Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003, Jonathan Mostow)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A few years after his encounter with a cyborg assassin from the future, John Connor faces another deadly threat…

Main characters:

 * Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career had been tailing off alarmingly in the lead-up to this third Terminator movie. Bored perhaps of the diminishing returns of his late-90s action duds, he returned to his most notable role 19 years since his debut in the series… When this film’s T-800 arrives in the present day – we all know the time-traveller-from-the-future score by now, right? – he has the same mission as his predecessor in Terminator 2: to protect John Connor from an assassination attempt. He hunts for John and finds him just in time to save the now 20-something from another Terminator, a stern, expressionless, female-looking cyborg called a T-X. After a few major action sequences, he gets John and his friend Kate to safety, then the plot kicks into another gear at the hour mark when the T-800 reveals that Kate’s dad holds the key to Skynet taking over the world… which is about to enter a nuclear winter later that day. The cyborg wants to take John and Kate to Mexico, to avoid the fallout from the first bombs, but John argues that they need to stop the self-aware computer system Skynet from starting its attack… In his third go at this character type, Schwarzenegger – now in his mid-50s – still has the expressionless face and drone voice. But the steel and intensity from the first film have gone. So too has the character development from the second. 

* In the first of many lazily sexist aspects of the character, when the T-X (played by Kristanna Loken) time-travels into the present day she lands in the shop window of an upmarket clothes store. Ha, ha – women really like clothes, right? As with the previous Terminators earlier in the series, she’s naked when he arrives – so quickly steals a passing woman’s tight-fitting leather suit. Then, when the cops pull her over for speeding, the T-X takes inspiration from a nearby Victoria’s Secret billboard and artificially enlarges her breasts. She’s also later jokingly called the Terminatrix. (It’s all a far cry from Arnie’s intimidating ‘Your clothes: given them to me’ in the 1984 movie.) The T-X’s mission differs from Arnie in film one and the T-1000 in film two. As she doesn’t know where John Connor is in this time period, she wants to murder the young people who will grow up to be his associates and allies; they’re all now innocent kids going about their lives. A cross between the metallic, battering-ram rigidity of a T-800 and the fluid, restorative nature of the T-1000, the T-X has some nifty qualities. She can analysis blood by licking it – another idea you can imagine the writers jumping to because they knew the character would be played by an attractive woman – and can remotely control other machines (such as cars). She lacks the impact of her forebears. She also doesn’t have the James Cameron-style sci-fi plausibility of the earlier bad guys, coming off more like a comic-book villain.

* John Connor is lost when we first meet him, in more ways than one. Judgment Day never happened, thanks to his and his mother’s efforts in Terminator 2, but now the grown-up John lives off the grid, drifting from job to job and having nightmares. (He’s also all alone in the world: mum Sarah died of leukaemia not long after averting the end of the world.) When he breaks into a veterinarians’ to steal some painkillers for a leg injury, the wiry and jumpy John encounters an old school friend who works there – Kate Brewster, with whom he once shared a childhood kiss. Then two Terminators show up – one out to kill him, one out to protect him. Kate is also a target because, we learn, she will one day marry John and be his closest advisor in the future war with the machines. (Yes, that’s right: it turns out that the events of the previous film have only *delayed* Judgment Day, not written it off entirely. The enigmatic empty-road metaphor that ended T2 is well and truly pissed on.) When John and Kate team up with their protector from the future, the T-800, John has to be a bit of a moron for script-exposition reasons and keep forgetting that this cyborg is not the same one he met when he was 10. But when he realises there’s a chance to stop Judgment Day (again), John smartens up and shows some of the leadership qualities we’ve always been told he has. He orders the T-800 to help him and Kate reach the Skynet central computer so they can destroy it before it launches its attack on humanity… T2’s Edward Furlong was originally signed up to reprise the role, but was going through some much-publicised drug problems, so a change was decided upon. Drafted in to replace him was Nick Stahl (who’s actually two years younger than Furlong). He gives a decent enough performance, but because the character is damaged and lonely and bitter, he can’t bring in any of the cheek and swagger that Furlong had established.

