. Will it affect your decision to send him here, knowing that he is you father? If you don’t send Kyle, you can never be. God, a person can go crazy thinking about all this…
Sarah is first confronted by Arnie’s cyborg assassin during the iconic scene at the Tech Noir nightclub — a masterclass in dramatic tension. It is here when our disbelieving protagonist first realises the true extent of her predicament and the seemingly menacing Kyle Reese suddenly becomes her saviour, a barrage of bullets halting the T-800 as Connor stares helplessly at the intoxicating red light of her true pursuer’s laser-sight pistol. After the cyborg awakens, Connor is torn between a seemingly indestructible monster and a potential lunatic, her unwillingness to accept such a life-altering occurrence leading her into the arms of the police, who are just as willing to write Reese off as a nut job and prematurely end her nightmare.
It is here where the movie’s other memorable set-piece takes place, the myopic and irrepressible Terminator wiping out an entire precinct of powerless cops. This is arguably the most ruthless single killing spree from a horror character, and one that gave birth to the iconic line that almost never was, transforming Schwarzenegger into a cultural phenomenon almost overnight. It’s a groundbreaking and innovative scene that successfully blends horror, action and sci-fi, one that still inspires shock and awe more than three decades later, and you have to believe that Arnie’s presence is a huge factor in the scene’s level of impact, one that has lost none of its power in the ensuing years.
When you think about The Terminator, it is Arnie who immediately leaps to mind, but the film opened a lot of doors for a lot of people. It is also a wonderful movie, and certainly one of the most groundbreaking science fiction stories to ever grace the silver screen, one that would capture the imagination of generation upon generation. Some believe its blockbusting sequel to be the superior movie, and in some respects they have a point, but I like to think of each as two completely different productions attached to the same central story, both of which achieving their goals flawlessly, which is the most we can ask of any movie.
‘T2’ is an exhilarating slice of blockbuster action, groundbreaking for its special effects and uniquely humorous in its approach. Like Cameron’s other flawless exercise in sequel making, Aliens, it defies our expectations, taking a character of colossal menace and transforming him into a humane and likeable entity, and though the Director’s Cut would prove laborious for large segments, the original theatrical release is flawlessly paced and infinitely re-watchable, resulting in arguably the finest example of sequel-making ever realised.
Its predecessor is a very different animal: a bleak, dystopian nightmare which triumphs as an exercise in visceral terror. Punctuated by a nihilistic score of synthetic chaos, its grainy, low-budget production creaks with authenticity, resulting in one of the most fearsome villains of our time and a movie that is just as at home in the realms of horror cinema. There may be no separating the two in the minds of many, which is a wonderful notion in itself, but for me the original is the more important movie, one which left an indelible mark on cinema, and whose enduring influence will be felt for many more years to come.