Is it only incidental that James Cameron’s greatest film is also his only work to clock in at under two hours? His subsequent films have proven consistently entertaining and frequently excellent, but the lightning of his debut—a content-to-be-small B movie that nevertheless feels epic in scope and emotion—has yet to strike twice. (Officially, 1981’s Piranha II is his first film, but only due to cheating studio logistics.) The Terminator remains as intelligent and emotionally complex as any film of its kind (among sci-fi action noir, only Blade Runner is superior), and the reductive lens of pop culture—to say nothing of intellectual film snobs ignorant to genre pleasures—can’t extinguish its mythic humanist power.
Cameron’s influences include all manner of science fiction, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ray Bradbury to Star Wars, but the film’s true creative counterpart might be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Religious if not outright spiritual, The Terminator is, at its core, a meditation on mankind’s thirst for progress and the likely fallout that results from a lack of self-regulation, extinction being the ultimate punishment for the sin of creation without moral consideration. As in its thematic successor, The Matrix, the man-vs.-machine dynamic might be too outwardly dramatic to be truly prescient (in reality, we’ll probably get something closer to a WALL-E/Road Warrior dystopia when the shit hits the fan), but the film’s pulp trappings—or rather, here, tech noir—reach a modestly operatic intensity that more than justifies the metaphorical frankness of the proceedings. The film’s understated, workmanlike artistry suggests both the quotidian and the extraordinary, particularly when paired with the robotic emotion of Brad Fiedel’s synth score. It erupts in your consciousness and takes flight like a dream.
The film’s primary antagonist, the unseen supercomputer SkyNet, is essentially a reworked HAL-9000, an amoral technological entity bent on self-preservation. After achieving self-awareness and waging war against humankind throughout the early decades of the 21st century, SkyNet and its fleet of robotic warriors eventually fall, but not without one more last-ditch effort up their sleeve: Using a limited means of time travel, they send one infiltration unit, a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger, quite perfectly cast as the flesh-covered cyborg), back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the eventual mother of the eventual leader of the human resistance, John Connor. In response, the resistance is able to send one of their soldiers, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), for protection. And thus begins a perpetually escalating meeting of the fates.
Those who know the film know how paradoxically savory this plotline becomes, with what David Foster Wallace referred to as the film’s “Appointment-in-Samarra” twist. One wonders whether Cameron was deliberately calling attention to the religious undercurrents of his story by granting John Connor the same initials as another, altogether more popular savior, or if it was simply a creative example of Something Meant to Be. From across the chasm of time, the adult John Connor and SkyNet are not unlike opposing forces engaging in a Faustian wager, while Kyle’s fathering of John ultimately suggests something not unlike a divine birth.
As an action film, The Terminator remains a surprisingly meditative work, its concentrated visceral bursts not unlike punctuation marks among something more brooding, even prayerful. This is particularly true of the first half hour, in which the pieces of the plot are carefully arranged before the tipping of the first domino. Although beginning with and sporadically returning to visions of Kyle’s post-apocalypse Los Angeles, in which aerial Hunter/Killers and tanks the size of buildings scout for humans amid the skull-infested, burned-out wasteland, the film leaves things relatively unexplained until after the titans have first clashed, and part of the film’s relentless thrill is learning how the pieces fit together as bullets fly and rubber screeches on the asphalt. The only breathers are those enjoyed by the protagonists, which, given the Terminator’s unending persistence and chameleonesque ability to disguise itself (as a police officer and, in the film’s most chilling scene, Sarah’s mother), are few and far between.
Guerilla filmmaking with a newcomer’s edge has rarely been put to better use. Strengths that point the way to Cameron’s later creative and financial successes are exhibited here (borderline-fascist technical perfectionism, exquisitely conceived and cast characters, whiplash-fast action sequences, anything-to-get-it-done utilization of resources, and so on), but even his relative weaknesses, and some unavoidable technical ones, prove beneficial to this film’s grungy edge. On-the-nose dialogue (“I can’t even balance my checkbook!”) suggests real people losing it amid unimaginable stress, while even the most dated effects, such as Ahnold’s rubber head (used in the eye-removal scene), effectively, and creepily, reinforce the non-humanness of his character. Even Arnold’s performance can be called something of a special effect: A perfect body and an eerily off-base voice suggest a slightly imperfect interpretation/recreation of a human. Terminator 2: Judgment Day‘s special effects are deserving of their landmark status, but forgive this fan of the old school for preferring miniatures, rear-screen projection, and crumpled tinfoil (the last image of the crushed Terminator) to even the most tastefully rendered CGI.
Studio ignorance and creative chickenshits frequently prevented or delayed the production of this sublime almost-masterpiece; perhaps we have them to thank, for it’s the sheer force of will that proved necessary to get the film made that also gives it it’s unique edge. The Terminator was made because people believed in it, and that belief bleeds through every frame in the fingerprints, seen and unseen, of those who rendered it. It’s not hard to see why, and why, similarly, the film has proven so enduring: It’s one of the most hopeful films ever made, and its one that we can yet take much from. Knowing what she does of the future, Sarah driving off into the coming storm in the films final shot is a profound acceptance of unimaginable responsibility, but the film argues further that every life is meaningful, even vital, in the final equation. Even on the eve of self-destruction, mankind is still worth saving, and the most complex machine can yet fall to the simplest.
As expected, this is the exact same Blu-ray disc as was released five years ago, dressed up in new packaging. For a low-budget film over 25 years old, the 1080p transfer is impressive, but it's obviously been culled from a less-than-perfect copy of the film, and ultimately seems but a scant improvement over the DVD edition. (A little research indicates that the same master was used for both transfers!) Digital noise is apparent throughout the nighttime scenes (which is to say roughly 90% of the movie), but skin tones are expertly balanced and transfer flaws (halos, combing) are close to nonexistent. The sound is a stickier matter. The 5.1 mix is good, from a technical standpoint, bringing out elements previously inaudible in the original 2.0 track and nicely utilizing the surround setup. That being said, the disinclusion of the original mix is nothing less than a slap in the face to fans and purists, given how obnoxiously so many new sound effects have been foleyed into the fabric of the film. Rewatching it with this new audio for the first time in nearly a decade (it was originally prepared in 2001 for the Special Edition DVD release), it was less terrible than I remembered (some elements, like the new sound of the H/K's hover jets, are cool), but the overall effect is such that it feels like a different, lesser movie altogether. Now I know how all those Star Wars fans felt when George Lucas started fucking around with his sci-fi opus.
Table scraps. A handful of deleted scenes further point to James Cameron's early eye for precision and brevity; though they add texture to characters and even hint at elements to be explored in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, their being excised was absolutely the right decision. (Pity that the optional audio commentary for these scenes, previously seen on DVD, isn't included here.) "Terminator: A Retrospective," an unsatisfying puff piece created for the release of Terminator 2, clocks in at about 20 minutes. "Creating The Terminator: Visual Effects & Music" is shorter but better, in actuality only a portion of the hour-long feature "Other Voices: Creating The Terminator," also previously seen on DVD but strangely absent here in uncut form. Rounding out these offerings are three previews and liner notes, which offer praise for the film and some trivia that will probably prove old hat to anyone whose ever spent more than five minutes on the film's IMDb page.
Save your cash, keep your DVD. Eventually we're sure to get a proper Blu-ray release of this film, probably around the release of Terminator V.