What would I want in the perfect action film?
Let’s see. There has to be first and foremost a seriously bad-ass villain who seems to hold all the cards. Bigger, stronger, heavily armed, inimically cunning, and totally remorseless.
Then toss into the mix the unlikely hero who against all odds must somehow find a way to defeat the afore mentioned baddie. My ideal hero is a scrapper. A street-smart yet vulnerable guy who knows that his task is impossible but will try like hell to get ‘er done anyway–even if it costs him his life.
As I am a biped (actually a ‘triped’) I would also ask that an attractive heroine be thrown in…but not just any eye-candy floozy. She looks good in jeans but can also fire a weapon, toss a grenade, laugh, cry, and ultimately serve as the hero’s well-spring from whom he draws one last ounce of inner strength when his own will falters. And she must have room to grow as the true protagonist of the story.
Now, to really pull me in, I need very high stakes resting on the outcome of this uneven match between the ubervillain and untested good guy and his bikini-model hottie made of iron inside. And I mean stakes that are stratospheric; stakes that involve nothing less “all in” than the fate of the entire human race.
Last but not least, there must be some sort of intellectual premise that prompts me to think amidst the gunfire and explosions and screeching tires. And not just check my brain at the door.
I would write such a film but James Cameron already did it in 1984. He called the movie The Terminator. And an American film icon was born…as was the career of a transplanted Austrian body-builder-turned-screen actor (and later state governor) Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Has there ever been a more perfect villain so seamlessly woven into the fabric of a great plot? A semi-organic robot is sent back from the future (the year 2029 to be precise) whose sole purpose is to execute an unsuspecting woman named Sarah Connor. Why? Because unknown to the walking dead of then present-day 1980’s a nuclear Armageddon is in the offing; one that is triggered by an automated missile defense system that becomes so efficient and powerful that the computer network created to protect its human masters from one another actually becomes self-aware and in a nanosecond analysis concludes that all mankind is a threat to them!
And so the machines unleash a global thermonuclear holocaust and embark on a systematic campaign of extermination of all those left alive when the fires burn out. We learn through the film that the human race was on the brink of extinction until one man, John Connor, Sarah Connor’s son, rallied the humans and fought back. Responding to the threat, the machines devise a plan to send a cyborg assassin through time to kill Connor’s mother before he is ever born, altering the time-space continuum in their favor.
But John Connor is no slouch. He too sends a soldier from the future, Kyle Reese, into the streets of mid-80’s Los Angeles to find Sarah before the terminator does and protect her. Since the terminator is literally a killing machine that will never give up, Reese must find a way to destroy this most efficient and resilient predator and save Sarah so that she can give birth to John who will then save the world four decades hence.
Quite a mouthful, no? But what a great premise. Beyond the concept itself, several aspects of the movie appeal to me on an intellectual, emotional, nostalgic, even metaphysical level.
First off I like that Cameron takes great pains to explain why things happen the way they do, respecting the audience enough to not leave unanswered questions or loose ends. One example is why Reese did not bring any futuristic “ray guns” with him to better deal with his nemesis (as the condescending shrink, Dr. Silberman, inquires skeptically). Reese explains that only organic matter can go through the time machine–ergo his nakedness upon arrival. Ah, but the terminator is a robot isn’t he? “Surrounded by living tissue!” a frustrated Reese replies. And there you go. Problem solved.
Emotionally the film draws me in because in the first scenes the character of Sarah is so very much the every day girl in her mid-20s just doing her best to get by on her own in a tough and unforgiving world–totally oblivious of her true destiny until revealed to her by Reese who introduces himself at a hip dance club with the ultimatum: “Come with me if you want to live!” followed by a large man in a leather jacket who suddenly unleashes an indiscriminate hail of bullets in her direction. Welcome to the show, Sarah. So amidst this very macho film with two men slugging it out (well one man, one machine), you have as the central figure an archetypal strong woman played by a very alluring Linda Hamilton who goes from an abused diner waitress to soldier of the future in 108 minutes.
Finally there is nostalgia. I am a child of the 1980’s and The Terminator positively oozes that era from Sarah’s feathered hair, to her friends’ original Sony Walkman, to my favorite: the “bad boys” near the beginning with their punk rock spiked rainbow hair and studded jackets that seem so comically “quaint” when compared with today’s gang-banger hoods. (Honestly, who’d have ever thought that one who mimics the style of Sid Vicious in an effort to appear menacing would in due course be considered passé?)
The film’s conclusion also leaves the movie-goer with much to ponder. While on the run, Reese and Sarah fall in love and eventually consummate their relationship. But they do not have long to prance hand-in-hand through love’s Arcady as the terminator soon finds them yet again. Reese does what he can to slow it down, but the machine ends up killing him. At the end of the day it is Sarah, not her sworn protector, who “terminates” the terminator. She alone is left to mourn for her dead lover and his unborn child now growing within her womb. She will name their boy John. And thus does John Connor in 2029 knowingly send his paradoxical father-to-be soldier back in time to save his own son whom Reese actually will spawn years before he himself is even born! Pretty cool stuff huh?
Heck, this whole movie is filled with cool stuff. From lines that have made their way into the lexicon of pop culture (“I’ll be back”) to darkly humorous touches such as the terminator requesting from a perplexed gun-shop owner a not-yet-invented “phased plasma rifle in a 40-watt range” while compiling his arsenal of contemporary weaponry before the hunt for Sarah begins. And of course, who can forget the special effects. Although the stop-action sequences in the final scene are almost painfully primitive to us in 2010, they were state-of-the art in 1984 and effective in revealing to the audience in satisfying entirety the truly wicked machine behind the organic façade.
Still, I think the ultimate secret of The Terminator‘s enduring appeal lies in the eponymous character that Arnold made his own. As Reese tries to explain to an overwhelmed Sarah: “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!” In a world filled with moral relativism, p.c. inertia, and an obsession with “seeing things from all sides” (even 9/11, if you can believe that one) it is refreshing to look back on a villain who is the purest of evil. One that is not even alive! Just a viciously efficient murdering machine that indiscriminately lays waste to anyone or anything (even puppy dogs!) that could compromise its sole raison d’être which is to kill one woman. Period. Not even Ridley Scott’s monstrous “Alien” is so purely malevolent as it is at least a living creature trying to survive and protect its offspring.
In my humble opinion, Arnold’s machine earns the prize for Hollywood’s baddest of the bad, as much from its utter indifference to the suffering it inflicts in carrying out its singular objective as the mission itself. If it were not a machine, it would be a psychotic. But no psycho-babble “ism” can save its moral soul for there is no soul to save. Just a void filled by circuits and wires.
And if ever an actor and a role were so meant for each other, it was this one. In screenwriting it is often recommended that you create two antagonists (one greater, one lesser) for added complexity. But Arnold’s hyper-bad guy is all this flick needs to work. And the rest of the film’s pop classic status radiates directly from that central marriage of, literally, man and machine. Sometimes in Hollywood things just come together in a near-perfect fit. As a film that defined the 1980s and the Cold War good versus evil binary world in which we lived, where the threat of atomic destruction was ubiquitous, The Terminator represents just such a moment.