* Kate is a young woman who thinks she has a nice-enough life: a fiancé, a job, a good relationship with her loving dad. But all that comes crashing down quickly. When she’s called to the vets’ surgery where she works at 4am to deal with an anxious cat-lady, she finds John – who she recognises from her school days – hiding in the back room. He tries to take her hostage, but she disarms him with ease and locks him up while she calls the cops. However, then the T-X shows up intent on killing them both… Kate is another character initially cast with someone else, but Sophia Bush was released after a month of filming because it was deemed she looked too young. Claire Danes replaced her and gives a fairly vanilla performance.

Other characters:
* Kate’s boyfriend, Scott Mason (Mark Farniglietti), seems a pretty boring bloke so it’s not a huge tug on our emotions when he’s brutally killed and then impersonated by the T-X.
* Kate’s dad, Lieutenant General Robert Brewster (David Andrews), is a military bigwig at a US military base inside a mountain. He’s the programme director of Cyber Research Systems, an autonomous weapons division… In other words, Skynet – the operating system that will eventually become sentient and declare war on humanity. At the start of the story, he’s dealing with a computer virus and is urged by a colleague to use a revolutionary new AI to clear out the problem. However, Lieutenant General Brewster wants to keep ‘humans in the loop.’ When various civilian and military computer systems begin crashing, he has no option to activate Skynet… which immediately locks itself off and takes over.
* A secondary character from the first two Terminator movies, Dr Silberman (Earl Boen), gets a superfluous, silly and irritating cameo during a sequence at the tomb that supposedly houses Sarah Connor’s remains. (The T-800 reveals that she was actually cremated; the tomb is a secret weapons store.)
* In a scene cut from the finished film, Arnold Schwarzenegger played another character. Sergeant Candy is the US serviceman who’s been chosen to be the model for a new line of human-looking super soldier. In other words, the T-800s Arnie has been playing since 1984. Candy’s accent is Southern American, but it’s said they can replace that with something more neutral. Probably best this piece of continuity-woven nonsense was dropped.

Where: John moves around early in the film, appearing in various unspecified areas of America. The T-X arrives in Beverly Hills; the T-800 in the desert outside LA. After locating John and Kate, the T-800 drives them south back into the desert – intent on heading into Mexico. Then stop off at a cemetery before heading to a military research base two hours’ drive away and then ultimately the Crystal Peak instillation in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

When: Okay, things are getting complicated now. In voiceover, John tells us that the events of Terminator 2 happened over 10 years ago. That means this film’s story is playing out two or three years into the future (its cinema release was in 2003). However, John also claims that he was 13 when he encountered the T-1000. Given that it’s been established that John was born in 1985 and Judgment Day was due in 1997, the stated age of 13 seems to be a continuity error based on the age of actor Edward Furlong, who was 13 when he played John in the second film. We’re also now in a new timeline where that Judgment Day didn’t happen, of course, which causes all kinds of logical complexities that we’d be better off ignoring. The present scenes in Terminator 3 begin during night – it’s late enough that a shopping district is deserted, but a nightclub is still open – and continues through the next day, which is the delayed Judgment Day. It’s due to kick off at 6.18pm.

I’ll be back: Given that the threat in this film looks like a woman, Arnie gives his catchphrase a twist: referring to the T-X, he says, ‘She’ll be back.’ Later, she completes the gag when she says, ‘I’m back,’ after emerging from the wreck of a crashed helicopter. Arnie also says later ‘I’m back,’ when the T-800 comes out of a reprogrammed befuddlement. Since the previous Terminator movie, Schwarzenegger had continued to treat audiences to his favourite phrase, almost like a singer wheeling out an old hit. In 1993’s Last Action Hero,­ a clever spoof of the type of movies that had made Arnie’s name,­ his character, Jack Slade, tells a young friend, ‘I’ll be back… Ha, you didn’t know I was going to say that, did you?’ The lad, Danny, who is aware of his Schwarzenegger’s fictional persona, is unimpressed: ‘That’s what you always say… Everybody waits for you to say it. It’s like your calling card.’ The phrase is quoted a couple of other times elsewhere in the film too, then appeared in 1994 comedy Junior (‘It’s nice to be back’) and the terrible sci-fi flick The 6th Day in 2000 (‘I might be back,’ Arnie says to a sales assistant. ‘Oh, you’ll be back,’ comes the knowing reply).

