Digital Polyphony

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Liquid Nostalgia: The Terminator 1 & 2 (Part One)

 

Imagine it's the early 1980s. Some rather scruffy-looking hippie filmmaker with no credentials other than the mighty Piranha 2: The Spawning on his resume (which he was fired from...twice) and the former assistant to Roger Corman pitch you an idea about a science fiction action movie about a killer robot that travels back in time to kill the mother of the savior of humanity. After you wipe the cocaine from your nose and think about it while listening to the latest Mike and the Mechanics cassette, you nod your head and say "sure, guy with no credentials with this high-concept science fiction movie, here's some money so go and have fun."

This was the tail end of Hollywood taking chances. Not a massive one, of course. Technically, The Terminator is a very schlocky and low-budget b-movie on paper. Hell, it had a smaller budget than Footloose, Splash or The Muppets Take Manhattan  and only had a million more in budget to Bachelor Party and Purple Rain, all movies released that same year. In execution, though, is where it ended up in the realms of movie history.

 Before even shooting a frame or writing a word, Cameron spent time painting concept art and design for the film. The Terminator began as artwork by a sci-fi geek long before it was a story.

 

The first time I actually saw The Terminator was actually after it's sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and it was on television at that. A gritty, dark and violent R-rated movie on regular television isn't the best way to see such a thing. As always with that type of thing on broadcast television, you pretty much just get the "jist" of what the movie is, the smaller and darker details of the movie, the violence and the cussing, the sex and the blood, are left to the wayside. Then this new thing called a VCR came into my family's house and I finally had the opportunity to see the full, uncut (though still not letterboxed) version of The Terminator.

Over time, I've grown to like the film far more than I initially did. Moreso, I've come to appreciate it for its daringness to the ability of Cameron to take an ultra-low budget and turn it into something incredibly high-concept. Today, you'd just throw money at something and have a director do whatever the hell he wanted (Cameron not being an exception to this rule).  But imagination and willingness can do wonders for any budget and Cameron, with nary a dime, created something iconic. It's a testament to the drive of a filmmaker because everything on paper says The Terminator should never have worked. Hell, even the Studio didn't like it. Turns out the moviegoers of the 1980s, a time when science fiction movies were all the rage, found something new and fresh, not to mention damn violent.

Science Fiction is a genre that takes many forms. At the heart of what makes a science fiction film a science fiction film is a "core theory." In other words, its concepts are based in something scientific and how it relates to humanity. Usually this idea was done more in drama to evoke thoughtfulness and get you to understand its concepts and, usually, it's message. By the 1980s, it started to turn dark. Damn dark. With movies like Blade Runner and Escape From New York, a new landscape of the urban "future" began to emerge. The Terminator was a part of this wave and, on top of it all, brought a dark and violent world with it. It managed to have an action movie that didn't destroy its science fiction credentials in the process. Not merely time-travel, but the idea of changing fate through time travel, finding love when everything is so desolate and, the always popular one, man-builds machines/machines destroy man. That one will never get old even when the Terminator movies might..

As a film fan now looking back, I can see how Cameron was able to make The Terminator work. It's impeccably paced and he manages to avoid lengthy exposition. The entire present situation and the backstory and all the explanation is done through dialogue but kept brief and always moving forward. It peels back a layer at a time, starting with revealing he's a cyborg, explaining Skynet and how a machine covered in living tissue can travel back, explaining to Sarah who she is and why she's important and having brief and haunting flashbacks with no dialogue that show us the future without having to bash us over the heads with explanation. It manages to tell us a lot but never stall in the present-story. I also find it interesting to actually make The Terminator a character. The story could have easily just stayed with Reese and Sarah, but there are many scenes that show The Terminator and how he hunts, how he thinks and what his plans are. This isn't some slasher flick with a killer in the shadows and popping out from time to time. It's far far more methodical than that...and far far scarier as a result.

