Revisiting Childhood Movies Part XIV:

The original isn't always the best.

The original isn’t always the best.

The Terminator

  • Director:  James Cameron
  • Writer:  James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd
  • Producer:  Gale Anne Hurd
  • Stars:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton
  • Studio:  Orion
  • Award Nominations:  none that I track
  • Length:  107 min
  • Genre:  Sci-Fi
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  26 Oct 1984
  • Box Office Gross:  $38.37 mil  (#21 – 1984)
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #46 (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Notables:  none
  • First Watched:  sometime after it came to HBO
  • Number of Times Watched as a Kid:  3 or 4

As a Kid:  I am a bit hard-pressed to explain why I was so excited to see Terminator 2.  I was there, the special preview night of 2 July 1991, sitting in line at the Century Cinedome.  And I was excited to be there.  But why?  I hadn’t been a particularly big fan of the original film.  I actually found it a bit too relentless when I watched it as a kid – there’s Arnold, completely unstoppable, coming after poor Linda Hamilton while lots of people in his way die.  It happens a number of times in the film.

I think that was what I didn’t like as a kid.  I was never a fan of Horror films, and this, in spite of all the Sci-Fi trappings, was designed more like a Horror film.  If anything, it was like Halloween – the unstoppable killer constantly coming after the girl.  It was a perfectly fine film, it just didn’t excite me the way it excited so many other people.  If I wanted a Horror film from 1984, I actually preferred A Nightmare on Elm Street and for my Sci-Fi, there was Star Trek III.

As an Adult:  So all of that goes back to the original question.  Why was I so excited?  Part of it definitely goes with the hype.  It had been hyped to death and the big turn in the second film – the Arnold would be the hero rather than the villain – made it more interesting.  There was clearly going to be some humor in the second film and it definitely had state of the art visual effects.  So, there was really something to look forward to (and there really was – I am a big fan of the second film).

So now I return to the first film.  I’ve watched the second film numerous times over the years, have owned it on video for over two decades.  But I have rarely ever gone back to the first film.  This time, perhaps I can see why.  It’s not just that the first film is a mid-range *** while the second film is a high-level ***.5.  It’s that I can see why the first film is so inferior to the second film.

The first thing clearly has to do with the directorial ability of James Cameron.  Cameron has never been a great director for actors – if the talent is already there, the performance will be there (Weaver in Aliens, the two leads in Titanic).  But if Cameron could coax a good performance out of an actor, he probably would have done so out of Bill Paxton by now after all the films they’ve worked on together (I was stunned to see him in a small early role here).  Clearly it’s not entirely on Paxton’s lack of ability, because Sam Raimi got a much better performance out of Paxton in A Simple Plan than Cameron has ever managed to do.  And there’s not as much to work with here, with Michael Biehn (another Cameron favorite who’s not much in the way of acting), Linda Hamilton and Schwarzenegger not exactly big acting stars.  The performances fall so flat that it’s hard to feel anything about the characters.

The second thing is the genre.  This is a Sci-Fi film, but it feels much more like a Horror film.  There is the unstoppable killer who keeps coming, no matter what you throw at him.  I’ve never been a particularly big fan of Horror films, and this intrusion of the Horror tropes on a Sci-Fi film just made this film feel too relentless.  The main core of the story are the three times that Arnold comes after Hamilton – first, in the night club, when Biehn saves her.  Then, in the police station where we see countless cops throw their lives away.  Then, on the long final chase, which has two main parts and just seems never-ending.

That relentless chase that Arnold is on also ties into the next thing that keeps me from enjoying this film nearly as much as I enjoy the second one.  That’s the total lack of humor.  Terminator 2 is hardly a comedy but there are scenes that are genuinely funny and it helps relieve the tension from the constant chases.  We laugh when we hear Arnold say “Ah’ll be back” but not because we’re supposed to laugh, but because it’s such a big moment in movie history.

Because I didn’t watch this film much but have seen the second one a lot, I always thought of the score for the second one as original to that film and rather enjoyed it.  It was a surprise to go back after all these years and discover that it’s actually the same score as is in the first one.  But in the second one, it’s done really well, while in the first one, the synthesizer is so unbearably awful that I just wanted the music to stop.  One film that I won’t cover in my RCM posts is Ladyhawke, because I first saw it after I already was rating movies, but it has the same problem – an over-powering synthesized score that really takes you out of the action.  Not everything about the 80’s was great (side note: I paused this film at one point to show Veronica a scene and her response: “That is some serious 80’s hair.”).

The Terminator is a perfectly good Sci-Fi film.  It has a fascinating story (pretty much ripped off from Harlan Ellison to the point where they were forced to acknowledge him on the video release) and Arnold is perfectly cast as the unstoppable killer.  It has given us one first-rate sequel and several others which never needed to be made (and they really need to stop).  But, with its lack of any real human emoting, with the relentless chase that seems to never stop and with an over-powering score that you just want to shut up, it continues to fall far short of being a classic.