My favourite film
Why I love… The Terminator
Despite concerns, a young Stephen Graves, online deputy editor of Stuff.tv was adamant he was watching The Terminator. Does he regret it now? Not one bit.
Are you sure you want to watch this?” my mum said, proffering the VHS tape with a dubious expression. “It looks a bit… nasty.” My 12-year-old self was not to be deterred. Captivated by visions of cyborg assassins, I had become obsessed. I had to see The Terminator.
Appropriately, the film that dug its chrome fingers into my consciousness came to director James Cameron in a dream, too. In 1981, while working as a trucker, Cameron was struck by a vision: a metal skeleton, striding out of a fire. Already a gifted artist, he quickly set the image down on paper. It would later become a key scene in 1984′s The Terminator, as the remorseless robot of the title hunts down heroine Sarah Connor to the bitter end.
After working a succession of blue-collar jobs, Cameron got his big break – while working as a set painter for legendary B-movie director Roger Corman. Quickly graduating from the second unit to direct Piranha 2, Cameron nursed his big idea: a brutal sci-fi thriller in which a murderous cyborg from the future pursues unassuming waitress Sarah Connor. Not because of anything she’s done, but because one day she’ll give birth to the man who leads the resistance against the machines.
Man v machine
The Terminator is, at heart, a B-movie. A slasher film, following pretty much every rule in the book: a young woman is persecuted by a hulking murderer, a promiscuous pair are cut down while in the throes of passion, and the heroine – the last girl standing – eventually overcomes her injuries and terror to dispatch the killer during a tense finale. But The Terminator‘s titular monster isn’t powered by madness or supernatural forces – it’s driven by pistons and gears, a symbol of the growing tension between man and machine.
James Cameron drew on every ounce of his experience in directing The Terminator. His science and engineering background informed the film’s intricate time-travel plot and themes of man versus machine, and lent a touch of realism to the film’s mechanical villain. His artistic streak came to the fore in the film’s iconic images – a robot emerging from the flames, the smoking ruins of the post-apocalyptic future. And his tutelage under Roger Corman gave him the skills to realise his vision – as well as a can-do attitude: some shots were snatched guerilla-style on the streets of Los Angeles, without filming permits.
Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t supposed to play the Terminator. Originally, the Austrian muscleman auditioned for the role of Sarah Connor’s human protector Kyle Reese, while the Terminator was intended to be an unassuming, slightly-built character (a concept that Cameron would revisit with Terminator 2‘s T-1000). But one look at the “human bulldozer” convinced the director that Arnie had to play the villain – with Schwarzenegger dialling down his usual easy charisma to play an emotionless robot.
Rewatch the film, and you’ll notice that Arnold’s appearances as the Terminator are actually pretty fleeting – he lurks in the background, shark-like, emerging for the occasional moment of violence before disappearing again. And for much of the last third of the film, the Terminator’s played by a succession of live-action and stop-motion puppets, realised by master craftsman Stan Winston. It’s testament to the power of Schwarzenegger’s performance, then, that he made such an impact with just 16 lines of dialogue – setting himself on the road to megastardom, and the Governor of California’s office.
Arnie casts a long shadow over The Terminator – somewhat unfairly obscuring the contributions of Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, . Hamilton’s perfect as the everywoman heroine who comes to realise her destiny as the woman who’ll save the human race (though her mane of 80s hair badly dates the film). And it’s Biehn’s Reese who’s the emotional heart of the film, as his hyper-competent soldier’s facade cracks to reveal a vulnerable child, struggling to cope with a world where he doesn’t fit.
Then there are the behind-the-scenes wizards who made the most of the film’s low budget. Special effects supervisor Gene Warren, Jr. realised the future apocalypse scenes – and the fiery truck crash that births the metal skeleton Cameron dreamt of all those years before. Cinematographer Adam Greenberg brought a gritty feel to the film with hand-held camerawork and cold, dark imagery – which, together with composer Brad Fiedel’s pulsing electronic score, gave birth to the tech noir genre of the 80s.
Mum knows best
Okay, my Mum was probably right to worry. For me, 1991 was the year of The Terminator – of watching and rewatching that VHS taped off the telly, of obsessively poring over the novelisations of the film and its sequel, of playing Bethesda’s Terminator video game (anyone remember that? It was Grand Theft Auto before GTA existed – an open-world 3D actioner packed with carjackings and showdowns with the cops). But on the plus side, it kicked off a lifelong interest in the cinema and the craft of film-making – hell, I even made my own short film about time-travel. And it’s all because of The Terminator – a B-movie layered with meaning and thematic depth, which punches above its budget, and which sears its images into your retinas with the power of a phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range.
Stephen Graves is online deputy editor of Stuff.tv
Enjoy The Terminator in its full, Blu-ray glory, available on Amazon