"Come with me if you want to live."
--Kyle Reese/The T-800
One of the most iconic cinematic inventions of our time was born from a nightmare. James Cameron, fevered and ill, dreamed of a metallic skull with glowing eyes emerging from flames… and from this image came The Terminator.
Most people know the basic story: sometime in the future, the computer called Skynet is given control of America's nuclear defenses… and becomes self aware. Partly out of fear of its own destruction, Skynet then initiates Armageddon, called Judgment Day, raining nuclear fire down upon all humanity. Then it begins a program of final extermination, using automated factories to design and construct self-aware machines to hunt down and destroy all remaining humans: self-aware machines called Terminators.
But one human being – John Connor – manages to rally others to his cause, unite the fragmented remnants of humanity, and devise a counterattack that reaches Skynet's own bunkers.
In desperation, knowing it is defeated, Skynet makes one final, magnificent gamble: using an experimental device, it sends a single Terminator unit – disguised in a human shell – back in time, just far enough to be able to find and destroy Sarah Connor, John Connor's mother, before she can have a child. John Connor is able to send one of his men – Kyle Reese – back to try to keep Sarah Connor alive.
The Terminator itself is a triumph of both the time-travel and SF-action genres, especially given its budget of a mere $6.4 million. It creates a nicely closed, elegant time-loop with a bit of wiggle room for a sequel, and is well acted by the major principals, Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor), Michael Biehn (Kyle Reese) and of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator.
This, along with Conan the Barbarian, was Arnold Schwarzenegger's real breakout role. Playing the pitiless, unstoppable Terminator was a natural for Schwarzenegger at the time, who was still assimilating into American culture and learning both the acting and speaking techniques which would come to be his signatures; the Terminator didn't require an actor of great complexity, but did require one capable of a terrifying, dominant presence, which Arnold delivered in spades. Even here, he managed to inject the Terminator itself with just enough characterization – cruelty and humor – to make it more chilling than a simple machine. This was a machine capable of feeling touches of emotion and thus much more dangerous than one that had no human traits at all.
Biehn is a good actor, and in The Terminator he had a challenging role; a man sent back in time to rescue someone who has no reason to believe him, a man unarmed against a nuclear-powered war machine who needs to find one woman in all of Los Angeles, and then somehow keep the Terminator from finding her and killing her – or all of humanity is doomed. He has numerous moments that stick in the mind, from the iconic quote that began this article to the one perhaps best remembered:
"Listen, and understand. That Terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead."
The true triumph of the film, though, is to take all these elements and finish them off with a brilliant bit of stop-motion animation that is perhaps the capstone of all stop-motion ever: the shining alloy skeletal figure of the Terminator, striding from the flames of a wrecked gasoline tanker and continuing its implacable pursit of two injured, exhausted people.
Following up on this movie some years later must have been somewhat frightening for Cameron; you've made a cult classic with a tight, driving plot, absolutely iconic imagery,and ground-breaking special effects, and not only did you do it on the relative cheap but the movie pulled in almost six times its budget in release. Now you have a bigger budget but a huge question: can you possibly top that?
The answer was YES. Cameron took the original, and from the hints in that movie extrapolated another brilliant film: Terminator 2: Judgement Day. From the opening vision of Judgement Day to the literally tear-jerking ending, Cameron brought that same terrifying magic back, and managed to one-up himself in every category, performing brilliant perceptual switches and logical plotline extensions that produced another cult classic with equally brilliant technical wizardry.
Here we see Sarah Connor, ten years later, having become a survivalist of such fanatic proportions that she has been hospitalized in a mental institution, deprived of her son and assumed incurably insane since she believes this ludicrous story of robot killers from the future and a coming nuclear holocaust caused by a berserk AI. Her son John has become a young hacker punk, performing petty thievery on ATMs and bitter about his "crazy mother" and all the lies she told him.
Once more we see two people materialize in the time-vortexes of the earlier film, one of them the massive, forbidding form of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the other appearing as the much slighter form of Robert Patrick.
But – as most people know well – here Cameron is playing with us. Both track down John Connor, but it turns out that Schwarzenegger's Terminator is the good guy, and Robert Patrick is playing the fearsome "T-1000", a nanotech "liquid metal" shapeshifting construct which is almost invulnerable to ordinary harm. The inversion is complete when, in the rescue of Sarah from the mental hospital, Schwarzenegger's Terminator steps before a collapsed, speechlessly terrified Sarah and holds out his hand, saying "Come with me if you want to live."
The brilliance of Terminator 2, however, is in the character progression. Sarah Connor has been driven by fear and hatred of the machines into full-blown paranoia, which eventually culminates with her nearly killing a man whose only crime was in studying the remnants of the first Terminator. John Connor is a bitter child who has to re-learn trust and compassion. And the Terminator is a machine who learns how to be a person… and why sometimes sacrifices must be made.
The acting was good in the first Terminator, but in T2, it's stellar. Hamilton does wonderfully in switching from terror to fury to gentleness in a very convincing portrayal of a woman whose sanity is frayed to a single thread; Furlong's John Connor is all too believable as a betrayed young man trying to rediscover himself when everything he had come to believe turns upside down and dumps him into the terrifying rabbit hole; and Schwarzenegger, now much farther along in his acting career, delivers a marvelous performance as a machine slowly learning to be a man. Robert Patrick, following up on Schwarzenegger's original performance, gives us a beautiful portrait of a more advanced killing machine that is more than mere machine, showing subtle yet clear sadistic humor that becomes more pronounced, along with frustration and anger, as the chase is prolonged.
This is one of three franchises – the others being Alien and Predator – that I think are best thought of as two-movie deals. I know enough about T3 that I don't want to watch it, and I'm unsure about Terminator:Salvation – what I've heard on that front is conflicted.
However, even with just the two, Cameron produced one of the most iconic, and in some ways influential, science fiction worlds of all time… and brought his nightmare to us all. Even I get a chill at that slow, hammering, mechanical theme, and the image of that grinning, cold-metal skull with its glowing eyes emerging slowly, pitilessly, implacably from the flames…