Review: There’s a definite drop-off of quality from the first two Terminator movies, almost inevitably because writer/director James Cameron was not involved. (He’d sold his interest in the franchise to other producers.) For one thing, there’s little intrigue in the storytelling. It’s assumed that we’ve all seen the earlier films and no attempt is made to disguise what’s going on, so everything feels very ‘surface’. Elements of goofy humour – Arnie deadpan as he puts on disco sunglasses is the worst offender – have crept in, and there’s a sense that the filmmakers have thrown in sequences and moments on the basis of ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if?’ rather than character-based scripting. Did we really need a tiresome cameo from Sarah Connor’s psychiatric doctor? Did Sarah’s will stipulate that her stash of guns should be buried in a tomb for any reason other than a director’s wish for a cool shot as Arnold Schwarzenegger carries a casket on his shoulder while firing at police officers? However, there are also undoubted plusses. Terminator 3 is a competently shot movie and is pacey enough to keep the interest. Some of the action is world-class, especially the truly great chase sequence that sees the T-X hounding our heroes in a crane-truck, which is bombastic and enormously loud and destructive yet also staged and shot clearly and precisely for maximum impact. In its second half, the film also pulls of a bravado rug-pull. During their attempt to stop Skynet, John and Kate are told that the central operating system is contained in a bunker inside a mountain in Nevada. They race there with the help of the T-800, all the while chased by the T-X. But it was a con. The mountain base doesn’t contain the means to defeat Skynet. It’s a fallout shelter designed for VIPs. John and Kate realise there was never any way to stop Judgment Day. It was about surviving it so they could run the human resistance.

Seven hands (talk to them) out of 10

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, James Cameron)

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NOTE: This is a review of the original cut of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, as released in 1991. A blog on the extended Special Edition will follow at a later date.

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A few years after his mother was targeted by a robotic killer from the future, the young John Connor must go on the run – but like his mother before him he has a protector…

Main characters:

* The cyborg known as a T-800 may be played by Arnold Schwarzenegger (now an enormous star who commanded a fee of $15 million). But this is not the same character we saw in The Terminator. It’s a different iteration of the same factory-produced model. When he arrives in the present in a flash of kinetic electricity, having time-travelled from the year 2029, it’s a scene that reminds us of the T-800’s entrance into the original Terminator film. He then coldly attacks a heavy-set biker in order to acquire ‘his clothes, his boots and his motorcycle’, so we’re primed to assume that this T-800 is bad news like his earlier counterpart. He searches for the child John Connor – the son of the first film’s Sarah, who we know will grow up to be an inspirational leader in the future war with the machines – and randomly spots him after driving around LA for a while. But then the cyborg *saves* John from another Terminator who’s trying to kill him, and we instantly understand the film’s cheeky conceit (admittedly, a plot twist that almost every audience member will have known before going in, thanks to trailers and word of mouth). Schwarzenegger’s T-800 has been reprogrammed and has actually been sent back in time to *protect* John from an assassination attempt. For the remainder of the story, he carries out his mission with unshakable commitment… As with the first film, this role is the finest of Schwarzenegger’s career. It’s true that part of the reason is that the T-800 doesn’t require much emotional acting or many nuanced line-deliveries, things Arnie has traditionally struggled with, but this is not totally a back-handed compliment. The actor’s undoubted presence – not just his size, but his posture and movement and gaze – are simpatico with the character. It’s difficult to imagine anyone playing the part more effectively.