 

A Brief History of The Terminator

Before taking a stab at directing, James Cameron was an apprentice for special effects at Roger Corman's New World Production. While there, he met Gale Anne Hurd, Corman's assistant. Hurd took notice of Cameron's artistic ability, in particular two paintings of a metal skeleton (seen above). The two worked to somehow take that imagery and turn it into a story.

The script was completed shortly thereafter and after being fired from directing Pirahna 2: The Spawning, Cameron and Hurd went out to pitch the idea to production companies with the script in tow. One bit and production was underway with Orion Pictures set as distributor.

Casting began with the main role of The Terminator. Cameron had every intention of casting Lance Henriksen to play the killer-cyborg from the future.(His painting of Henriksen can be seen to the right here). The higher-ups at Orion, however, liked a young newcomer from Austria who had turned heads with Conan the Barbarian. Arnold Schwarzenegger was intended to take the lead role of the hero Reese, however after having a meeting with Cameron both were far more intrigued to have him as the villain. The studio didn't want that. Schwarzenegger's agent didn't want that. But Cameron and Schwarzenegger did, both noting a character that was intimidating and spoke little would probably be better for Arnold and the film as a whole. They got their way.

Cameron and Hurd then looked to cast the other two principle leads. Linda Hamilton, fresh off the TV series Beauty and the Beast, was cast as Sarah Connor, the mother of the future leader of the human race in the future. Michael Biehn, an unknown theatre actor at the time, was cast as the hero Reese. Lance Henriksen was able to still be in the film, however, as a police detective.

Unfortunately, it would be some time before the film got underway due to previous film commitments by Schwarzenegger. A year would pass before a single frame was shot. Cameron took this time to polish the script (with Bill Wisher, who would collaborate with Cameron for Terminator 2 as well) and work on the design of the film's world and special effects. This also gave Schwarzenegger time to train and practice using a variety of firearms.

This period allowed one integral part of The Terminator to become a reality, though. Cameron eventually met Stan Winston through another Special Effects maestro, Dick Smith. Cameron and Winston struck up a quick friendship and soon Cameron's paintings turned into Winston designs and actual props, makeup effects and costumes. The special effect house Fantasy II handled the future sequences and stop-motion Terminator towards the end of the film 

Official shooting began in March of 1984. Due to a lot of special effects and pre-production completed and ready, shooting went briskly. So briskly the movie itself would be released in October that same year. Not before one final piece was put into it, however. Composer Brad Fiedel gave the film one more distinct identity: its soundtrack which he based off the idea of a "mechanical man's heartbeat."

Despite the complete lack of faith by Orion Pictures, the film received generally positive reviews and ended up being number one at the box office (making over four million its opening weekend) eventually grossing 70 million in the box office.

Not everything was smooth for the film's release, however. Sciece fiction writer Harlan Ellison looked to take Orion Pictures to court, claiming the film took elements of his Outer Limits story, "Soldier." Despite Cameron's insistence they don't settle, the studio didn't want legal troubles and paid Ellison off without Cameron's blessing. Years later, despite a gag order, Cameron went on record calling Ellison a parasite." (Author's note: I don't know of a lot of science fiction that isn't derivative or other science fiction, it's a element of the genre even if unintentional. This should have gone to court because there's more different in The Terminator than there is similar to Ellison's Outer Limits episode). Despite the legal issues, and Ellison's notorious contentious demeanor and personality in general, Ellison has stated he loved the film quite a lot.

With great, and surprise, success comes something Hemdale Pictures, Orion and Cameron didn't anticipate: mass marketing. Action figures, comics and videogame offers came through and soon The Terminator turned from a low-budget b-movie to a full-fledged franchise in a matter of weeks. Cameron and Schwarzenegger became overnight sensations and both their careers launched as a result. They would re-collaborate in the film's sequel and one more time in the action/comedy/romance True Lies.

