Episode 24: The Terminator (1984)

Terminator cover site.jpg

Film chosen by Gali, introduced by Devlin

Appropriately, The Terminator is a film in a hurry.  The titular cyborg has hurtled back in time to murder the one woman who its creators believe threatens their very existence. Soldier Kyle Reese also arrives on the same night, bearing the scars of a life lived on the run from these terrible machines, and has only one night to thwart it and save the mother of the man who holds the key to winning a war which is all he has ever known. Their battle, played out in the slick and grimy streets of mid-80s Los Angeles, sees the life of an unassuming waitress Sarah Connor act as a proxy for the respective survival of their entire races. The stakes are absolute, and the lines are clearly drawn. This war is not between nations, between peoples of different creeds or beliefs. There is no moral ambiguity, no honour between foes. This is a war to determine whether all human life on earth is extinguished by a Promethean artificial intelligence that those same humans have inadvertently unleashed upon themselves. Time is running out, because, from where these two adversaries come to us, time has already run out.

We get glimpses of this horrible post-apocalyptic hinterland, where human skulls form a carpet for rolling death robots and children huddle around a fire inside a broken television set as their elders either fight and die above ground, or atrophy and expire in rags slumped in the catacombs in to which they have been cast by their conquerors. This is the storm that Sarah Connor drives towards at the end of the film: our future, human civilisation torn apart by its own destructive nature, the last ragged survivors banding together to defeat the machines led by a child she bears inside her, along with the awful knowledge of the world she brings that child in to. We see this strain of the story blossom in to the wicked Cassandra complex of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but there’s plenty of prophetic weight to this first movie.

I was born in 1984, 5 months before this film opened in cinemas in the United States. I don’t have much of a sense of the 1980s as a result, and by the time I had any real awareness of the world, the Cold War had pretty much thawed. But its shadow looms so large across so much of the pop culture I consumed at a (probably inappropriately) young age that I couldn’t help but absorb by osmosis some of the apocalyptic angst of the era. This film, from its shlocky, on-the-nose title to its casting of an Austrian bodybuilder with limited acting range to its provenance as the brain child of a former Roger Corman acolyte should have marked it out as nothing more than a gory diversion, another cheap thrill destined to make the rounds on the drive-in circuit and, later, cash in on the burgeoning home video market that skewed towards exploitation titles with cool cover art.

Obviously, this is not what happened. The craftsmanship, of course, caught the eye of attentive reviewers, and the relentlessness of the chase and mastery of audience manipulation meant that it broke out in to a surprise hit, which then went on to spawn one of the grandest, most impressive action movie sequels (some would argue action movies full stop) of all time in 1991, and a subsequent series of strange, contractually and creatively convoluted sequels across three and a half decades. Given all this content, the catchphrases and the franchise rights and the cannibalisation and confusion of the timeline that follows, can this one film cut through the bluster and still stand as a piece of cinema that deserves attention in its own right?

Here on the Rewind Movie Podcast, given the nature of the films we watch, we use the phrase “of its time” a lot. Usually, it’s to explain an outdated word or term which we now realise is offensive, or a portrayal of a character that lacks a sensitivity or nuance that we have subsequently learned. But there’s something in the DNA of this film, an urgency and fatalism that can only have manifested from the collective looming terror of mutually assured destruction and the literal incineration of everything you’ve ever known or loved. It’s not for nothing that, when painting on the broader canvas of the expansive Terminator 2, intended for the biggest audience possible, Cameron replaced the image of the roiling storm clouds at the end of the highway with the visually darker, but somehow more hopeful, blacked out nocturnal highway, stretching out unseen beyond the narrow beam of the headlights. Within 6 months of the movie’s release date, the Cold War was over. Humanity, while clearly still capable of every evil imaginable, seemed to have stepped back from this one particular brink which had blighted the entire second half of the century. Where we were going now may still have been destructive, but at least it was no longer assured.

As a child of the 1980s, obsessed as I was with big machines and scary things and kids who listened to Guns N’ Roses on a dirt bike (as an 8 year old in Darlington, I was pretty conspicuous with my full mullet and GN’R bandana), Terminator 2 was an obvious firm favourite. Yet, I’d never really spent much time with the original film at all. Gali, today’s film chooser, has, and clearly it made a pretty indelible mark on him. And Patrick’s roots with the movies go back to his father’s impressively obsessive fandom upon discovering the first film on video and evangelically circulating the movie around his circle of friends, racking up some hefty rental fines in the process. In this episode, we hurtle across time to chat about our relationship with the movie series, and assess The Terminator as a viewing experience now that we are 22 years past the original Judgement Day. Thanks for listening.

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