Total Film Special: Terminator and T2
By: Paul Rose
The world changed when...
The good guy blasted the bad guy through a window to save the heroine. And the bad guy wasn't even scratched.
Made by a man whose only previous directing credit was Piranha II: Flying Killers and starring a monosyllabic Austrian bodybuilder, an unknown TV actress and a male leas better kwown as the unfortunately-named Randall Buttman in Hill Street Blues, James Cameron's The Terminator should've been awful.
Histroy records things differently, however. For such a successfull yet ostensibly mainstream action movie, The Terminator is remarkably bleak. Tapping into 1980s Cold War paranoia, it argues that humanity is doomed to be destroyed by Skynet, the sentient computer system designed to safeguard its nuclear weapons systems in order the quash the remnants of human resistance in the future, Skynet sends a cyborg assassin, the Model 101, back in time to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the woman who will later give birth to humanity's leader. And on the 101's trail comes freedom fighter Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) whose mission is to protect her at any cost. As high concepts go, it's practically out there in orbit.
With on-the-run exposition jammed inbetween relentless action sequences, character introduction pared down to single short scenes and a frantic pace that starts with the opening credits and only lets up for the intrusive - but narratively unavoidable - love scene, The Terminator was the first film recognisable as a modern action movie. Previous films had felt the need to set up some normality that could soon be shattered, but not this one. It simply assumed you knew what the modern world looked like, and then blew it apart using a .45 long slide with a laser sight. The Terminator marked Cameron's first step towards dominating countdown cinema, with every one of his films pitching the heroes against un unavoidable, catastrophic finale.
Yet 1980s American audiences didn't want to deal with time paradoxes, and despite the enthusiasm of special effects fans, The Terminator did respectable (rather then earth-shattering) box-office business. But it had a slow burning appeal, and as it enjoyed continuing success and gathered a loyal fanbase on video, director Cameron noticed that however apathetic audiences were to the ostensibly heroic male/femal leads, Schwarzenegger's unstoppablecyborg assassin was all they cared about, cheered on even when he executed an entire police station full of likable cops. But by the time Aliens and The Abyss had secured Cameron's reputation for working big budgets into successful movies, the director would feel a moral obligation to the audience (and notable pressure from the new-look "family friendly" Arnie) to make the cyborg the good guy.
For Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron used the same formula that he'de eventually use three times: heroine remade by a doomed hero whose death frees her to follow her own destiny. In the first film, Reese models Sarah into a warrior and paradoxically fathers the man who'd sent him on his mission. In Titanic, Jack gives Rose the strength to break free of her class oppression. But in T2, Sarah regains her soul by learning humanity from, of all things, a killing machine.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a beat-for-beat big-budget retelling of the first film, and although purists can quite rightly argue that its new, cuddly Arnie represented a severe watering down of the original's bleak edginess, no one can deny that it was a box-office phenomena that allowed both Cameron and Schwarzenegger to write their own cheques for years afterwards. Spectacular setpieces aside (the flood-channel chase, the helicopter flying under a bridge, the T-800 chewing up police vehicles with a multi-barralled mini gun), T2's biggest breakthrough was cinema's first synthespian - an entirely computer generated actor.
Cameron had pioneered photo-realistic CGI through his company Digital Domain, who'd produced the intelligent water spout for The Abyss. So although an original draft had John Connor protected from Arnie by another reprogrammed Arnie, technology allowed the sinister liquid metal T-1000 to be everything from a Robert Patrick to a floor, a set of crowbars and even a big blob of mercury. All of a sudden we had the new technical term - 'morph' - to add to 'pan', 'crane', 'tilt' and 'dolly shot'.
Despite this innovation, and despite the constantly moving camera that gives his films a breathless, kinetic energy, Cameron still got into trouble. It seems that the story was so similar to episodes of The Twilight Zone that writer Harlan Ellison's name was added to later prints of the movies. And while we're at it, Cameron also owes a huge debt to Yul Brynner's murderous cowboy robot from Michael Crichton's Westworld. But who ever said excellence had to be original?