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The Terminator

[Big honking spoilers below! If you've never seen this movie, go watch it first!]

Kyle: "Come with me if you want to live."

I love science fiction, time travel stories, and strong female characters. And I'm a romantic. So you can imagine how I've always felt about this movie.

The whole freaking story is a paradox. How could John Connor even exist in the first place if John himself had to send his father back in time to rescue and impregnate his mother? And yet, it's the circular time travel elements that I love most. Like the photograph of Sarah that Kyle carried with him in the future. He always wondered what Sarah was thinking when it was taken, and of course, she was thinking of him. I always wondered why James Cameron didn't give us the biggest paradox of all: the name of the factory in that final action sequence, Cyberdyne Systems.

I've never liked Arnold Schwarzenegger. I particularly dislike him in his most recent role as governator. But I will grudgingly admit that he was pretty much perfect casting as a killer cyborg, and this movie launched his career. His best work as an actor was always physical, and this was a very physical role. And his expressionless and memorable delivery of the line, "I'll be back," has become part of our culture.

Anyway, Arnold, smarnold. I've always felt that this was Michael Biehn's movie. Kyle Reese was a tragic, memorable character. A refugee from an unspeakable future, he made a quixotic, heroic journey through time because he fell in love with a photograph, and sacrificed his life after only one night of love. His death was painful; we didn't want him to die, and it hurt when he did. No wonder Sarah threw herself at him. I'd do it.

Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor was also very good, although the sequel was where her character really shone. Sarah started out as an aimless young waitress, helpless and completely out of her depth. She weathered the deaths of her best friend, her mother and her lover, along with the complete rearrangement of her entire universe, and she became exactly what Kyle believed she was in the first place. She was the one who had the strength to kill the Terminator in the end, after all. I've always loved the way Linda Hamilton delivered the line, "You're terminated, fucker."

This movie was James Cameron's first original work, and it was pre-CGI and made on the cheap since Arnold wasn't a big name yet. Nearly all of it holds up, though, because the story and the acting were the center of the movie, not the effects. The stop-motion metal skeleton in the final action sequence looked a bit jerky, but when we saw it in close-up, it looked really scary. (And it even looked like it could be Arnold.) The only scenes that looked fake to me were the ones with the cyborg head. It just doesn't look real, and I can't imagine that it did when the movie first came out, either. I think Cameron should have made do with just the actor, the X-acto knife, and the eyeball plopping into the sink. It would have worked.

This is a fast, exciting, memorable movie. It's also bleak and dark, with a fatalistic, negative view of a future where technology has destroyed our humanity. In the end, Sarah, like a pre-apocalyptic Madonna, is waiting for the world to end in order for her son to play his part. John Connor is the holy child, the twenty-first century Jesus who will come to save us all.

Bits and pieces:

-- The action takes place in May and November, 1984. The future sequences were set in 2029, although they were mostly Kyle's dreams, all of which ended with his death. As the movie did.

-- I've always loved the skilfully filmed scenes in TechNoir ("black technology," exactly what the Terminator was). There were other interesting, negative images of technology throughout the movie, too, like the answering machine that "needed love, too." My favorite was the children staring into a fire burning inside the shell of a television set.

-- The scenes of the future showed wreckage twisted in on itself, like the story. When the metal skeleton of the Terminator rose from the fire (the scariest moment in the movie), the wreckage behind it was twisted in much the same way.

-- The opening scene with Arnold and the three punks was shot at one of my favorite places in Los Angeles, the Griffith Observatory. One of the punks was future star Bill Paxton; another was Brian Thompson, who played multiple monsters on Buffy.

-- Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen were just marvelous as the two cops, bouncing lines off each other like the pros they are. Henriksen was originally Cameron's choice to play the Terminator, but the concept of the movie changed.

-- We got a very romantic, poignant and sexy love scene. You don't usually get those in sci-fi movies. I've always loved it. Why can't sci-fi movies be romantic?

-- In an early scene, Sarah was wearing a tee shirt with the Jetsons on it.

-- I just have to say that most single women don't put their entire name in the phone book. If this had been done realistically, the Terminator would have had to work his way through every S. Connor in the listings.

-- The music Ginger was listening to when she was killed was "It's a Mistake." One of the songs in TechNoir was, "You've Got Me Burning," which was what happened to the Terminator.

-- Sarah called her mother. What was she thinking? Yes, it was the only way to start the action again, but come on. She called her mother?


Waitress: "Look at it this way. In a hundred years, who's gonna care?"

Traxler: "A one day pattern killer."
Vukovich: "I hate the weird ones."

Vukovich: "That coffee's two hours cold."
Traxler: "Um hum."
Vukovich: "And I put a cigarette out in it."

Kyle: "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."

Silberman: "And this computer thinks it can win by killing the mother of its enemy. Killing him, in effect, before he's even conceived. A sort of retroactive abortion?"

Kyle: "He'll find her. It's what he does. It's all he does." This has always been one of my favorite quotes, especially the last two sentences and the way Biehn said them. Dan and I say it all the time about a lot of things. Mostly about my cat Spike.

Sarah: "So Reese is crazy?"
Silberman: "In technical terminology? He's a loon."

