Determining The Terminator: James Cameron’s Masterpiece Revisited

[Insert lame pun in faux Austrian accent here]

It’s nearly 30 years since Cameron shocked and thrilled the world with his harrowing tale of a time-travelling cyborg trying to erase humanity’s future, and while no one disputes the success or quality of Cameron’s film, few critics have attempted to discuss it with any sort of view towards arguing what makes it so successful (and I’m not just talking about the hundreds of millions it has raked in over the years).

Movie scholarship, likewise, seems almost embarrassed by The Terminator, if only because theoretical apparatus seem at a loss to explain its virtues. The film is undoubtedly a kinetic thrill ride than anything else. Scholars acknowledge, if only in passing, that the film is a hallmark of the science-fiction genre, but always with that unavoidable tinge of placation, as if they are required to state this axiom forced upon them from the realm of popular discourse. They acknowledge it precisely so that they don’t have to talk about it with any real sincerity. If scholars do, the discussion struggles for any substantial purchase on the film and invariably refers to its budget as if that were some secret to its success in popular culture—The Little Science-Fiction Film That Could.

Part of this impulse may be that academia has since the 20th century expressed a systemic reservation for engaging with work on an aesthetic level of any sort, or if it does, only by dressing up the statements with some contemptuous deferrals to popular culture. Films critics, meanwhile, have little, if anything substantial to add to the film’s perceived quality other than to affirm it does, in fact, unarguably and ipso facto possess quality. That academia struggles to approach the film with anything other than what can be described as a patronising tone while film critics seem content merely to celebrate what they describe as a compelling and engaging film strikes me as inhospitable to Cameron’s supreme accomplishment with this film. And the film critics, meanwhile, are quite happy to have an anti-theoretical film to champion. So scholarship on The Terminator remains in this double bind: critics and scholars can agree that the film is a masterpiece, but they’re all quite at a loss to explain why. So after thirty years we know what this film is, but not so much how or why it so successfully achieves this stature. My approach then is to consider what value we might gain by detailing the narrative machinery operating this film.

Though even the most hostile critic would concede Cameron possesses that Midas touch (ever notice how everything he writes seems an invitation to print money?), his success comes not by sheer luck (though I don’t doubt that too is involved) but from the extreme brilliance of his skills as a writer and director. As such, I want to examine Cameron’s craft and determine what new insights, if any, can be made of it. I concede that such an analysis may have the unintentional effect of reducing the allure of the picture and of Cameron’s talent (after all, how enthralled do we remain with a magic trick and the magician after we’re told how it’s done?), yet the magic has nonetheless been achieved on film. So I undertake this analysis not simply to diminish the film—nor even to enhance it (Cameron obviously doesn’t require my humble efforts to accomplish that)—instead, I aim to offer a practical consideration of Cameron’s technique. Save for a brief note at the conclusion, this first part will deal exclusively with the opening act of the film.

Concision is the main word which arguably defines Cameron’s style. Though occasionally confused as trite (particularly as it relates to his dialogue), Cameron is merely being exacting with his material. In the opening scene, for example, Cameron provides only a brief glimpse of the explosion-fuelled future. And while the scene’s brevity is no doubt dictated by the film’s low budget—to put it bluntly, Cameron couldn’t afford to show much else—the need for concision works in his favour. He doesn’t waste our time precisely because he can’t afford to, in more than one sense.  We are only shown enough of the future to set the scene, and from the brief moments we can surmise it’s pretty grim indeed. We get hints of an apocalyptic battle as skulls are crushed beneath the treads of mighty war tanks that chase after bedraggled soldiers. We pity these poor sods fighting what we can only imagine to be a hopeless battle for a heap of rubble. The brilliance of the scene however is no doubt linked to the economy of Cameron’s storytelling abilities. Cameron sets the scene with only nine shots, three of which are brief inserts (and even two of those are duplicates of the same explosion); six shots then. The scene barely lasts more than a minute, and a full ten seconds of it is dedicated to a hackneyed prologue charged with phrases like “nuclear fire” and “final battle”, while ending on that disconcerting, elliptical note “tonight…” But already the American mind, weaned on a steady diet of Reagan’s heady Christian millennial rhetoric, reels with the possibilities. We’re tantatilized by this apocalyptic vision, if perhaps all the more for its brevity. But this movie is not about the future, it’s about the present, the here and now, “tonight”.

An HK drone on the prowl for rebel scum… I mean humans (wrong bloody franchise).

Although from a narrative standpoint the opening could have been cut without any real detriment to the story, consider the impact of its omission on the film’s grim tone. (Consider also that the film’s effects in this opening were quite impressive by the standards of 1984, if not still today.) So if the opening was a mere prologue meant only to whet the appetite of the audience, Cameron uses the brief opportunity to assure us right away that this film will indeed feature a hearty dose of action. So too does Cameron assure the audience of his capabilities as an action director. It is, in a sense, the handshake of the picture: firm and with a minimum of fuss. He continues this tone with his introduction to the terminator, who emerges nude out of a brilliant flash of energy—and sends him off to fetch some clothes from a roving pack of thugs. Here the violence is not simply gratuitous, but instead proves the severity of his threat, and with minimal action. The terminator is swift and brutal, dispatching three thugs in the space of three seconds and an economy of edits. If we didn’t already suspect something unusual about this buff, naked figure, we would begin to suspect something a tad amiss when he drives his fist through another man. The taciturn style and action makes it all the more entrancing, as if the machine-like efficiency of Skynet’s programming was being channelled by Cameron’s minimalist aesthetic. Compare this to the opening of the fourth film, for example, which has Connor putting in the good fight with a terminator for several minutes and then consider how substantially reduced the threat of the terminator becomes when filmmakers make the mistake of drawing these fights out.

