In 1984 a science fiction film hit the big screens in the United States and stayed at the top of the box office for two weeks and helped launch Jim Cameron’s film career and propel Arnold Schwarzenegger to stardom. Prior to this Jim Cameron was a relatively unknown director and had only shot one movie to date.
Cameron’s fortune changed literally overnight when he had an opportunity to pitch the film with Lance Henriksen dressed in a leather biker jacket, acting out the role of The Terminator in front of anxious executives from the production company, Hemdale. Cameron had his ‘Terminator’ and Orion wanted Schwarzenegger to play ‘Kyle Reese’. Cameron was not agreeable but met Schwarzenegger and was so impressed by the way he discussed how the villain should be played, he offered him the role. The rest, as they say, is cinema history.
The film begins as two naked men emerge from a torrent of high voltage at night in Los Angeles in 1984. The first arrival (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a huge beast of a man who single-handedly dispatches a group of punks to obtain their clothing. In fact he is “The Terminator” a cyborg assassin sent back in time from 2029 to find a woman named Sarah Connor and kill her. The second arrival is Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) who has been sent back to protect Sarah Connor from the Terminator. He is flesh and blood and does not have the resilience that the cyborg obviously has, but makes up for this lack with cunning, intelligence and speed just like an animal defending its own kind.
It transpires through huge info-dumps from Reese that he knows the future leader of the human resistance and that the leader will be Sarah Connor’s son. It is now clear that the Terminator, by killing Sarah Connor, will stop her son from being born. This will then stop the leader of the resistance being born and put an end to this triumphant challenge to the machines and Skynet. Sounds very logical to me. The movie itself, much like a Terminator, is a relentless juggernaut with an obdurate onslaught of thrills and edge of your seat, set pieces. But for me the genuine strength of the film is in its intelligent, well-crafted plot which grapples intricately and successfully with the mind-blowing paradoxes of time travel.
As we see transpire in the film, as Reese becomes close to Sarah Connor in his heroic efforts to protect her, she and Reese become intimate. The soldier sent back to make sure the leader is born, becomes, the very cause of his existence. A brilliant take on the bootstrap paradox. So Reese is John Connor’s father and now we can see why he is in the future such an effective leader and fighter. His mother and father have both had to and will have to fight, to protect him. His development and training will be at the hands of the best. There is nothing better than the learning gathered from real, hands-on, experience.
There are strong performances from all the main actors and the special effects such as they were then, in their infancy, do not, thankfully, overload the screenplay and acting. But this is Schwarzenegger’s film. In every scene he is in, his presence is formidable. His character is a constant threat of impending doom and death. The Terminator is relentless in pursuit, without mercy or compassion. It is through Schwarzenegger’s performance that the Terminator became one of the most fearsome and iconic characters in movie history. Hence his return in the sequels and reboots. Even after 35 years, the character has made another triumphant return in Terminator: Dark Fate (2019). Even the making of more Terminator sequels and reboot movies, mirrors the relentless nature of the character and the repeating pattern of the time travel loop as the foundation of the narrative.
The original Terminator is the complete antithesis of our human hero, Reese. The contrast between the two is at the very heart of the dynamic of this film. For it is the humanity of Reese that will not just protect Sarah (and cost him his life in the process), but will through love and natural human procreation, create, the very living, breathing, human nemesis of these machines, John Connor. The failure of the Terminator’s mission is three-fold. It is unsuccessful in killing Sarah Connor, it creates the situation in which the future leader of the resistance is made and illustrates to Sarah Connor and to her son, John, that the machines are not invincible. A truly epic fail.
Even though The Terminator is a film filled with violent action scenes and deadly threat there is much irony and even humour in the film. Both aspects of the film work together to enhance the story. For example when the Terminator executes Sarah’s flatmate the answering machine clicks into life announcing ‘‘machines need love too’’. There are so many examples. But, on the serious side, there is no doubt that a fundamental subtext to the film is the potential dangers of AI dominance and the threat posed by self-aware robots who reject human authority and our hegemonic position upon the planet. But this was not the first film to present such a scenario and it has not been the last.
Harlan Ellison had explicitly stated that The Terminator was a rip-off of Soldier from Tomorrow (1957) and Demon with a Glass Hand (1964) which he had written. They were both turned into episodes of The Outer Limits in the 1960’s. Orion settled in 1986 but Cameron never agreed with the settlement. I have to concur and completely agree with Cameron. These episodes are both excellent and although there are similarities, they are generic. The film by James Cameron incorporates time travel, relentless pursuit of an enemy and a cyborg, but develops them exponentially and in a whole new direction.
In both stories by Ellison there is time travel but it is only a small part of the story in Soldier and in Demon. Soldier is about two future soldiers intent on continuing their fight against each other, through time. In this case backwards in time. The scene in the contemporary alleyway where they materialise is the closest it comes to having anything to do with the Cameron film and even that is pushing the connection. In Demon the story is about a man who believes himself human until he finds out that he is a machine created to store information (the DNA of the whole human race) and protect humanity from an invading alien race.
However, for me, the film that comes the closest to the real essence of the Terminator movie although it has absolutely nothing to do with time travel, is Westworld (1973) written and directed by Michael Crichton. On a remote island, where for a hefty fee, one can indulge in one’s wildest fantasies, two businessmen who are crazy about the wild west head to the section of Westworld populated by robot desperadoes, robot lawmen, robot dance-hall gals, and the like. During a mock showdown with the robot gunslinger played by Yul Brynner one of the guests is killed, none other than James Brolin. Our rather reluctant hero, the surviving businessman Richard Benjamin must first avoid, then face down the relentless gunslinger, attired completely in black, the magnificent Yul Brynner. Ring any bells? A self-aware robot turning on its creators?
The Terminator is a tale that plays on our love/hate relationship with technology but at its core it is tapping, just like Westworld (both the original film and the latest iteration on TV), into something much deeper and potentially much darker. The dark and atmospheric cinematography of The Terminator itself hints, at something far darker and disturbing. It is myth, the nineteenth century myth of Frankenstein bequeathed to us by Mary Shelley in 1816, to be exact. But of course her tale was itself based upon the adaptation and modernisation of an already ancient myth of transgression and suffering, the Myth of Prometheus.
The fire given to man by Prometheus symbolises in the modern world our rational scientific knowledge and understanding of the physical world and the technology that develops from that knowledge. But we now know to our cost, just how dangerous the application of that technology can be. Both Westworld and The Terminator are hugely entertaining stories but their warnings to us are very clear. One has to wonder sometimes when we look around at the perilous state of our world, now, whether Zeus may have been right, when he forbade any of the Gods from giving humanity the ‘gift‘ of fire.
The Terminator has become our latest and perhaps most frightening of all iterations of the myth. This is the Prometheus-Frankenstein hybrid myth that combined with the trope of time travel becomes a new updated version of the ancient myth (version 3.0) that can be endlessly reiterated and repeated by cinema and television and remade, time and time again, just like replacing the parts of any machine or cyborg. This is as postmodern as it gets. Combined with the anxiety and fear over the replacement of humanity with machines built by us, this could very well be, the first postmodern (and potentially the last) myth in the history of humanity.