Alas, the tv series “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” has not been renewed for the upcoming season. But at least we still have the 1984 movie that launched the series, along with three movie sequels (the last “Terminator Salvation, starring Christian Bale as John Connor.)
Nobody expected much from this low-budgeted B-grade science fiction thriller, except perhaps the guy who created it: James Cameron. Out of the three leads, the best known was probably Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator), who had previously lumbered onto the big screen as “Conan the Barbarian”. Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor) had screamed her head off earlier in the cheesy horror flick “Children of the Corn” and Michael Biehn’s (Kyle Reese) biggest role was playing the young psycho admirer stalking aging movie star Lauren Bacall in 1981’s “The Fan”.
The basic premise is this: a cyborg travels back in time to 1980’s Los Angeles to kill a woman (Sarah Connor) whose son will become an important resistance leader in a future war between humans and machines. Thus, change the future by changing the past and eliminate forever those pesky humans. Before destroying the time travel portal, the resistance sends back one of their own (Kyle Reese) to protect the woman. You tell me how many movie romances begin when a man has to protect a woman (or vice-versa) from a deadly threat! (Too many to count!) By the way, the resistance leader who sends back Kyle is John Connor, Sarah’s would-be son. Don’t waste time or brain cells trying to wrap your head around the whole time travel paradox like some posters do on imdb.com’s “Terminator” board, just sit back and enjoy the ride.
And what a ride it is! Out of the three “Terminator” movies, I’d argue this one is the best. Because of money and time restraints, the look is hard-edged and moody with a spare and tightly written storyline. Despite this, we still get a feel for the human characters, even the supporting ones such as the cops Traxler and Vukovich aren’t just cardboard cutouts. And at the very heart of this thrill-a-minute action flick is the love story. In fact, “The Terminator” is actually one of my favourite love stories, believe it or not.
Sarah and Kyle are complete contrasts. He’s battle-scarred emotionally and physically; we see why in two dream sequences portraying a grim world that’s nothing but a battle zone where humans run and fight and starve and hide among the ruins. Sarah is a student with a music-loving roommate who seldom removes her headphones, even when making whoopie. To pay rent and tuition, Sarah waitresses at a family diner; her biggest problems are serving mishaps and a broken date. On the run with Kyle from the Terminator, Sarah grows up quickly and eventually accepts her fate. She evolves from a girl who can’t balance a chequebook to a woman who can bandage Kyle’s wound, make plastique bombs and take charge when her injured protector falters. And Kyle, who’s probably never had a happy moment in his short brutal life, eventually finds a little joy and manages a single fleeting smile before the Terminator’s arrival drags him back to reality.
Like the detective in the classic film “Laura”, Kyle fell in love with a picture. The adult John Connor gave him an old Polaroid shot of Sarah, which Kyle carried around until losing it in a fight with a Terminator in his own (future) time. He touches her hair while she sleeps and eventually confesses his feelings in a motel room where they are holed up. For a little while they manage to steal some time together before a dog’s incessant barking signals the arrival of the Terminator. The chase is on again. No more interludes, just slam-bang action: chases, explosions, fights and a final chilling showdown between the Terminator and his would-be victim. And at the end, remember what I said about the whole time travel paradox.
Compared to its sequel, the special effects portion of “The Terminator” will appear clumsy, even crude, especially with the stop-action motion of the machine exoskeleton and there are goofs galore. Just remember, it was made in 1984 with a budget that wouldn’t even cover most stars’ salaries today.
“The Terminator” is available in several DVD versions, including a box set with all three movies. If you just want the first movie, look for the Special Edition. It contains a number of special features such as interviews, documentaries, deleted scenes, original script and more. This edition also contains a number of Easter eggs, for people who like ferreting out hidden bits. Unfortunately, all these special features are put on a single unadorned DVD. Boo to cheapo MGM.