From there we are introduced to our next lead, Kyle Reese. While this introduction could have been simple (he could have just dropped out of the sky and ran off naked), in Cameron’s film the act of a man acquiring some clothes becomes an exercise in mood and style. The first words Kyle speaks add to this effect and moreover serve to suggest his circumstances. “What year is it?” he asks anxiously and impatiently. Even if we knew nothing of the time-jumping antics of the plot, we’re given a strong invitation to suspect something along those lines (nevermind that the energy ball would have also been a loud clue). Kyle doesn’t even get the answer he needs before he must flee from the police. Here Cameron’s manner of economy returns. Structurally, the scene would fall flat if Cameron left it at Kyle’s arrival from the energy sphere, and Cameron’s well aware the detriment of losing his pacing so early into the film, so he has to give the audience more without giving them something they don’t need. So while they don’t need a scene showing Kyle getting some clothes and a gun, they could do with one, and while the audience don’t need a chase scene, they wouldn’t begrudge Cameron for giving them one. So what does Cameron (that master economist) do? He puts the two together. Thus, where Cameron could have simply had Kyle break in to a store and pilfer his wardrobe, instead he gives (or gifts, depending on your opinion) the audience a breathless chase through a shopping mall. In terms of the narrative the chase is of course by no means necessary, Kyle could have done the deed unhindered by the police, but the action establishes the outlaw aspect of this character, and prepares the audience for the pace of this film. Nowhere is safe, Cameron informs us, and Kyle will never find respite from his pursuers. His life is an unending pursuit. HKs in the future, police in the present, while his only future is with Sarah (not-so-coincidentally his pursuit).

And just when you imagined the film couldn’t become any more dour, with its urban decay and seedy events, Cameron proves you right. He introduces the film’s protagonist Sarah Connor in bright daylight and with over-saturated colours that border on gaudy such that only the 80s could truly provide. The juxtaposition is effective in no small part because it grants the audience a brief but necessary reprieve from the doom and gloom (a visual style which will come to dominate the latter half of the picture). Daylight won’t ever appear so inviting again. Indeed, when Sarah speeds off into the distance at the end, it’s not towards a sunrise, nor even a sunset, rather a broiling storm. Though the audience of 1984 would have to wait well over half a decade for a sequel, Cameron was already priming them with a not-so subtle indication of its tone. If The Terminator was the brief calm before the storm, Terminator 2: Judgement Day would be the long day’s journey into hell this troubling finale evokes.

A storm is coming Mr. Wayne… (wait…oh dear, wrong bloody franchise again)

Continue reading with Part 2: “The Unity of Action”

Also, support my work and the film:

The Terminator (Remastered)

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7 thoughts on “Determining The Terminator: James Cameron’s Masterpiece Revisited

    • Thanks for the reblog! I hope you enjoy part 2 as well (I’ll be posting it soon). I’d love to read your thoughts on Cameron’s style. I feel like Cameron is under-appreciated critically, but because his films make so much money nobody seems to mind.

  1. Pingback: James Cameron and the Economy of Style | Critical Hit!!

  2. Pingback: Determining the Terminator Part 2: The Unity of Action | digital didascalia

  3. That final shot of Sarah Connor driving off towards the unknown future with the oncoming storm in the foreground instead of a rising sun or a sunset full of hope is to me such a great ending to the film.

    It reverses the well-used sunset foreground that speaks of the hero’s journey coming to an end with hope just over the horizon. The shot more than gives a clue to Cameron’s advanced skill at storytelling but also shows that he’s willing to stay the course when it comes to the tone of his film’s.

    As you pointed out, The Terminator is a dark and dour film. Cameron doesn’t cheat his own decision to make the film almost too dark by attaching a hopeful coda in the end. No, he pretty much tells the audience that despite the growth of Sarah as a hero and her victory over the Terminator the future she has awaiting her doesn’t promise hope, but one that’s even more bleak and horrifying as the bleak present-day Los Angeles she has left behind.

    Cameron has been labeled Asa filmmaker more in tune with the technology. Of filmmaking instead of the more humanistic side of storytelling. This film Issachar prime example of just how wrong that label was and continues to be.

    If any, the advancing progress of filmmaking technology allows him to put very humanistic qualities to what could be technologically cold films.

    • I completely agree on every point. Although, I must add, I do find something hopeful in the admittedly gloomy finale. Though this film was just the call to action, Connor herself is primed and ready. She’s gotten rid of the bouffant hair, she’s got the dog, the hand gun, she’s preparing her future son for the war that is (or may be) to come. It’s an unsettling statement, sure, but it’s that commendable call to action that only Cameron has ever been able to manage so convincingly and effectively. And it’s also a prime example of how to set up a film for a sequel without there actually needing to be a sequel (in fact, many people were concerned when T2 was announced that Cameron would damage the quality of the original, a concern which Cameron loudly proved untenable). The Terminator stands apart.

      • I agree there’s a sliver of hope in that epilogue, but I’m on the downbeat camp when it comes to such films. I believe that such dystopian films have that inherent inevitability when it comes to the predicted apocalypse.

        The series itself has been an ongoing debate on fate vs self-determination. Can the Judgement Day of the future be avoided or has the event already been fated to occur and only humanity’s attempt to self-determine their future against it just delaying the inevitable.

        This is why I prefer the original theatrical ending to T2 instead of the more hopeful one that’s as filmed but left unused by Cameron. Some would say that original ending was just a way to leave things open for another sequel, but it also works well as Cameron coming down on the side of Fate in the series’ debate.

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