12th May: The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984)

On this date in film, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) arrives back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).

It has been sent from the year 2029. Los Angeles has been flattened into a nuclear wasteland following the rise of the machines when Skynet, the security system designed to protect humanity from such a war, turned the tables on its makers. What remains of the human race skirmish with ‘HKs’ (‘Hunter Killer’ machines) and eke out a life in subterranean tunnels. They appear to be fighting a losing battle.

However, a figure of hope arises in the form of resistance leader, John Connor. He unites the ragtag fighters into an outfit that could overthrow their cybernetic overlords. Hearing of the machines’ plan to find and kill Sarah, Connor sends his second-in-command, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back to 1984 to protect his mother, and hence, his future existence.

After the Terminator materialises in a storm of electricity and smoke, terrorising a nearby group of 80s punks (which includes long-time Cameron collaborator, Bill Paxton), Reese arrives in a dingy alleyway much to the surprise of a sleeping hobo and a passing police officer. After a brief chase, Reese corners the cop and demands, “What day is it?” The officer replies, “12th…May…Thursday.” Back-up arrives and Reese flees the scene to find Sarah and keep her from the T-unit’s clutches.

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Despite spawning a couple of disappointing sequels (although, in my mind, Terminator 2: Judgment Day [Cameron, 1991] remains the franchise pinnacle) this first outing for Arnie’s futuristic Frankenstein’s monster packs punch, with economical (and some downright ludicrous) plotting and innovative effects, all orchestrated with verve by Cameron. Indeed, it was the success of this film which would propel him to notoriety, landing directing duties on SF sequel Aliens (1986).

Just like the best SF films, The Terminator lends itself to a variety of thematic readings. Reese’s description of the killing unit as a ‘cybernetic organism; part man, part machine’ and its objective to infiltrate human society belies both a Cold War paranoia and, in its frequent representation of the naked male form (the time travel process apparently strips away any dead material), AIDS hysteria. Not to mention the film’s political commentary on governments and their uses of technology which, in a post-Snowden society, is still chillingly relevant.

Other highlights include Schwarzenegger’s necessarily deadpan performance – including the now ubiquitous “I’ll be back” – the concluding chase (or crawl) sequence through an automated production factory and a viscerally choreographed shootout in a nightclub. The club’s name, ‘Technoir’ is an apt description for the film’s style itself. It combines the trashy trappings of cyberpunk with the chiaroscuro aesthetics and thriller elements of film noir. What results is a heady mixture of breakneck-speed editing and body horror which still retains a cultural currency today.

Adam Vaughan

 

 

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