Despite the overall favorable reviews, The Terminator only won the Saturn Awards that year, winning best science fiction film, best writing for Cameron and Hurd and best special effects for Stan Winston. Its popularity grew outside the realm of awards and prestige and is now one of the most popular movies in history and one of the most defining films of its era. In 2008 it was inducted into National Film Preservation Board - an honor given to significant and important cinema.


 

Top Ten Terminator Quotes/Lines

I had trouble thinking of a good "Top Ten" for this one. I was going to think "moments" but I couldn't come up with ten, and I wanted to do "lessons" but I felt that was more fitting for Part Two with Judgment Day. Then I realized something: the script is almost built around simple, effective one-line quotes that are now so incredibly memorable, everyone knows the movie and scene it's from when you say them. So here's Ten best from the classic movie.

Oh, and I'm leaving out "I'll Be Back." That one is just too obvious. Also the "I came across time for you, Sarah." line. I know that one is popular also, but I always found it a little too mushy for my taste.

The original line was "Good day, madam. Would you like to buy a gun?"

 

Another that I considered was "Sarah Connor?" when it is spoken by Schwarzenegger before he bust in the door. I wasn't sure where to place it. It's a popular scene, and I love his delivery (the most memorable part of most of his lines in the film) but I don't know if the quote itself is popular. I think it's that combined with the "yes?" by Connor and the slow-motion door-busting, gun-shooting followup. Either way, I acknowledge it here.

And seeing as we're in the "runners up" segment here. I've also always liked the "Cyborgs don't feel pain, I do. Don't do that again." I think that's my unofficial number eleven here. But enough of all this, we're here to enjoy some Terminator.


10: "He'll find her! That's what he does! That's ALL he does! You can't stop him! He'll wade through you, reach down her throat and pull her fuckin' heart out!"

Not exactly something that rolls off the tongue, but this line I just love. It makes you realize that Reese is probably a little schizophrenic. I would think that any person who comes from his future and travels through time completely naked might be just that. I suppose you have to be a little crazy to volunteer for the gig in the first place. I especially love Biehn's performance in this scene. He's crazy, but crazy because he knows he's right.


9: "You'll be perfectly safe. We've got 30 cops in this building."

When I was putting this together as a "Lesson learned" list, this one being that you can never have too many cops around and that the police force is generally stupid in movies, I realized this quote summed it up pretty nicely. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the line as a whole. It's one of those hindsight quotes. You don't think about it while you watch the movie, but when you think back to it you realize it's a planned tongue-in-cheek line. 


8: "That son of a bitch took my pants!"

This line just gets a smile from me every time. When Reese takes a bum's pants. An equally memorable line from said bum comes right before it as well regarding a "really bright light." It's all the in the delivery and seeing as there's little "smiling" going on through most of this movie, the bum and Sarah's roommate's creepy boyfriend is all there is. There's just something about the randomness of this line I just laugh at. 


7: "What YEAR!!!????"

Ah, I wish they made trailers like this still.

This quote is memorable for one reason: in the first few minutes of the movie, we realize we have two time traveling bad asses loose in 1980s Los Angeles. The exposition of it all doesn't come until much later, and even then only minor, but this one quote, passionately and emotionally yelled, kind of makes you say "wait a minute...year?" I just love the simple effectiveness of it, especially in the context o the scene. Minimalist dialogue at its best - saying a lot without saying much at all.


6: "Get Out"

"Yes sir!"

The scene of The Terminator casually getting into a semi, turning to the passenger and uttering these two words is a little dash of humor in an otherwise serious action scene. Cameron has always managed to give us a little comedic nod here and there in his films, often intentional like this one.

What this quote also makes me realize are two things: one is the Terminator has very few lines, making him far more menacing, yet he has some of the more memorable ones in the entire film because of that. That relates to two: sometimes the less said the better. A lot of the dialogue in The Terminator is short and brief yet not without purpose. There's not a lot of banter or anything like that. Some of it is done well and fits, other not so much, but the message still comes across in a very underrated script by Cameron, Wisher and Hurd.


