Rise of the Machine: James Cameron’s The Terminator

The Terminator poster

The movie that transformed Arnold Schwarzenegger into a global megastar

Conan the Barbarian may have kick-started Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood career, but it was James Cameron’s sci-fi classic The Terminator that would make him a household name. It was hardly surprising to see him shine so brightly. Arnie wasn’t the greatest actor to ever have aspirations of conquering tinsel town — in fact, at that stage in his career he was about as bad as it got — but one glimpse at his giant frame and ripped torso told you all you needed to know about the Pumping Iron star. Arnie ran on sheer, larger-than-life presence, the kind of excess that was championed by one-and-all in Reagan’s America. If 1969’s ludicrously dissonant Hercules in New York was enough to inspire one critic to tell Arnie that he would never be a great actor, then The Terminator was enough to leave Hollywood’s biggest producers tripping over themselves in an attempt to cast the overnight sensation in their next brawn-over-brains spectacular.

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, even if ‘action hero’ was the actor’s ultimate goal. Schwarzenegger was still riding high after box office success as the swashbuckling 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. Arnie was hardly a proven draw back then and handled incorrectly he may have proven more of a hindrance than anything. 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. Henriksen oozed tough guy presence too, albeit in an entirely different manner, and a wiry, less conspicuous T-800 may have proven rather interesting when pitted against a musclebound Reece — it certainly worked for Robert Patrick’s mimetic polyalloy  T-1000 seven years later — but it is hard to imagine anyone else playing the role that more than any other 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 me 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 character while running for Governor of California in 2003, 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. And yes, he would ‘be back’ for a second term.

The Terminator Behind the Scenes

Still, physical presence isn’t everything — a gazillion lunkheaded wannabees can attest to that — and 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 and best loved movie star. After all, American’s wanted American heroes, preferably the kind who knew their arses from their elbows, and Arnie just happened to pop-up as Cold War tensions had reached a new nadir. In the end, he just needed the right role, and the colossal T-800 fit like a glove, Cameron accentuating the actor’s 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, resulting in 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 then popular stalk-and-slash killer, a machine that will stop at nothing to reach its objective, and for the most part the movie is just as grainy and aesthetically unnerving as those exploitative, low-budget horror productions that would lead to widespread moral panic during mid-1980s. 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 and Jason Voorhees hid behind masks that would embellish their fearsome aura, The Terminator kind of went the other way. The fact that Arnie’s human frame is in some ways more intimidating than the red-eyed endoskeleton that lies beneath is a testament to his magnitude.

The Terminator gun shop

That’s no slight on the design of The Terminator, a creation that proved the sobering antithesis to the gaudy, mechanical monsters of yore, which is something of a miracle since the studio originally wanted the T-800 to have a cyborg canine sidekick, and lord knows how that would have turned out for a production operating on such a stringent budget. Made on a relatively minuscule $6,400,000, The Terminator came out of nowhere, generating very little fanfare before entering theatres, but thanks to Cameron’s ingenuity — he even had a hand in designing the endoskeleton — the movie looked positively high-tech back in 1984, buoyed by Brad Fiedel’s grungy original score and a sense of paranoid urgency that rarely lets up. 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 audiences accustomed to 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. This provides the movie’s brief and tragic love interest, one that proves essential to the survival of the human race. Reese and Connor’s disassociated romance was born from a picture of Sarah, one that 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 and crushing a toy truck under the wheel of his car, foreshadowing one possible fate for humanity.

The Terminator 4

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, thanks to an imposed stay in a mental asylum and years of condescension from smug gawkers too wrapped up in their domesticated realities to entertain such a bleak future vision. When we first meet Sarah, 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, she 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 then witnessing the cyborg emerge from the rubble with barely a scratch on him, 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.

The Terminator Tech Noir

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 like a one-man Armageddon. 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.

By now, the Terminator franchise has gone well beyond the devastating simplicity of cat-and-mouse horror, introducing all kinds of characters and sub-narratives and modern special effects, but whenever I think of the series it is Arnie who immediately leaps to mind, and though the first sequel would prove just as memorable by casting the inimitable Austrian oak as the roundabout protagonist, it is the original instalment that stays long in the memory, introducing us to one of the most enduring characters of the 20th century. The Terminator is also a wonderful movie, and certainly one of the most groundbreaking science fiction stories to ever grace the silver screen. Some consider its blockbusting sequel 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.

The Terminator 9

Terminator 2: Judgement Day 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 exquisitely 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. It was a film that forged superstars and shaped careers, one that left an indelible mark on modern cinema, with an enduring influence that will surely be felt for many more years to come.

The Terminator logo

Written by Edison Smith Editor-in-Chief

Science Fiction Writer, Horror Enthusiast, Scourge of Plutocracy, Creator of vhsrevival.com

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