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The Test of Time: The Terminator (1984)

02.08.2013by: Ryan Doom

 Director: James Cameron
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, and Michael Biehn

We all have movies we love and respect without question out of either tradition, childhood love, or because we’ve always been told that said movie was some fancy pants classic. However, as time keeps ticking and Hollywood continues to pump out new and three-time-over recycled material, do those classics still hold up? Do they still deliver the same impact as they once did X amount of years ago? As technology changes, hell as society and issues evolve in general, many movies are locked in an airtight, suffocating time capsule.

So…the point of this here column is whether of not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Under the examination: The Terminator.

Now, James Cameron is basically a god. I’m sure somewhere in the world, there’s a golden man/cow statue of him where worshipers bow down to his ability to create films that earn billions of dollars despite reusing the same basic plot. Hell, I’m thinking of starting a church now. But revisiting his breakthrough film in 1984 is interesting. I remember some scenes so vividly. The shootout in Tech-Noir. The skull crushing of the Terminator foot. The “how to build a pipe bomb safely” scene. Sarah Conner getting’ all nude. However, it’s a movie I haven’t revisited for a long time, and when I did I realized certain things. While the movie still holds up as far as action and on sci-fi merit, it’s forever time-stamped. Dated. For better or for worse. But I’ll get to that.

Robots hate techno.

THE STORY: In case some how you’re either 11 or somehow missed one of the biggest sci-fi franchises out there, The Terminator is a bit complicated but I’ll simplify. Sarah Conner is the mother of the unborn John Conner, a dude who in the future robots hate because he’s the leader of the human resistance. And since robots are dicks, they send a killer machine back in time to, well, kill her before he’s born. The only thing standing in his way is a common future human fighter, techno music, and a pair of Gargoyle shades.

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: Arnold. As his first movie in decade (The Last Stand) hits theaters, he looks damn amazing at his peak. He’s a bit stiff, can’t speak, can’t act, yet the camera loves the guy like no one else. And when he does speak, he delivers a career one-liner that probably all actors and writers dream of creating. In fact, that moment is perhaps the best tension-filled scene on film. Going from “I’ll be back" to the massacre of cops is both frightening and thrilling, but under current social conditions watching it today its strangely difficult. Nevertheless, it's a powerful, unrelenting moment. Psychically, Arnold is obviously massive, but his “unique” looks created a superstar. His limitations made the character. And damn, it still holds up, and even having him dress in a punk outfit still works, but it rings 1984 and dangles the line of looking menacing and just silly.

The acting all around is top notch. Hamilton (besides Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley) is perhaps one of the finest female characters. Her journey from scooter loving, lizard hating every girl to the destroyer of cyborgs is quite an acting job. Her transformation is much deeper than say Michael Biehn's, but his acting equally impresses. Actually, I’m always surprised his career never fully took off. Dude looks and acts like a desperate man with a single mission. In fact, part of The Terminator’s classic status comes because every involved DID take the movie seriously. This is sci-fi drama at its finest and should never be removed from its perch atop of whatever sci-fi fans look up to. And while the franchise continues to pump out movies, it’ll never diminish what Cameron delivered. Despite what I may bitch about below, The Terminator still has a raw power that’s nearly impossible to duplicate.

Maybe not the best close-up.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Firstly, the Terminator suffers from a few things that don’t age well. Some things small, some things big. The introduction of Sarah Conner arriving on a scooter with some awful elevator music speaks of stupidity. I never understood her introduction. It’s such a light moment with her enjoying a sunny day on her scooter, heading to a shit job where a brat dumps ice cream in her apron. I understand its purpose to set up her character and where she’s headed, but still it stinks of four month old cheese. From here, the music never really improves. Oh sure, the “dun dun dun da-dun” score is amazingly perfect, but overall, the soundtrack plays dreadfully dated. While other movies from that time like early John Carpenter stuff also suffers from synthesizer overload, Carpenter’s material feels more like another character, not just part of the material, not just added annoyance...especially during the slow-mo parts. Those parts play painfully dated, and not surprisingly, Cameron avoided most of that in T2. If only John Woo learned...

Listen, we all know what Cameron became. Dude’s a master filmmaker, and while no one will confuse him as an artistic director, he creates event movies that have as much heart and as action. With that said, he was definitely still cutting his teeth here. Some moments play a little forced if not downright stupid. I won’t knock the effects (because they’re still pretty damn good and done on a zero budget), but I can knock the pacing as Cameron has a way of dragging things out. He gave The Terminator heart despite the painfully high death count and the thing wouldn't work without the love of Reese/Conner but...Jesus, at times this movie drags on forever. It never really finds a good momentum. When the action hits it slaps the audience stupid, but the down time between shootouts feels the most dated of all. We needed the character development, but perhaps we could have learned so things in a different manner (I’m looking at you under-the-bridge-scene). I guess it could’ve been worse. Maybe he could have had the Terminator fall in love? He was a cyborg…with a heart?

Nothing says 1984 like a punk wearing a leather tie.

Other stuff that doesn't stand the test of the time is mostly minor. I like how Reese -- after a busy day of time traveling, evading the cops, stealing the pants off a homeless dude-- hotwires a car, passes out, and dreams of an elaborate action sequence where he burns to death. What’s this trying to tell of us? He’s afraid of fire? The scene, while still badass, plays forced in order to show us his world. But whatever. Without him passing out we would have never seen the future…which would have sucked. Something else that doesn’t make much since comes during Arnold’s gun shopping. Why is he inspecting the weapons, like holding them up to check the sight? He’s a Terminator. Wouldn’t he know immediately? Does he actually look down the barrel of the gun? I'm pretty sure that infrared-mode works just dandy.

THE VERDICT: I’ve always loved the Terminator franchise. When done right, it's dark, brooding, and badass. While 1991’s T2 (which obviously had the advantage of a budget) barely feels dated, I can’t say the same for the original. It will always be a classic, but it won’t age well with time.

GET THE TERMINATOR DVD HERE

GET THE TERMINATOR BLU RAY HERE

Still on hold for another sequel.

Extra Tidbit: How do you think The Terminator holds up?

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