A less chaotic state: 1984’s Terminator

Photo courtesy Orion Pictures.

The 1980s were a bit of a hey day for action stars. Over the course of the ’90s, blockbuster appeal transitioned to Independence Day-type mass disaster movies, and when action movies came back to the top of the mountain over the course of the ’00s, it was in the form of masked marvels like Spider-man and Iron Man whose stars never needed to be involved in the action at all. Both of these genres require less from their leads in the way of fighting and glistening musculature and more in the way of drama and character acting. The modern superstar is someone like Will Smith or Robert Downey Jr., actors who draw people in with their sharp delivery and raw emotion, guys who wouldn’t be out of place doing Shakespeare. There wasn’t any place for Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom people really couldn’t understand even when they did take a witticism heavy script.

The rise in dramatically capable blockbusters coincided with a decline in sequel quality. Back when all people wanted to see was Stallone kicking ass, fourth and fifth sequels weren’t a stretch because it wasn’t about continuing a plot, it was about continuing and expanding on stunts and aesthetics. Taking the same crew and sticking them in a completely different setting, like the comedy group that stayed mostly together for Ghostbusters, Caddyshack and Animal House is still a better option, but it didn’t make much of a difference at the time. With modern action series, it does. Some, like Mad Max and The Fast and the Furious, have adjusted well to this new paradigm and have managed to spin stories for several movies without getting too old, while others, like The Matrix, crashed and burned when faced with the task of producing sequels that brought back more than just the action.

The Terminator didn’t do anything to change or start or impact any of this, but it exists at a unique and uncomfortable intersection of these two dynamics.

Billed on the fame of Schwarzenegger, a rising star coming off of Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer, The Terminator was primarily about Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) trying to escape him. The terminator had come back in time from a future dominated by self-aware machines to assassinate Connor, who’s son lead the humans in a successful rebellion. Reese had gone back in time after him. Reese found Connor first, and eventually impregnated her with the messianic child, making the movie one of the first and most iconic time travel head-scratchers. Reese is killed in the climax, but Connor destroys the machine, and goes back to her life with a renewed sense of duty in the face of a grim future.

Why re-watch it?

Like anything that’s spawned four sequels and counting over three decades — and counting! — it’s an incredible movie. The Terminator is an exemplary mono-myth story from Connor’s perspective and also a fantastic action movie that leaves viewers breathless with its fast pace and the tension of an apparently indestructible enemy. It’s a great popcorn flick, and it’s a well-done drama, a blueprint for action movies that have come since.

What’s its relevance now?

Schwarzenegger’s reappearance in Terminator Salvation. Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

Writer/director James Cameron’s director credits before The Terminator? Pirhana II: The Spawning. Schwarzenegger had only starred in the two Conan movies and something called The Villain, aside from a documentary and a TV movie. Since then, one has directed the two highest grossing movies of all time, and the other has converted his popularity into a long film career and a governorship.

The movie itself has birthed several sequels — two of them direct, then a panned 2009 reboot that was supposed to have two sequels of its own, and now Terminator Genisys, which promises to completely depart from the first film’s time loop and also plans two sequels.

This is where that intersection gets weird. Terminator was a bait-and-switch, advertised as a Schwarzenegger action vehicle that turned into a thoughtful movie about destiny, while also remaining an effective vehicle. The sequels have tried a couple of different things at this point. Terminator 2 and were pure — and terrible — action vehicles that jumped through hoops to return Schwarzenegger to the production, this time as a good guy. Salvation could not bring him back, though they did use his likeness in one of the final scenes. Genisys goes the opposite direction, and has promised Schwarzenegger-on-Schwarzenegger violence. The long and the short of it is the first movie is definitely remembered as more than an action movie, but the series can’t survive without Schwarzenegger any more than Rambo could survive without Stallone.

There isn’t necessarily a great insight to be gleaned here, just an awareness of the weird, seemingly endless mass of sequels that don’t know whether to take a plot to its logical next step or bend over backwards to bring Arnold back.

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