There have been some pretty good titles over the course of human fiction. Consider this one: James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984). How pleased were they when they came up with that title? It’s no wonder that the word became, within a very short period, a ubiquitous point of reference when discussing the action genre. And yet, it is forever known as the only film to be rated, by consensus, as worse than its sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Happily, the release (or is it re-re-re-release?) of The Terminator as “newly remastered” gives me the opportunity to review the film and reflect on the propriety of consensus opinion.
In 2029, Earth has become a hellscape with machine tanks rolling over vast amounts of skulls. One man leads the humans against the machines: John Connor. When the machines are all but defeated, they send a Terminator, a new cyborg, to 1984 to kill Connor’s mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) before he can be born. The humans arrive just after a single Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has been sent and decide to send one of their own, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) in after it and destroy the time machine. Nobody goes back, nobody else coming through, it’s just the machine and Reese.
It’s odd that James Cameron wrote (with Gale Anne Hurd and William Wisher Jr.) and directed both The Terminator and Terminator 2 and I’ll tell you why. The Terminator is remembered as an action/sci-fi but the dynamic of the story is a prototypical horror film with horror tropes—the slow, relentless antagonist, the gross-out visual effects, and endless running. In the second Terminator movie, the horror is reduced and has a much stronger, goal-oriented plot. It also builds up comic moments, strength of the female lead, and the ambiguity of the machines. This is almost exactly what Cameron did to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) with its sequel Aliens (1986).
However, where Alien was a horror masterpiece with understated direction and action, The Terminator was anything but. It’s a rough piece of work when you look at it without a sense of nostalgia. It isn’t a B movie, but it’s a B+. The music (Brad Fiedel) is dreadfully dated and hollow. If only they scraped together some updated music, this movie might have been significantly improved. Fiedel created some good themes, no question, but this is a guy in his garage. And the de-skinned robot looks terrible—it’s like the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts (1963). As the fidgeting letters pan across my screen, I wonder aloud (to myself), “Is this the remastered version?” You can imagine my chagrin when the non-Arnold Terminator started chasing our heroes around a factory like his legs were set to strobe.
The saving grace of the movie is the many flashbacks (flash-forwards?) to Reese’s life in the future. Yet, thinking over the movie, it seems unbalanced. You’ve got three arcs: (1) Sarah (finding her and the chase), (2) the police, and (3) the future. Both the police and the future are carved into near-irrelevance. What did the police do except foul things up and set up a massive gun battle? As for the future, why can’t we meet John Connor, the McGuffin, and the other side of the time travel journey rather than three tableaus of running around skull-strewn wastelands and establishing that dogs bark at machines? Why not have the police start looking into Cyberdyne or extend the ‘finding Sarah’ section with a deeper investigation? The obvious answer is that these probably seem like distractions to the thriller they were creating. So, while these two arcs give the movie the possibility of depth outside of the (narratively) simple chase, it is a promise unfulfilled and posterity is left only with nostalgia. Reboot?
Michael Biehn is the unsuccessful foil to Bruce Willis as the non-beefcake action hero with The Rock (1996) as his last movie that was an undeniable hit. He hasn’t wanted for work, that’s true. The man has quantity. His simple competence for roles of limited emotion is well suited to The Terminator and he’s a good protagonist, but his lack of humor kept him from being a star. The same exact thing can be said of Linda Hamilton, though her last best feature was Dante’s Peak (1997). Then there’s Arnold. He learned a lot about playing a machine in between the first and second Terminator movies. In The Terminator, Arnold moves freely and expresses emotion during action sequences that aren’t very robotic. I think it must have been around the time of The Running Man (1987) that he decided to be a kind of actor. There’s something darkly comic about the Terminator driving around L.A. in a station wagon.
As the ostensible purpose of this release is to show how they can remaster a movie, I can’t claim to be impressed. This is not recut to iron out the editing or, from what my television speakers could express, remix the sound to balance the speech and anemic electronica. I think it just cleaned up the film. Cleaning up the film for rough 80’s FX and intentionally drab, lifeless L.A. nightscapes is possibly less worthwhile than creating the Highlander 2 director’s cut. That’s an apt comparison since it looks like the bulk of the remastering is with the future hellscape which, while establishing the stakes, is more costly than its function warrants. Don’t think that it’s a bad job, it’s phenomenal work. But unlike Blade Runner that is made so much better by remastering (and editing), so much of The Terminator is ‘present day’ that the power of improvement is lessened.
Here’s a tip. If you’re releasing a newly remastered version of a sci-fi classic, probably not best to make your cover look the same as a crummy direct-to-DVD movie. I mean, I know that it’s difficult to come up with the eighth new cover for a Terminator re-packaging, but this graphic looks low-resolution as opposed to HD. I’ll grant you, it doesn’t look like the seriously 80’s original, but instead looks like 21st dreck.
It took me a few frustrating moments to figure out how to get to the menu screen because it doesn’t have your typical top menu/home screen but rather plays the film on a loop until you use the pop up/menu button (on my controller anyway) which is typically reserved for picking subtitles and the like. Anyway, I’m here to stop your pain before it starts.
Deleted Scenes. The deleted scenes are pretty interesting and probably should have stayed in the movie. One of them is a bit key to the continuity of the story. Sarah calls her mother and tells her to go to the cabin (which explains a scene in the movie where the Terminator goes to the cabin), then gets an idea to destroy Cyberdyne Industries (which is responsible for the end of the world), but Reese doesn’t want to do that and then has a little cry about how weird it is to be in the idyllic 80’s (which is a pretty interesting element lost from the film). It went real south real fast and presumably couldn’t have been reshot in time, but could have been a neat link between the first and second films. A later deleted scene provides an even stronger one showing the futuristic chip being found by Cyberdyne. Another deletion built up the police arc of the movie and justifies their presence more than the final product does.
Unlike most deleted scenes, the ones on this Blu-Ray are highly significant in explaining the story and shows how Cameron really committed to the show-don’t-tell principle. That’s quite admirable in many respects, but the resulting movie doesn’t really get the chance to show much. These scenes slow down the action, yes, and their deletion makes this the horror movie it becomes rather than a dramatic science fiction story. Cutting the two scenes that link the first and second movies does roughly the same thing. I suspect that there was another scene deleted that showed the Terminator renting a room where he hides guns and repair equipment, but it isn’t here.
The second feature is “Creating The Terminator: Visual Effects and Music”. Yay, technical details! You think I’m joking. What are these special features for if not for the junkies and the upcoming film makers? Having taken up photography somewhat recently, I get positively squiffy when someone even mentions “depth of field.” But it’s only twelve minutes long. I want more! I was terribly spoiled by the Blade Runner humungo-set of hours-long technical features. Then again, Blade Runner had Vangelis, The Terminator had Fiedel who, like Biehn and Hamilton, did a lot of work, but nothing particularly good.
Finally, there’s “Terminator: A Retrospective” dating back to 1992 and the days of VHS. This is really where the remastering shows itself because all of the footage is the original movie and it looked rough. We are so spoiled by DVD and Blu-Ray.