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For those who don’t know, the future is bleak. At least in this movie universe. In 2029 Los Angeles, the night skies are patrolled by robot-controlled airships while armored machines trample the bones of the fallen in a ruined cityscape. They hunt the last surviving humans in a war raging for decades, ruthlessly corralling and mowing down the feeble resistance. The brave people who have risen up to face the machines live underground in squaller, like rodents in the shadows, desperately clinging to any hope of survival. But they have not given up. They are fierce and have a plan to defeat the metal malice. The final battle for humanity will not be fought in the this wasteland. It won’t even be fought in 2029.
In 1984, at Griffith Park Observatory in the middle of the night, a few streaks of electric blue light brightens the night and from its source emerges a giant of a man, nude and angular. He looks perfectly human, if not a little too perfect, glistening with perspiration. He casually strolls to the hilltop edge and looks down upon the shimmering city of Los Angeles in an ominous manner, then accosts three nearby punks, who initially mock him, but pay a horrible price for their efforts. He steals the clothes off one of them and heads away.
Meanwhile, in a back alley in the same city, a second circle of blue electric lights ripples between two buildings and a second figure appears. This man however, is not nearly as imposing, and unlike the one before, is visibly distressed by the event, writhing in agony before catching his bearings. Different from the faultless body of his smooth-skinned predecessor, his body is pockmarked with burn scars and healed bullet wounds. Also different from the first, he is seen by police and given chase after stealing the hobo’s pants. He escapes, but not before arming himself with a shotgun and pistol he steals from the cops.
Both are on the hunt for a woman named Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton). While it’s not known why at first, it is learned that she is the mother of the man who will lead the fight against the machines, and in order to prevent him from succeeding–since they can’t stop him in the future–the machines built a time traveling device and sent back a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a robot with a machine endoskeleton and human tissue for skin to kill his mother before he is born. To stop him, the humans send Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn).
Directed by James Cameron and written for the screen by Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd, The Terminator is a low-budget success story that paved the way for not only a franchise that is still going, but a whole new genre in sci-fi films. The story controversies aside, the film is expertly crafted and exceedingly well-paced with some excellent action pieces that were groundbreaking at the time. The opening moment and flash-forwards to a post apocalyptic landscape still are effective and the ominous score by Brad Fiedel add great depth to a story that is both well-acted and convincingly authentic. It works because the three leads find just the right tone and deliver from start to finish. Hamilton is wonderful as the woman thrust into an impossibly unbelievable situation as she must accept a stranger’s word, claiming a son she has yet to have has sent him there to stop a machine from the future from killing her. Biehn is her equal, breathlessly carrying the hope of the future into his past, trying to stay one step ahead of the robot. And it is the robot that seals the deal. It’s been well-documented that Schwarzenegger was not the studio’s first choice (O. J. Simpson had that distinction but Cameron believed he wouldn’t be convincing as a killer). In fact, Schwarzenegger was sought for the role of Reese, though after Cameron met him, that changed. If there was anyone meant to portray an unstoppable, mindless killing machine, it was Schwarzenegger, who, unaware of the creative genius he was about to be working for, thought his next film would be trash, low-budget enough that no one would see it. Instead, it became his defining work. Combining a Frankenstein monster appeal with cyborg assassin mentality, the bad guy character has since eclipsed its roots and become the hero, but here, in its debut, was a watershed moment for the big Austrian actor, borne of three simple words that define the series.
The Terminator, after killing Sarah Conner’s found in a phone book, finds the right one in a dance club, though she is rescued by Reese. He steals a car and escapes, momentarily, the pursuing machine. While fleeing, Reese tells her of the real future and why he has to protect her. Eventually, the Terminator catches up and after another short chase, the two cars crash in a parking garage. The robot escapes as the police arrest Kyle and Sarah. They are taken to the police station where psychologist Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen) declares Reese to be delusional after hearing his story. Lieutenant Traxler (Paul Winfield), brings the shaken Sarah to his office so she can lie down and rest on the sofa as they interrogate Reese. He explains that there’s not a safer place than the sofa as the building is filled with cops. There is an ominous ring to this assurance, and for good reason.