* When the new Terminator – known as a T-1000 – arrives in the present, early scenes make us think of the Kyle Reese character from the original movie (further setting up the twist to come). But we also recognise that something is ‘off’. This guy kills a cop and steals his identity – all the better for tracking down John Connor, detective-like. When he finally does encounter John at a shopping mall, he’s about to strike when the T-800 intervenes and shoots him several times… but each bullet hit is harmlessly soaked up into the T-1000’s chrome-coloured liquid innards. We discover that this Terminator is composed entirely of a durable, pliable and intelligent fluid metal and can metamorphise into any solid object of comparable size – including people. (Writer/director James Cameron came up with a term to explain the character’s base material: ‘mimetic poly alloy’.) Played with granite conviction and actually quite a bit of charm by the hawkeyed Robert Patrick, and sometimes realised by cutting-edge CGI, the T-1000 is an amazing creation. Sequels can’t just trot out the same idea again, and making this film’s threat so different and fresh adds a huge amount of danger and tension to the story. For most of its running time, our heroes have no idea in the slightest how they’re going to stop him.

* John Connor, who we saw being conceived during the first movie, is now a rebellious 10-year-old who talks back to his foster parents and steals cash from ATMs. Estranged from his mother, he’s clearly a troubled lad who likes to ride his bike around the city to the sound of Guns N’Roses. The then-unknown Edward Furlong is really good in the part, largely because he brings no cuteness to it at all. This is a cynical, wise-beyond-his-years character who swears and knows how to use weapons, and Furlong’s sassy attitude works really well. He also has genuine chemistry with Arnold Schwarzenegger once the T-800 has convinced John to trust him…. and especially after John realises that his future self has reprogrammed the cyborg to accept any command John gives him. He even tries to humanise the T-800 by teaching him slang and sarcasm (‘Hasta la vista, baby!’), which works as both light relief and character development. But John also decides on a risky mission: once he knows about the T-1000 he insists that they go and rescue his mother, Sarah, who has been committed to a psychiatric hospital. Once they successfully get her free and evade another murderous attempt from the T-1000, John is disappointed that his mum seems more concerned in his physical state than in an emotional reunion. The latter takes more time, but comes both gradually and believably. (At the beginning of the film, we see a 44-year-old John Connor during a flash-forward to the future war. He’s played by Michael Edwards, a former boyfriend of Priscilla Presley.)

* It’s clear straightaway that Sarah Connor has undergone a *massive* change since the first film. Not only is she institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital, but as her opening close-up emphasises she’s now muscular, intense and serious. The former happy-go-lucky waitress been diagnosed with acute schizo-affective disorder – delusions, depression, violent outbursts – which we realise has been brought on by the fact she knows the world is due to end in 1997. So we’re presented with a beloved character who is now radically different and yet who we still recognise as the same person underneath. It’s great writing from James Cameron, but it’s also undeniably great acting from Linda Hamilton: this is a blistering performance of primal power, full of aggression and complexity. When refused permission to see her son, Sarah begins a daring escape of the prison-like hospital… and due to Hollywood storytelling, her attempt comes on the very night that John and two Terminators are converging on the building looking for her. The moment when she first sees the T-800 – which of course instantly terrorises her, due to her experiences in film one – is shot with nightmare-evoking slo-mo and is hugely effective. (‘Come with me if you want to live,’ he says, significantly quoting Kyle from the first film.) But after her initial shock, she learns that this T-800 is on her and John’s side. Very slowly, she even begins to trust and genuinely befriend him. The last third of the movie is then kicked off when Sarah learns from her new ally how Judgment Day will come about. A scientist called Miles Dyson will develop a revolutionary new micro-processor that will eventually lead to sentient machines who want to do away with humanity. So without telling John or the T-800 she suits up with some weapons, and heads off to kill him…

Other characters:
* John’s foster parents are a working-class couple called Janelle (James Cameron regular Jenette Goldstein) and Todd Voight (Xander Berkeley). She seems to be trying to do a decent job, but Todd is a pessimistic layabout. When the T-1000 needs to find John, he kills Janelle and impersonates her while he waits for the boy to call home. When John does so, Todd’s bitching gets so irritating that the T-1000 simply kills him too.
* John’s best pal is the ginger-mulletted Tim (Danny Cooksey). A savvy little kid, he lies that he doesn’t know John when a cop (ie, the T-1000 in disguise) asks after him.
* Dr Silberman (Earl Boen) returns from the first film; Sarah has become something of a career case for him, though he still assumes that all her talk of robots and time-travel and the end of the world is delusional nonsense.
* Miles Dyson (Joe Morton, terrific) is the director of special projects at the Cyberdyne Systems Corporation. The company has in its possession a microchip and a mechanical arm recovered from the first film’s T-800 and Dyson is leading the research into this radical technology. (The implication, which was explicit in a scene cut out of 1984’s The Terminator, is that the factory where Sarah killed the cyborg in that movie was Cyberdyne property. Hashtag bootstrap paradox.) He’s not a selfish, careless mad scientist but rather a decent family man. After Sarah’s conscience prevents her from murdering him, he’s aghast to be told what his work will lead to, so offers to help destroy all the evidence.

