I watched THE TERMINATOR on the weekend.
I had to.
It was calling me.
I use the phrases “watershed film” or “watershed book” quite a lot. That’s the point of this entire blog. What are the movies/books/tv shows that influenced me in the years leading to my first attempts at writing fiction? Hell, even the name of this blog — “Life After Gateway” — is a nod to my favorite Science Fiction novel. This blog is dedicated to the books and movies that inspired me in my creative/formative years. A few TV series, some fantastic authors, and a small selection of short stories helped along the way. Certain teachers were invaluable too.
THE TERMINATOR is one of those properties. I remember the first time I saw it. Maybe that sounds weird, but I can say the same thing with more than a handful of movies. I watched it in 1985 during a free weekend on The Movie Network. Remember those? The movie channels would normally be scrambled until one of those special times. The final movie on the Sunday evening was the biggest movie of the lot, to try and convince people to rent descramblers and join up. That weekend, the movie was THE TERMINATOR.
I was fifteen years old. I hadn’t seen the movie yet. It was a restricted film, and my older brother hadn’t yet rented it to show me (as he did with THE THING a few years earlier,) so I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. But I knew I had to see it. I’d seen the commercials months earlier during the theatrical run, after all. This movie was screaming my name.
“Phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range.”
We all know the story. The world of the future is at war with artificially intelligent machines, and the AI enemy is on the verge of total defeat. To prevent the inevitable, they launch one more attack — into the past. Aimed at the leader of the resistance — John Connor — before he is even born. It was a fantastic concept for my teen brain to mull over, and I sat in rapt attention at my friend Melanie’s house as Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor ran from Schwarzenegger’s maniacal cyborg, a T-800 Model 101 from the 21st Century designed to infiltrate and kill human beings. It had one mission in this movie: to find and terminate Sarah Connor.
In recent years I’ve learned more about the film. About how Arnold was originally offered the role of Reese, but thought the villainous and determined killing machine better suited him. About James Cameron’s long struggle in low-budget films as a matte painter and f/x artist before he could get this movie made. When he finally completed and released the film, critics labeled it a “sleeper hit.” It wasn’t a huge success at first, but its creativity and emotional story resonated with viewers. It paid off, and the rest is history as they say. Or “future history” perhaps, as Isaac Asimov would have said.
I sometimes meet with aspiring writers or story-tellers and talk about the importance of finding the emotional core of the story. Movies come and go, some good, some bad. The ones that stick with us, however, and cavitate on through the years as we age, are the ones with that emotional center that keep calling to us. Cameron clearly possesses that skill. He can reach out to his audience and tell a kick-ass story, but at the same time make us empathize with his characters and feel the pain and hunger and hardship and agony that they’re going through. Yes, acting and directing counts a whole hell of a lot, but if that emotional core isn’t there, It’s game over man! The audience — whether it’s of a book, movie or television show — has to be emotionally invested, or there’s no point to it all. His movies become experiential, and it’s a goal I’ve set for myself with my own novels.
Which brings me to THE TERMINATOR. Cameron does a wonderful job at making us feel Sarah’s uncertainty toward her own destiny. We feel Reese’s pain as he tries to tell Sarah what she means to him … even if it was only because of a picture he looked at while longing for something or someplace better than the terrible future in which he lived. And when each of them realizes the importance of the other — for Sarah, she’s finally found meaning in her life, a direction, a place to go, even if she doesn’t want it; and for Reese, he’s found the most important mission of his life and a way to escape the madness of the future — it’s emotionally cathartic and a big payoff in this creative and highly original Science Fiction Thriller.
“I’ll be back.”
The film was wondrous to experience again. The effects are sketchy by today’s standards, but it hardly matters anymore because the emotion is there. That’s what counts. As a viewer, you’re fighting for Sarah and Reese to persevere and defeat this relentless monster. And the stakes are massive; it’s more than the end of Sarah. It’s the end of everything. The end of humanity should she die. And Cameron is just killing it with every frame. Everything’s ticking at full speed, and it’s Cameron still in his formative years but rapidly growing as a filmmaker. The flirtatious meetings with the T-800 early on are just enough to whet the appetite for what’s to come. There’s the shootout at the TechNoir. The attack on the police station featuring character actors Lance Henrickson and Paul Winfield — both of whom eventually became veteran actors in genre films. The running battles through the urban jungle of Los Angeles and surrounding areas. And the final fight in the factory with the unflinching, unfeeling machine that just won’t give up. And the T-800’s end was more ironic than I first understood at the age of fifteen.
As Sarah drives off in that Jeep into the sunset, toward the coming storm, you can’t help but smile and feel that despite the pain and danger on the horizon, at least she’s found the meaning in her life. Isn’t that something that anyone can latch onto and sympathize with? Even though it isn’t necessarily a happy ending, and that the life ahead of her is going to be filled with a crapload of torment and agony, isn’t that something an audience can really get behind? She knows where she’s going.
And she has a purpose.
At least, more of one than she had before she met the T-800.
THE TERMINATOR has it all. A great SF story, some great action, charismatic actors, a wonderful villain, a creative and original tale, a pulse-pounding score, but most important, it has that emotional center that everything else revolves around. It’s the single most important element in stories. The audience needs to be invested, and this movie certainly does that to them. To make it even better, it’s a movie for grown ups, with adult concepts and language and the reality of (future) war, and how people will cling to each other to find those basic human emotions to relish, even if it’s just for a glimpse of a past that never was, or of a future that might never be. And for a fifteen year old who was just discovering how great Science Fiction Thrillers can truly be, it came into my life at the perfect time. The movie is damn near perfect. In James Cameron’s resume, other films like AVATAR or TITANIC or TERMINATOR 2 will eclipse it, but this was his masterpiece. It’s the one that started it all.
I’ll never forget THE TERMINATOR. I owe James Cameron and that T-800 a hell of a lot.