5: "Fuck you, asshole"

Said in the movie twice, first by crazy Bill Paxton when our resident Terminator demands his clothes. The Terminator remembers this, after killing him, and the memory of Paxton lives on as the machine uses that quote to get rid of a pesky motel janitor. 

But the second quote is the most memorable because of its delivery. It's stoic and machine-like, yet you buy it. In fact, I quote this one in my Terminator voice daily. You know, just randomly on the street...I think people get it.


4: "Listen, and understand. 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."

I can mouth this line every time.

There are two major moments of Reese telling the story of the future, brilliantly placed into the momentum of the plot at hand. It's done through conversation but not "talking heads." When he explains what a Terminator is, they're on the run, hiding and he's still trying to earn Sarah's trust. Of course she doesn't buy it. 


3: "Your Clothes...Give Them To Me"

Though not as memorable as the similar quote found in the sequel, the entire scene here is just classic. This is our "badass" Terminator walking around naked and he approaches some thugs and, like "fuck you, asshole" gives us a great memorable line. Like that one, it's all about the delivery, then followed by ripping a guy's heart (heart?...it's a big mushy thing so I assume it's his heart) right out of him.

The Terminator doesn't go around killing willy-nilly, you know. If they gave him the clothes, he probably would have been on his way.


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

Direct. Simple. Yet not completely natural, is it? I mean...who really says "come with me if you want to live?" On top of that, he says it so casually, as though he's saying "Yeah...well...that just happened....let's go." 

Yet, it's a hell of a memorable quote. For no real reason other than it stands out and has since become as synonymous with Terminator as "Hasta la vista" or "I'll be back." Arnold says this one himself in the sequel too, so it's a bit of a running quote on top of that.


1: "You're Termintated, Fucker"

It's very, very important to have "fucker" in here. As I mentioned, I only saw The Terminator on television for many years before seeing it on home video. Who would have thought so much colorful dialogue would have to be cut? I mean seriously...almost all these quotes have the word fuck in them. This one, though, is just awesome. This is Sarah Connor growing a pair after her baby-daddy bit the dust and she can't collect child support.  It's more poignant and angry and determined. Plus it doesn't feel cut off like it did on television. So it feels more natural too in a film full of natural "fucks" and "assholes."

But in all seriousness, it's just a middle finger straight to The Terminator and our once-innocent Sarah showing she's going to kick ass and take names.


 

As briefly mentioned in "A Brief History Of..." above, the studio wasn't a big fan of the final product. At the same time, it was so low-budget that rather than just shelve it, they put it out there because it would probably make its money back and an extra few million in promotion, then just be done with it. That's called "dumping" and is pretty much exactly how it sounds (and pretty much what Hollywood has turned its business model into as a whole these days). So, despite the fact they took the risk, they weren't aboard. In other words, they simply didn't "get it."

The Terminator is a b-movie. Make no mistake. But it's a well done b-movie. It feels organic and gritty, it spends time with characters and is able to make high-concept science fiction rather digestible through familiar and simple storytelling in the process - not the first time Cameron will do such a thing as it's pretty much his staple to use simple and effective storytelling, not attempt convolution in any form, to present something fantastical and high-concept.  He also plays with "stories behind the story" with themes and telling us something in the process (even when he can get a bit heavy-handed, such as They Abyss or Terminator 2 or Avatar..it's pretty much his trademark). He's done it for every one of his films since and it's worked amazingly well. Throw in a damn good eye for action and how to structure a scene and you have a body of work that has aged amazingly well over the years both visually and narratively.

But The Terminator was only the tip of the iceberg. Cameron would do better films in the following years and give us another important and definitive films in cinema history with Terminator 2 Judgment Day, a far less rougher and more polished science fiction action film that even outdoes and outclasses the original.

To Be Continued with Part 2: Judgment Day

 

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