Where: We’re mostly in Los Angeles again. John’s foster parents’ house and the shopping mall where he encounters both Terminators are in the San Fernando Valley neighbourhood of Reseda. Later, after her break-out from the hospital, Sarah, John and the T-800 flee the city. ‘Just head south,’ says Sarah, and they drive into the desert. They eventually hook up with a Mexican family who Sarah and John know of old.

When: The ‘present’ story begins at night, carries on through the following two days and ends before dawn on the third – so takes place over not much more than 48 hours. The first movie had internal evidence that its main storyline took place in either 1983 or 1984, and the latter year is confirmed here in both a voiceover from Sarah and when we see John Connor’s date of birth on a monitor screen (28 February 1985, which means he was conceived the previous May). But John in this film is clearly not six years old so we’re obviously not in 1991, the year of Terminator 2’s release. John is now 10 (which is just about plausible: actor Edward Furlong was 13 during filming) and the story is set in 1995. There’s a continuity error, however, when the T-800 tells Sarah what is due to happen in the coming few years. Our terminus ad quem – or to put it in a less pretentious way, the date before which this story must be set – is 29 August 1997, which Sarah says is when the upcoming apocalypse will occur. Despite that being only two years away, the T-800 explains that Cyberdyne will start to supply the military with computer systems in three years’ time. (In real life, incidentally, 29 August 1997 was the day Netflix launched as a DVD-rental service. So when your on-demand service tries taking over the world, you can’t claim the clues weren’t there.) We also see 2029 in a brief flash-forward to the war.

I’ll be back: Since the first Terminator movie, Arnie had playfully quoted his catchphrase in some unrelated films. Along with his bulk and his accent it was a key part of his Hollywood persona. The first instance came in 1985’s endlessly enjoyable action film Commando (‘I’ll be back, Bennett!’), then over the next few years it was alluded to in violent cop movie Raw Deal (‘I’ll be right back’), media satire The Running Man (‘Killian, I’ll be back!’), likeable comedy Twins (‘If you’re lying to me, I’ll be back!’), entertaining sci-fi thriller Total Recall (‘I’ll be back!’) and so-so family film Kindergarten Cop (‘I’m back!’). So when reprising his most famous role, it was obvious that he would also reprise his most famous line. But where would James Cameron fit it in? We actually have to wait quite a way into the film, over 90 minutes. While trying to escape the Cyberdyne offices, Sarah, John and the T-800 are trapped in a lift. Cops have arrived and flooded the lobby with teargas, meaning no escape. But then we realise that the T-800 doesn’t need to breathe. ‘Stay here,’ says Arnie with a slight smirk. ‘I’ll be back.’ He then leaves the lift, deals with the cops, and returns for his human colleagues in a van.

