Classics Review: The Terminator - A Masterpiece of Action Film-Making
In a film that takes place in near on total night-time dreariness, and soaked with artificial light, it’s notable that it ends in the bright hot rural setting far away from the bleak city. Though, as we’re told surrounded by gathering storm clouds, a storm is indeed coming. With a satisfying finale that uses a somewhat clichéd line of dialogue to promise more to come, 'The Terminator' is every bit the masterpiece that film buffs of yesterday claim it to be.
James Cameron has proven himself as a director with a vision in every outing, and with this being just his second big screen picture, it’s clear that from the beginning he valued substance over spectacle. That’s not to say the visuals are lacking in 'The Terminator'. While some of the effects,particularly the post-apocalyptic and barren future, are very dated, there is plenty to see and some memorable imagery sticks out among a very human focus.
There isn’t any better example of substance over spectacle than in the opening half an hour, where we’re introduced to Sarah Connor, her life, her living arrangement and her social circle, all amidst the eerie and foreboding presence of two so far unnamed men, both of whom land amidst a storm of electrical currents, and both of whom have the same target (albeit different agendas).
Sarah Connor, as played by Linda Hamilton, is initially your stock-standard damsel in distress, but as her legend is played up, she begins to show signs that prove she’s more than she would have us (and herself) believe. Michael Biehn plays Kyle Reese, the time traveller whose come to protect Sarah against the Terminator, portrayed by a man I don’t really need to name. But for a modern audience discovering timeless classics like this, it’s a strange feeling to experience a film after having heard countless renditions of some of Schwarzenegger’s now iconic lines.
Kyle Reese is a melodramatic, highly strung character, if for the simple fact that the script demands it. The final act of the film is hinged on a love angle that’s teased only minutely beforehand, and it could very likely have failed. Despite that, it’s easily bought, if for no other reason than it’s perhaps something to be predicted.
Keeping the focus steadily on the characters, the film never deviates for long on exciting driving sequences, always using the protagonist’s facial expressions to justify why we should be at least a little tense. The editing is delivered methodically, with slow motion in particularly used to pristine effect in scenes of heavy tension, whereby we’re left hoping the film will return to its normal pace for any chance the character might actually reach their destination in time.
Of course, that’s not realistic, particularly in a film as violent and as heavy on bloodshed as this. While the graphics and the gore are more of a modern trait, here it doesn’t require an all-angles view of senseless violence in order for it to impact.
The soundtrack is a real standout. Instead of being overused as is so often the case in order to provoke sympathy and open up the tear ducts, it’s used sparingly but has such a presence in the film. Here, the music doesn’t drive the action but instead leads us into each major action piece, building that tension before letting the action itself do the work. Often the music will cut completely for the sake of raw gunfire.
The second act of the film culminates in the end of a handful of characters, two of whom we spend a little bit of time with. This is in the midst of a tremendous scene that takes place in the police station. It's a beautifully filmed piece of horror, launched by one of Schwarzenegger’s famous lines. The claustrophobia that the scene itself conjures, and then toward the end the bait and switch it seamlessly integrates, only makes the quieter patch to follow feel earned.
With a relatively short run time, Cameron produces a film that’s deep and complex in its conception, but explained with ease and summed up in a satisfying way. There’s plenty of territory that isn’t covered, but only because it didn’t need to be. We’re given the bare essentials to both understand why things are happening the way they are, and why the characters behave the way they do. Even in the climax of the film, Cameron doesn’t rush.He lets the action play out naturally, and uses music as minimally as need be.
And yet still, everything about 'The Terminator' is striking, from its neo-night-time aesthetic, to its characters, to the atmosphere that Brad Fiedel’s musical composition creates. 'The Terminator' is a cult classic for a reason, and barring some dated special effects, it’s a film that far exceeds many modern sci-fi epics.