More than just a lean, mean killing machine
Date: June, 1985
By: Terry Winslow Parker and Sharon Williams
The Terminator has been an unexpected treat. Even before its release last October, word spread quickly from those who had seen sneaks, that The Terminator was a terrific surprise -- that it harkened happy memories of those "bottom-of-the-double-bill" thriller we used to love -- that it was well-directed, fun to watch, clever and exciting.
Admittedly, director James Cameron and producer Gayle Hurd, who also share screenplay credit, intended to make the kind of film they wanted to see -- one that demonstrated what those good old "B" movies were really all about. The film's staying power has proven that the rest of us were also ready for a strong dose of the same.
The Terminator owes much of its strength to hard, fast-paced narrative. The title character, played by body builder-cum-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a cyborg (part man, part robot) built in the year 2029 to be the ultimate assassin. The cyborg is send back to present day Los Angeles in order to kill a young girl whose offspring is destined to influence the decades to come. Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a young-but-hardened guerilla fighter from the future, is also send back in time to protect the unsuspecting victim, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from the relentless onslaught of the killer machine. Leaving a double path of destruction in their wake, the two contenders battle it out for the fate of our future world.
Although The Terminator is above all an action film, packed with shoot-outs, fiery explosions and wild car chases, emotional scenarios also add to the static tension of the violence. The touching relationship between Kyle and Sarah, and Sarah's later maturation into a determined survivalist, become essential to the subplot. Framing the film into a "contemporary future" also provides a direct link between the present and the world to come, dramatizing the activistic axiom that all individual actions will directly determine the future. Sarah gradually becomes aware of this with Kyle's help and develops from a shallow coffee shop waitress into a seasoned revolutionary, determined to protect herself and her child for the sake of humanity's future.
The juxtaposition of an imagined future into our present is not a new idea in science fiction. Harlan Ellison utilized a similar concept 20 years ago on the celebrated Outer Limits television series. In his award-winning script, Soldier, a warrior from beyond the 21st century inadvertantly finds himself in 1960 ans is persued by an adversary send to eliminate him. The show is a classic and one of Ellison's best works for TV. But where such narrative skill is minimized in The Terminator, Cameron's sense of visual action and inferential plot development preempt the need for dialog-oriented storytelling. Cinematic control has taken the place of verbal narration.
The idea for The Terminator came to Cameron and Hurd while working together at New World Picture's on Battle Beyond The Stars. "I was production manager and James Cameron was art director and director of photography for the special effects unit," Hurd explained. "Jim came up with the idea which I thought would make an exciting film. He went off and starting started the script and eventually I worked on it. With Jim's background in special effects, it seemed like a natural for him to direct. Once the script was finished, we were both convinced that we had all the ingredients for a succesful film."
The film's star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was also convinced. "I have read a lot of action-adventure scripts," Schwarzenegger stated, "and this definitely was one of the best. I knew I wanted to play the part of the Terminator as soon as I started reading."
From his earliest screen appearances to his roles in Conan, The Barbarian and its sequel Conan, The Destroyer, Schwarzenegger has regularly been cast as the "good guy." Deciding it was time for a change, Schwarzenegger felt the idea of playing a super-villain would be a refreshing change of pace. "In every film I've been in, I always play a hero," explained Schwarzenegger. "In this one I finally get to play a real bad guy. It's quite a bit different for me. I'm enjoying it a lot."
A character change wasn't the only way that Schwarzenegger was transformed for the film. While trying to fulfill his deadly mission, ala the indestuctable boogy-man in John Carpenter's Halloween, the Terminator endures some extensive battle damage. Responsible for Schwarzenegger's sinister appearance and gradual deterioration was Stan Winston, nominated for an Academy Award and winner of two Emmy Awards for special make-up effects. "This is definitely one of the most demanding I have ever worked on," Winston said. "Because of all the changes that the Terminator goes through, it reallyt made it very complicated. I also think, though, that these are some of the best effects I have ever done for a film."
In addition to the special make-up effects, Winston was also responsible for designing many of the mechanical effects and robots used in the film. His most impressive creation was the seemingly indestructable robot 'skeleton' which emerges from the blazing rubble of a gasoline truck explosion. When Arnold disappears, his remnant still reminds the audience that his skeletal-presence has been the fuel and foundation beneath the indomitable character of the Terminator.
Special effects co-ordinator for The Terminator was Ernie Farino who has worked on numerous films, including Caveman, The Howling and The Thing. To do the 90 effects included in the film, Farino turned to the specialists at Fantasy II. It was Gene Warren, Leslie Huntley and Peter Kleinow (known for the 'crowd scenes' in Gremlins) who were responsible for the miniature photography and stop-motion animation that enhance The Terminator's visual effects. For the flash-forwards depicting the war-torn society and builders of the Terminatorm, Fantasy II utilized full miniatures compositing with live action, adding pyrotechnic explosions and optical laser battles. Stop-motion animator Peter Kleinow produced eight cuts of a miniature Terminator based on a detailed animation model built by Doug Beswick. It was then matched to the full scale robot designed and built by Stan Winston.
Although the film was shot entirely in Los Angeles, imaginative set designs create the various battle arenas. "We had some really exciting locations to use during the film," explains Terminator art director George Costello. "It was a great opportunity to do some imaginative things."
One of the first locations used was a closed restaurant in downtown Los Angeles which was turned into a new-wave night-club called 'Tech Noir'. Its interior was amazingly transformed: first as the dance hall, and then as rubble. After the first shoot-out between Schwarzenegger and Biehn, much of the club intensionally had been destroyed. "It took us weeks to build that set," lamented Costello, "and about two hours for the actors to destroy it."
But unusual locations, special effects and fast-paced editing were not the only elements responsible for The Terminator's success. The film's real payoff appeared in the form of a slimmed-down Arnold Schwarzenegger stomping and crashing his way through almost all every scene.
When interviewed last November for the USA Cable Network's 'Seeing Stars', Schwarzenegger put it all into perspective when asked if he worried about the critics taking him seriously as an actor. "I don't care," he smiled broadly. "The important thing to me is that I'm doing work that people enjoy out there, that the movie makes good money, that the studio makes the money back, and that I'm having a great time at what I'm doing. I don't even concider myself serious. So how do I expect people to take me serious? I think the whole thing has to be taken much looser... it's just entertainment."
But when a villain is as exciting as the Terminator, how can he not be taken seriously? As his human veneer begins to decay, the unstoppable man/machine hesitates only momentarily to address another ill-fated opponent with the proud Schwarzenegger appropriate: "Faach yu, ahs-hole." An epitaph for our times.
Or at least until next time. With Terminator 2 already into its preproduction stages, there seems to have been more truth to his words than he realized when Schwarzenegger intoned to the unco-operative desk cop, "I'll be back..."