The Terminator enters the police station lobby calmly and approaches the desk officer, asking to see Sarah Conner, who he says is his friend. The officer tells him it’s not possible since she is taking a statement, so the Terminator pauses, sizes up the structure with a quick glance and tells the police officer, “I’ll be back.” End of scene, right? No.
He returns shortly thereafter, but this time not on foot. Now he’s in the driver’s side of a stolen car, ramming and smashing the vehicle through the front door and straight into the enclosed desk officer’s post, killing him as he crashes through the security gate. Armed with a 12 gauge Franchi SPAS-12 combat shotgun in one hand and a fully automatic Armalite AR-18 rifle in the other, the Terminator begins making his way through the station, shooting police along the way. With the building in chaos, Sarah panics and hides under a desk as cops race out to face the assailant. Meanwhile, Reese escapes his interrogation room and enters the fray determined to find Sarah and get her out.
So why is it great, aside from being just plain cool. Sure the moment and its iconic line may seem obvious by today’s standards but its impact in the story and on cinema as a whole can’t be overstated. While implied prior, the notion of the Terminator as an “unstoppable” force is firmly established here, creating the dynamic that will color the series ever after. Prior to this scene, Reese had explained to Sarah about where he comes from and about the non-stop killing machine he was sent back to protect her from, but like her, we aren’t fully appreciative of that description until now, when a station full of highly-trained police officers and armed detectives are wholly incapable of even slowing the cybernetic assassin down. As he takes gunfire with barely a flinch, we realize that Reese was not only telling the truth, he has every right to be concerned. This is a highly-motived, powerfully-driven machine. And it has one purpose. Because so, it creates one of the greatest conflicts (and showdowns) in science fiction. Or any genre for that matter.
It’s easy to dismiss the relevance of “I’ll be back,”, especially as the words themselves have basically become a catch phrase joke, brought full circle in Schwarzenegger’s own film, Last Action Hero. Yet these three words are some of the most famous ever spoken in movies, and have transcended the film itself, basically a meme before memes were even a thing. The simplicity of the reply, the delivery by its mostly monosyllabic speaker, and the underlying context of what it means come together in near perfect poetic fashion as Cameron paces and film’s the short sequence with subtle but nuanced clues, having the Terminator give the wood and glass framed lobby a glance before leaning in to say he’ll be back. Of course, we know now he’s checking the stability and integrity of the construction, and not so much announcing a casual intention but stating an actual fact. When he departs, we believe, just as the cop on duty, that he in fact will come back later. But Cameron then gives us a few shots of the officer, his pencil busily scribbling on the blotter, and we become suspicious something isn’t kosher. We are right to believe so.
We are bracing for gunfire of course, but what we get is a car, and that one startling action as it demolishes the front doors and partition, giving the Terminator access to the back of the station, is so unexpected and fresh, the first time you see it, it’s almost exhilarating. With his words still lingering in our heads, the Terminator makes good on his promise, and then some. We see that while it is a cold, determined machine with a singular mission, it is also highly intelligent, able to adapt and plan. This, despite no outward attempts to showcase it, comes through in fine layers and we learn to anticipate and even expect it to react as such. A blunt force weapon by appearance, the Terminatory is a precision tool of destruction with a deeply perceptive and calculating intellect. That makes it all the more terrifying. And we get that with just three simple words.
The legacy of this moment can’t be undervalued, nor the film entire. The comic-book-come-to-life style, fast pacing, focus on explosive action, and jarring violence were one thing, but the high concept made it all the more satisfying, and made reason for discussion well after it was over. Cameron’s editing and kinetic direction are still widely discussed, and despite the humor associated with it now, “I’ll be back” has become one of the most endearing lines in film history (one that Schwarzenegger initially thought should be, “I will be back,” thinking that the contraction would be something Terminators would not be able to grasp). It spawned a love and fascination for a character that has become one of the most recognizable in all of cinema history.
Director: James Cameron
Writers: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Paul Winfield