This month’s classic film review analyses the inaugural film in the ‘tech noir’ genre, James Cameron’s 1984 powerhouse The Terminator
‘But The Terminator wasn’t based on a novel, surely?’ I hear you protest. You’re right, it wasn’t, so what’s The Terminator doing being featured in this monthly literary film review? Well, for one, because there are notable literary precedents for James Cameron’s 1984 science-fiction thriller, even if these are not direct influences per se.
One such precedent is Vernor Vinge, whose fiction often makes reference to an event Vinge (pronounced ‘Vin-jay’) calls the ‘Singularity’, when the machines ‘become smart’ and attain a level of intelligence far in excess of the humans who made them. (Vinge’s 1981 novel True Names, published three years before William Gibson’s far better-known Neuromancer, has been called the first novel to explore the idea of ‘cyberspace’, although Vinge’s novel doesn’t use that term.) Another is Fred Saberhagen, who, beginning in the 1960s, wrote a series of Berserker novels about robots which are out to destroy mankind. The Terminator was by no means a new concept, but it took the basic idea of a killing machine and raised it to a whole new level of storytelling.
The Terminator – not to be confused with The Exterminator, a rather trashy vigilante film about a Vietnam vet released four years earlier, in 1980 – gets short shrift from Christopher Booker in his vast study of plot, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. Booker much prefers the sequel in terms of satisfactoriness of plot. I can’t agree. Much as I revere the 1991 sequel, The Terminator possesses something deeper and darker and less … obvious, I suppose. And the central setup is more powerful in the first film, simply because it pits man against machine, Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor against the Terminator. The second pits Terminator against Terminator, and although here Arnie may be the underdog, this cyborg-on-cyborg battle still spoils the delicious central premise a little.
One of the things which make the original 1984 Terminator such a rewarding film to re-watch is the depth of characterisation. Take a relatively minor character like Lt. Traxler (Paul Winfield), one of the disbelieving cops who end up being gunned down by a leather-jacketed Arnie in their police station while they’re detaining Reese and protecting (or trying to protect) Sarah Connor. It’s clear from Traxler’s limited screen-time (and is something that was made more explicit in a scene cut from the final version of the film) that he’s not quite as dismissive of Kyle Reese’s story as his fellow boys in blue. Reese has had question after question fired at him by the police and by the psychiatrist, Dr Silberman, and he’s come back with a thoroughly detailed and plausible answer to every one, and has done so without a hesitation. Even ‘loons’ (Silberman’s word for Reese) can’t manage that. It’s a subtle detail which takes the basic setup – police dismiss far-fetched but true story from hero as the ramblings of a lunatic, and come a-cropper when hero is proved to be right – and adds another layer to it. It shows just how much Cameron felt the story he was telling, rather than just thinking it through as a series of logical steps.
As is well known, Schwarzenegger – fresh from playing Robert E. Howard’s mighty Cimmerian Conan in two fantasy films – wasn’t the original choice to play the titular terminator. Instead, he was hired to play Kyle Reese: the (completely sensible) reasoning was that if Skynet sent back a cyborg to kill Sarah Connor, the human resistance would do well to send back a muscular giant of a man who could put up a bit of brawn against the steely strength of the Terminator. With that in mind, Lance Henriksen, who ended up playing Traxler’s cop partner at the station, was cast as the Terminator: an ordinary-looking man who could easily blend in with the world of 1980s Los Angeles without attracting too much unwanted attention. (Other actors considered for the role of the Terminator include, of all people, O. J. Simpson; Cameron famously turned him down for the role, on the grounds that he thought Simpson would be unconvincing as a killer…)
In the end, of course, the Terminator was the role Arnold Schwarzenegger was born to play. Everyone says this, but it’s true not just because of the broad shoulders and slow, lumbering, bulky movement of those mighty tree-trunk arms. The Austrian accent helped – as James Cameron later said, it was as if Skynet hadn’t quite managed to get the voice quite right in their humanoid machines yet – as did Schwarzenegger’s head movements, calculating, methodical, and relentless.
The Terminator is a science fiction film, crossed with the action thriller. It was initially expected to do little better than a science-fiction B movie, but ended up inaugurating a new micro-genre: tech noir, named after the nightclub where Sarah Connor first encounters the killing machine and begins her date with destiny. It’s a fitting label for a film that is dark almost from start to finish (literally as well as thematically) and which raises troubling and increasingly pertinent questions about our relationship with technology.