100 Years of Science Fiction: The Terminator
By: Marc Shapiro
An unstoppable robot hitman travels through time to kill the woman who will sire a son destined to change the course of Earth's history.
James Cameron was burning up with fever when this nightmarish vision of The Terminator came to him. The dream became a reality and, in 1984, simultaneously cemented the careers of Cameron and star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Terminator, whose storyline is swothed in both themes and mayhem that are larger than life, is very much a by-product of the director's roots working on low-cost SF films for Roger Corman. It was shot on the cheap o Los Angeles' mean streets, and driven by Cameron's desire to make a little masterpiece his way. The result was a loud, low-budget heavy metal nightmare that walks the line between dark rites of passage, hard-fought redemption and raw, realistic characterizations that compete with and compelement the stark action setpieces.
With only the mediocre Piranha II: The Spawning on his rèsumé at that point, Cameron (who scripted with producer / fellow Corman vet Gale Anne Hurd) proved equally adapt at showing action an quiet character moments. The chase through deserted downtown streets and the Terminator's laying waste to a police station still stand tall in the face of '90s action budgets and technology. And the scene in which Reese (Michael Biehn), the future soldier who has followed the Terminator to the 20th century, bares his soul to Sarah (Linda Hamilton) demonstrates an affecting mixture of honesty and vulnerability.
The Terminator immediately set the standard for action films in the mid-'80s, proving that passion and singular vision can overcome the lack of a multimillion-dollar budget. But the Terminator odyssey was far from over; having gone on to establish himself as a major player with Aliens, Cameron returned to the scene of his breakthrough film in 1991 with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Working with a budget over 15 times higher than the original's, Cameron turned the sequel into a showcase of cutting-edge CGI FX magic and recast Schwarzenegger's role in a heroic mold, pittin his now protective Terminator against the 'liquid metal' T-1000 (Robert Patrick).
The movies also furthered Cameron's reputation as a demanding perfectionist. "If a shot was half an inch off from the way he visualized it, he would go crazy," Schwarzenegger says. "I remember one day we were shooting some stunt sequences... real physical stunts, and Jim came onto the set to demonstrate how the stunts should be done. Hi did them without padding and without seemingly giving a second thought to his safety. I thought to myself that he must be crazy."
Terminator 2 was an enormous box-office hit, making more than the original's entire gross in its first (4th of July) weekend and becoming the biggest hit of the year; it won Oscars for Visual Effects, Makeup, Sound and Sound Effects Editing. In addition, its promotion as simply T2 pioneered the use of such contractions (ID4, etc.) in film marketing. But while Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the classier and showier of the two films, the primitive power and sheer visual audacity of the original makes The Terminator a metal monster for the ages. And in late 1999, a pair of further follow-ups were announced, to be written by Tedi (Tank Girl) Sarafian and David Campbell (Supernova) Wilson respectively - but without Cameron or Schwarzenegger involved.