In the late ’70s and early ’80s, there was a wave of low-budget films hitting theaters, but they didn’t feel low-budget — they all had the aura of expensive blockbusters. I’m talking about flicks like The Howling, Scanners, and Escape From New York (all 1981), and directors like Joe Dante, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, and of course Cameron — directors who knew enough about the craft of filmmaking to stretch their shoestring budgets and create cool-looking movies.
Carpenter’s Escape From New York is a good example. The dilemma: how to make New York City look like a maximum-security prison in the near future with very little money? The early establishing shot of the Manhattan skyline is a matte painting. But more important is the way Carpenter pans up from the set — created in Sepulveda Basin, California — to the night sky, then cuts from blackness to the matte shot, perfectly matching the lighting and camera movement so it appears to be one continuous shot.
Cameron served as a matte painter and special-effects cameraman on Escape From New York, but before that, he was a model builder who was quickly promoted to art director on Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), produced by Roger Corman. Cameron literally stapled empty egg cartons to the back wall of one of his alien-spaceship sets because it was cheap and he thought it would look cool. It was around this time that he met Gale Anne Hurd, who served as an assistant production manager on the film. A few years later, when Cameron started developing his idea about a cyborg assassin from the future, he brought Hurd on board to cowrite and produce.
What people tend to forget about The Terminator is what a great love story it is. Schwarzenegger may get top billing, but it’s Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn who carry the film. They have a lot of screen time together, and their characters’ growing affection for each other is very believable, not forced like it often is in big-budget summer action movies.
Biehn, as Kyle Reese, has the challenging task of providing most of the film’s exposition, but as he’s pointed out in interviews, Cameron wisely stages these scenes as characters are in motion. There’s a sense of urgency — they’re on the run from Schwarzenegger’s title character — with Reese behind the wheel of a stolen car, urgently explaining to Sarah Connor (Hamilton) the importance of her future son and how the Terminator “will not stop, ever, until you are dead!”
Seeing Hamilton as the demure waitress at the beginning of The Terminator is almost shocking if you know in advance where her character ends up — most of us remember Hamilton as the ultimate badass mother of John Connor in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (the image of her cocking the shotgun with one arm comes to mind). It’s a credit to her talent as an actor that she’s able to pull off all the stages of Sarah Connor’s evolution so convincingly.
Which brings us to the thespian talents of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Let’s ignore the fact that the Terminator can perfectly imitate any human voice to utter perfection, yet its “normal” speaking voice is the thick Austrian accent of a certain bodybuilder turned movie star turned governor. This is perhaps best illustrated when the Terminator is speaking to Sarah on the phone and flawlessly imitating the voice of her mother. The android gets the information it needs — a telephone number — then dials the number and blurts out “Gimme your add-dress dere,” as if Arnie was jacked up on Novocaine on that day of shooting.
But like I said, let’s ignore all that. Visually, Schwarzenegger’s portrayal of the Terminator is beyond chilling, especially the way his eyes move first and the rest of his head follows in the scenes where he’s driving around hunting for his prey. He makes us believe he’ll stop at nothing until his mission is carried out and Sarah Connor is dead.
Of course, one of the reasons why the movie works so well is the genius of special-effects artist Stan Winston (who died last year at 62 of multiple myeloma). Sure, some of the effects look dated by today’s standards: a couple of the Terminator endoskeleton shots are all too obviously stop-motion animation, and several of the close-up shots of the Terminator making repairs to his face are clearly showing a puppet, not Schwarzenegger (the occasional cut from Winston’s puppet to the actor’s real head is a little jarring). But really, most of the effects are truly amazing, especially considering the budget The Terminator‘s creators had to work with. For the most part the endoskeleton, designed by Winston from Cameron’s sketches, looks great. As Winston himself pointed out in one of the film’s DVD extras, the last shot of the endoskeleton in the factory’s metal press was achieved with foam core, silver paint, tin foil, and cigarette smoke. It’s the last time you see the Terminator in the movie.
Many of the film’s pickup shots, i.e. shots not filmed during principal photography, were done guerrilla style without any permits, including the shot of Schwarzenegger smashing his fist through a car window in broad daylight.
The budget for Terminator 2 was much higher; Schwarzenegger’s salary alone was several times the cost of the original film. It’s a very good sequel, taking the time-travel element in a different direction, with a finale that’s somewhat ambiguous and yet ultimately quite satisfying.
But in the same way that another James Cameron-helmed sequel, 1986’s Aliens, is the final word on the franchise Ridley Scott helped create in ’79 with Alien, T2 is really as far as you need to go in the series. (Admittedly, I write this without having seen any episodes of Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which was canceled back in the spring.) The most recent entry, Terminator Salvation, is kind of a fun summer action movie, but let’s just say that its director, McG, is no James Cameron.