From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Movie Retrospectives: Machines Gone Bad
The Terminator

In thinking about a way to start talking about this movie, it dawns on me that perhaps George W. Bush may have been influenced by this movie in formulating his Iraq strategy. After all, fewer movies demonstrate the art of the pre-emptive strike better than this one.

Linda Hamilton plays Sarah Conner, a typical single female living in Los Angeles in 1984. She lives an average life working as a waitress in a diner. She lives with her roommate Ginger, and an iguana named Pugsley. There's nothing in her life that makes her out to be somebody exceptional at a glance.

Her life is turned upside down when she is approached by a man named Kyle Reese (Cameron veteran Michael Biehn). Reese claims that he is a visitor from an apocalyptic future world. In Reese's world, humans were pushed to the brink of extinction by machines that had become self aware. The machines waged war against humans for domination of the planet. Victory seemed to be in the machines' grasp when the humans are led in revolt by a single man: John Conner, Sarah's as yet unborn child.

Connor led the humans in a successful counter attack that destroyed Skynet, the central intelligence behind the machines power. Skynet, in a last desperate attempt to maintain superiority, sent a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill Sarah Conner, and prevent the human revolution from having a leader. Reese was sent back by John to save Sarah and ensure that John is eventually born to save the human race.

The Terminators are cybernetic organisms: a machine endoskeleton covered in living tissue. The tissue allows the Terminator units to be able to infiltrate human encampments. In the universe that James Cameron created with this script, the human tissue exterior is what makes it possible for the Terminator to be able to travel through time (something about only living things being able to make the jump). But it is the machine base that makes the Terminator a near unstoppable killing machine. It's this relentless destructive force that drives the tension in the movie as Sarah and Reese stay on the run while trying to think of a way to destroy it.

Though only Cameron's 2nd screenplay produced (and his first major directing assignment, unless you consider Pirhana II: The Spawning major), it still ranks as one of his strongest efforts. It's my second favorite of his movies after Aliens. Like his other films, it features a strong female lead (or more accurately in this case, a woman who has to find her inner strengths in order to survive). All of this draped over a moral addressing the importance of the choices we make and the impact those choices have upon our future.

A lot of the strength in the film lies in the duo of Sarah and Reese. Hamilton does a convincing job of making the audience feel her helplessness and frustration in the beginning. She feels she is truly forced into a situation where she's in way over her head. As she progressed through the story, her strength comes out in small glimpses until we get to the end, when she's as tough as she needs to be to try and pull herself and Reese through the climactic battle. It's all an effective counterpoint to Biehn's portrayal of Reese. Reese is a survivor. He's cold and efficient in doing what needs to be done. It's his compassion towards Sarah's vulnerability that makes the love story angle between them believable. Her vulnerability makes him open up and warm up. And it's his strength that motivates Sarah to become a much tougher nut to crack.

All of which makes Arnie's portrayal of the Terminator almost secondary. It's a good role for him, don't get me wrong. He is menacing from the moment he appears on the scene, and keeps the running through the whole movie with his dogged relentlessness. Originally he was slated for the role of Reese, but felt that he would work better as the Terminator. I think it would be at this point that a snide comment could be thrown out about how it works better because it requires him to speak so very little, but that's not entirely fair to the big lug. Compared to the other big action star of the decade (Sylvester Stallone), Arnie comes off as positively Shakespearean by comparison. This was the movie that put him on the map in Hollywood for a reason (and ostensibly launched his ascension into the governor's mansion in California, for better or worse).

There are elements of this movie that are fairly dated. Austin's own Mr. Sinus Theater did a really good job of ripping those elements to shreds. The elements that do work for the movie work well. When held up against its sequels, I feel like the movie has aged much better. The sequels have more style with the technological advances in the special effects. The original I think has more heart and soul than its brethren though. I think that's what sets it apart from those movies as much as humans are from machines. The sequels are just way too cold by comparison.

Tomorrow, we have to answer the question "Shall we play a game?" with WarGames.