Review: James Cameron had form for this kind of thing. Not long after making the original Terminator film, he had been hired to write and direct a sequel to another recent sci-fi classic. Aliens, his 1986 follow-up to Ridley Scott’s stratospherically wonderful Alien (1979), was at least the equal of its predecessor – some would say it surpassed it – and Cameron achieved this by doing something very clever indeed. In essence he repeated the first film’s premise (a monstrous threat terrorising humans), but now played it out in a different format (a war movie rather than a horror). The resulting film is absolutely related to its forebear spiritually and thematically, but it also has its own unique attitude and style. So, when it came time to create a sequel to The Terminator, Cameron used the same trick. Intense, pacey and thrilling, T2 is unquestionably in the same vein as the first film. It has the same slick, precise storytelling, the same apocalyptic concerns, the same attention to character. But it’s also bolder, deeper, larger in scale, and quite obviously made on a bigger budget. Cameron had actually started his career in frugal filmmaking, cutting his teeth on Heath Robinson-like Roger Corman productions, but here he is spending $100 million (a record movie budget in 1991, some of which was paid for by sprinkling the Pepsi logo throughout many scenes!). All this means that, instead of the first Terminator’s thrilling rawness and punky edges, we now get an unparalleled Hollywood sheen. This is a supremely confident film, made by a skilled crew going all-out to do their best work. The revolutionary computer-generated special effects, for example – which build on similar images on Cameron’s previous film The Abyss – threw us back into our seats in 1991 and are still enormously impressive today. Crucially they’re deployed sparingly, surgically, and are always focused on telling the story. It’s not just the CGI used for the fluid movements of the T-1000; there are also numerous in-camera techniques such as prosthetics, puppets, models and rear-projection screens. Just generally, the movie is a visual marvel: the action is tough and huge and powerful and visceral, everything is photographed beautifully (check out the blues hues for the night scenes) and the editing is unimprovable. But all of that only goes so far, of course. A great film needs great characters and a great story – and T2 exceeds in these areas too. In another echo of Aliens, this script neatly builds a family unit for us to follow and root for: instead of Ripley, Hicks and Newt as the parents and child, we have Sarah, the T-800 and John. Watching their triangular bond develop as the film progresses is a genuine joy, and more importantly the process increases how much we care about them. If all that wasn’t enough, the whole enterprise is also founded on one of the best reversals of expectation in genre-cinema history. Arnold Schwarzenegger – an embodiment of terror and savagery and brutality in the first film – is now playing a protective good guy. What a brilliant coup.

Ten thumbs-up out of 10

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The Terminator (1984, James Cameron)

TheTerminator

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A cyborg is sent back in time to 1984, intent on killing a woman called Sarah Connor. Her only hope is a man from the future with a secret…

Main characters:

* The star of the show is Linda Hamilton. She’d just made the horror film Children of the Corn, but The Terminator took her to a whole new level: one of a science-fiction icon. As the story begins her character, Sarah Connor, is an everyday young woman living an unambitious but happy-enough life in Los Angeles. A bright, likeable person who works as a waitress at a diner called Big Jeff’s, Sarah shares an apartment with her gregarious friend Ginger and – how’s this for an oddball detail? – a pet iguana. But her life is turned upside down when she realises that someone is murdering local women who share her name. The killer, a slow-moving but extremely powerful assassin displaying no emotion, then catches up with her and is about to pull the trigger… when another man saves her life and they go on the run together. The nervous and intense Kyle Reese tells her that he’s been sent back in time. His mission is to save her from a part-organic android called a Terminator, which wants to kill her before she can conceive her son – a son who will grow up to be an important military leader in a future war against self-aware machines. As you’ll appreciate, this is a lot of information for Sarah to take in. But when she later sees the relentlessly savage Terminator in action, she’s convinced by the outlandish story. She also starts to bond with kindly Kyle and they eventually sleep together… Sarah Connor is so much more than a stereotypical girl-in-danger. As the story develops we see her grow and learn. Bit by bit, she becomes more assertive and more confident, eventually taking the lead in her and Kyle’s attempt to evade the Terminator (‘On your feet, soldier! On your feet!’), yet we always recognise her as a human being with fears and doubts. Hamilton gives an absolutely terrific performance, selling every phase of her character’s journey, every shade of her personality. (The actress later married The Terminator’s writer/director, James Cameron.)

