Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Terminator


Doreen and I continue our contest of wills over the running of Chateau Maine. I have always looked forward to Thursdays when Reynaldo, the gardener, comes and prunes the roses and mows the greensward in his lovely little athletic shorts. This morning, however, I was not awakened by the soporific hum of his mow and blow as I usually am. Peeping out through the curtains, I saw his quaint little van with the teal and gold logo. He was, however, nowhere to be seen. I got out my binoculars and searched the grounds, but only discovered Kurt Russell putting on his girdle in what he thought was the privacy of his bedroom.

I rang for Doreen to bring me my breakfast and to help me with my morning toilette. She appeared very flustered and out of breath and wearing one of my new Vicki's Secret 'Thinga Thongs' in an unflattering shade of puce with an old lap robe of Norman's thrown over it as a sort of peignoir. Her cellulite did nothing for the lines of her undergarment and she had the mechanism set to play As Long As He Needs Me every time she bent over. I finally got her to produce some dry toast and, as I was munching it, saw Reynaldo emerge from the kitchen and get to work on the lawn. Soon the air was full of the happy noises of a weed whacker at work and I was able to settle back restfully in my Bath chair.

I chose as entertainment, the new DVD release of James Cameron's modern science fiction classic, The Terminator from 1984. This film, which made a superstar out of Arnold Schwarzenegger, put Cameron on the Hollywood map as a storyteller to be reckoned with and the master at integrating future technology with basic human concerns. The new collector's edition DVD contains the now familiar material as well as bonuses including a number of cut sequences, commentary, and a collection of behind the scenes interviews, both from the time of production, and looking back from nearly twenty years later.

For those few who are unaware of the film, The Terminator is a time travel fantasy involving a horrifying post holocaust future. In the year 2026, the decimated remains of the human race, under the leadership of John Connor, have nearly defeated the evil machines of Skynet, a futuristic defense system that turned on humanity. Skynet fights back by sending an evil killing machine, a terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back through time to the early 80s in an attempt to kill John's mother, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) thus ensuring he is never born. The future resistance finds the time machine and sends back a hero, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) charged with protecting Sarah and preventing the terminator from carrying out its mission.

From this relatively simple frame, writer/director Cameron concocted a taut tale of suspense. The terminator is an efficient killing machine, devoid of emotion and interested only in one end, the death of his target. Pain, trauma and dismemberment are just so many obstacles to be overcome. The authorities, personified by two police detectives (Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen) are powerless to stop this indestructible machine and only Reese, with his long exposure to these infiltrators of the future, knows what he is dealing with and what it will take to stop it. The concepts of the story owe a great deal to the science fiction worlds of author Harlan Ellison. In fact, Ellison sued Cameron and MGM; the suit was settled out of court and the credits now read that the story was 'inspired' by his work.

Schwarzenegger was an inspired piece of casting for the unstoppable killing machine. He had originally been considered for the heroic role of Reese, but, on reading the script, recognized the terminator as the better role and lobbied for it (over the objections of his management who did not want him to play a villain). His robotic acting style and overdeveloped physique made him a natural in the part. The one downside was his voice. One would think that technicians of the future would have gotten rid of a strange line delivery and accent. Fortunately, he has a total of about 16 lines in the whole film. Schwarzenegger brought a very different spin to the project. As originally written, the terminator was supposed to blend into the crowd and be an anonymous everyman. Lance Henriksen was originally to play the part in this way. Ah-nuld's gross visibility brought a whole new dimension to the film.

In the heroic roles of Reese and Sarah, Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton are mainly foils for the machine. They run, jump, scream in terror, fight back, and deliver lots of complicated exposition while jamming the accelerator in stolen cars. Biehn is photogenic, pleasant but hard to buy as a hardened warrior. Hamilton is stuck with stupendously ugly 80s hair and make-up but manages a tricky character transition from waitress to guerilla fighter with aplomb.

Cameron is the film's true star. He and his then wife and producing partner, Gale Anne Hurd, created an amazing science-fiction look on an extremely limited budget. (So limited, that the original release of the film was in mono-sound as there was no money for a stereo re-mix. The 5.1 track on the DVD is new for this release.) His shots of futuristic battles and nightmare landscapes are brilliantly thought out and executed. In fact, the whole concept of the film came from a painting that Cameron, a trained artist, did from images in a fever dream. The script, by Cameron, Hurd and long time collaborator William Wisher, is taut and wastes no moments. Long expository stretches are intercut with action set pieces keeping the piece moving along at a generous clip. It's interesting to see what was cut from the final film. These moments are mainly brief, but include two scenes from near the end which set up the whole plot of the second film.

Cameron and Hurd were nurtured, as were so many other Hollywood talents, by Roger Corman and in many ways, The Terminator is a slick Corman style entertainment - a genre piece lovingly executed and with just enough new ideas to resuscitate the genre from torpor.

Naked Arnold Schwarzenegger. Naked Michael Biehn. Electrical charges. Skull crushing. Walkman crushing. Windshield crushing. Desk sergeant crushing. Gratuitous Bill Paxton with blue spiked hair. Gratuitous iguana. Flying Rick Rossovich. Flying tanker truck.

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