Kyle: "I'd die for John Connor."
Sarah: "At least now I know what to name him. I don't suppose you know who the father is, so I won't tell him to get lost when I meet him?"

Sarah: "You're talking about things I haven't done yet in the past tense. It's driving me crazy. Are you sure you have the right person?"
Kyle: "I'm sure."
Sarah: "Come on. Do I look like the mother of the future? Am I tough, organized? I can't even balance my checkbook."

Sarah: "What have we got? Mothballs, corn syrup, ammonia. What's for dinner?"

This movie is classic, excellent science fiction, and I love it. Four out of four paradoxes,

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. Unbelievably, I had never seen this movie. I am not a fan of Schwarzenegger, so it had zero appeal for me. The BBC documentary on science fiction, however, spent some time discussing it, so I decided it was time to watch.

    I really enjoyed it. Much more, in fact, than I thought I would. I love the circular aspect of the time travel and the oddness of the whole thing. A son sends his father back in time to impregnate his mother, all without telling his father who he is. Fabulous.

    I agree that Michael Biehn was the star of this movie. I must admit that I spent some time thinking he was Sarah's son; I like the idea of his being the father much better. Biehn made me care about him, and oddly care more about Sarah, just by the way he protected her. His death made me very sad.

    I'm glad I finally saw this. As always, great review, Billie.

  2. Thanks so much, Chris. You might want to try Terminator 2: Judgment Day too -- it's excellent. The other sequels, maybe not so much. There's one in progress right now. Sigh.

  3. Great review, Billie! The Terminator is one of the great science fiction films of all time. I remember people at work reciting "I'll be back" and the other classic T-800 lines when the film came out. I didn't see it in the theater, though, I rented it when it was available on VHS. Even on the small screen it was obvious that the film was a classic...

    The film has an interesting dynamic in that the male lead is not strong in the normal Hollywood sense--in other words, this isn't a Bruce Willis or Harrison Ford-type character. He might have been if Cameron had already been the success he was to become, but here we have an relatively unknown actor playing a quietly heroic--and at times almost shy--lead role. Yes, he's tough, but he's also vulnerable--and somehow in love with a woman (and mother to the savior of humanity) he's only seen in a photograph. I'm glad that it was Biehn, and not those other guys...

    The transformation of Sarah Conner is also well done: drawing us into the story through her naivete, and demonstrating that we all have depths we only experience when we are faced with adversity. Linda Hamilton put in a great performance--she was rattled by the events but never freaked out such that she was helpless. And she "beat the devil" which is a very popular motif. I agree that calling her mother was unwise, but perhaps it represented an attempt to retreat to some type of normalcy amid all the crazy stuff going down...

    I don't dislike Arnold as an actor, and this role was perfectly suited to him. The guy has a certain charisma and makes a strong villain, in contrast with the somewhat understated hero. As a person and politician, I have a different opinion of him...

    Of course, one nitpick is time travel to the past--which moves the film away from hard science and toward fantasy. I don't think this bothered me too much in 1985, but it has to be pointed out in a review. However, the future (and a self-aware supercomputer in the form of Skynet) could allow for new discoveries (although what about those paradoxes?). Sci-fi seems to accept things which seem impossible now--as long as they happen far enough in the future or are done by aliens (or non-human minds). In contrast, something like the 'battery issue' in The Matrix is more of a goof, and is something that the future or more intelligence can never fix...

    Another nitpick might be how (apparently) human tissue can survive on the metal skeleton without a heart, lungs, and other organs...

    I also found the skeletal machine rising from the flames scary--and it still elicits a response after seeing the film many times. The effects leave something to be desired when seen by modern eyes--but I think everyone was more accepting of somewhat unrealistic effects back in the 1980's...

    The main theme of "humans creating the seeds of their own destruction" is a common one in sci-fi, but it is well explored here. It's interesting how often science fiction writers warn about the negative effects of science and technology. Naturally, the Cold War was still going strong in 1984--and the nuclear arsenals were ominous indications of human failure to control their own inventions. Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) is another take on this theme, and in some respects it is even more chilling...

  4. This movie and its first sequel are in my top 10 all-time favorite movies, although I also admit I am a fan of Arnold. One thing I would like to point out, and please do not take this as a criticism, as it is an easy mistake, but the song that was playing when Ginger was killed was not "It's a mistake"; it was "Intimacy" by Lin Van Hek. I don't blame you for thinking it said the former, as I thought that's what the lyrics were for a long time, myself. But then I bought the soundtrack and it was included, along with the other song you mentioned, "Burnin' in the Third Degree" by Tahnee Cain & Tryanglz. I've never heard of either of them, but I have a feeling that James Cameron was trying to find cheap music to include, rather than getting big name songs. I doubt in occurred to him to find a song about burning as a way of foreshadowing, but who knows? You could be right. At any rate, "Intimacy" was my favorite song on the soundtrack, but it always made me laugh that you can tell it was added during post-production. When Ginger belts out that high note, it has nothing to do with the music. Lol! Anyway, thanks, Billie, for reviewing this and all of the reviews that you do. I have enjoyed following along with several of my favorite shows, and you just turned me on to Supernatural, which I just started watching on Netflix with my daughter!

  5. You're very welcome, psyborg, and I'm laughing about the lyrics mistake. :) Enjoy Supernatural!


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