* Kyle Reese is a sombre and serious man in his 20s; his lack of humour is understandable given that he grew up in a 21st century ravaged by a guerrilla warfare with sentient machines. His mission is to protect Sarah from the Terminator, and he knew before he time-travelled that it was a one-way journey into the past. Suffering from nightmares and post-traumatic flinches, as well as physical scars from his war experiences, he seems singularly devoted to Sarah – and it’s only gradually that we realise why. In the future, Kyle was a colleague and friend of Sarah’s grown-up son, John. Through him he learnt about and fell in love with Sarah. By that time she had proved herself as a fearless leader in her own right as well as being the mother of humanity’s saviour, the Mary to John’s Jesus. Where Sarah is in this future – whether she’s died, for example, or is a 70-year-old elder stateswoman – is never explained, but Kyle hadn’t met her before he travelled to the 1980s. So rather than personal experience, his devotion developed through John’s stories and a single Polaroid of a young Sarah looking wistful. ‘I came through time for you, Sarah,’ he tells her as they grow close while on the run from the Terminator. They soon have sex in a motel room – it was the first sex scene your current blogger ever saw, aged about seven or eight – and the implication is clear: they’ve just conceived John…  Playing Kyle is Michael Biehn, one of those actors whose career contains two or three very high points but a surprising amount of trash too. He gives classy, interesting and very effective performances in three successful films written and directed by James Cameron – The Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss.

* For the role of the T-800, the robotic killing machine from the future, Cameron wanted to cast someone who could blend into a crowd. He initially plumped for Lance Henriksen (who was later given a different role in the film) while ex-NFL player and future jailbird OJ Simpson was also considered. But when Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigned for the part, it made business sense to cast the Austrian. He’d just had a big hit with Conan the Barbarian and his star was on the rise… It did mean a rethink of the character, however: the Terminator would now be significantly more ostentatious and noticeable. His first scene sees him arriving in the 1980s, totally naked and looking carved and chiselled like a statue of a Greek god. He’s also often filmed from below and framed like he’s a giant, adding to the sense that this machine is an unstoppable force. (In reality, Arnie’s height has long been a bone of contention. He claims to be 6’2”, but some have said he’s actually under six feet and wears lifts in his shoes.) Even if the original idea of an assassin looking like an everyman makes more sense, in this film you can still see a pop-culture icon being created before your eyes: the looming walk, the steely gaze, the dispassionate intent, the monotone voice, the Teutonic accent, the dry humour (‘Fuck you, asshole’), the brutal violence. Famously, the character only has 16 lines of dialogue in the whole movie. Shakespeare’s Hamlet has 100 times as many – 1,569 of them – in *his* eponymous story. But which one looks better punching a car window in, eh?

Other characters:
* There’s the aforementioned Ginger (Bess Motta) and her sex-mad boyfriend, Matt (Ross Rossovich), who are both victims of the Terminator when he comes looking for Sarah.
* Early in the film, the T-800 encounters a street gang and kills two members before stealing the clothes of a third. One of them is played by the great, sadly late Bill Paxton who pops in his small role (‘I think this guy’s a couple of cans short of a six-pack’) and soon had an impressive CV that included James Cameron’s Aliens and Titanic among much else.
* The sequences involving the police focus on the fatherly and deadpan Lieutenant Ed Traxler (Paul Winfield) and his gleefully cynical sidekick, Sergeant Hal Vukovich (Lance Henriksen). When they arrest Kyle, he keeps blabbing about being from the future, so Traxler and Vukovich call in a criminal psychologist called Dr Silberman (Earl Boen) who doesn’t have much sympathy for Kyle’s fantastical story.
* Although not a hugely important character, I mention Sarah’s co-worker Nancy (Shawn Schepps) because she has one of my favourite lines of dialogue in cinema history. Early in the story, during a busy shift at the diner, Sarah is dealing with customers who are complaining about her getting their orders wrong. Then a cheeky kid deliberately plops a dollop of ice cream into her pocket. Sarah sighs with quiet frustration. Nancy breezes over and says: ‘Look at it this way: in a hundred years, who’s gonna care?’ I say that mantra to myself after every one of life’s frustrations.

Where: Most of the film is set in and around Los Angeles. In a coda scene, Sarah is seemingly in Mexico. The Terminator’s LA is a grimy, crime-y city. We see suburbia briefly but there’s little glamour or glitz or showbiz here; instead it’s a place of rundown streets, gangs, hobos, cynical cops, punky nightclubs, flophouses and construction sites. It’s also often dark and threatening: around 90 per cent of this movie is set at night. One location with a surprising legacy is a nightclub called Tech Noir (entry fee: $4.50). Spooked by news stories of other Sarah Connors being murdered, and sensing that a strange man is following her (it turns out to be Kyle), our Sarah ducks inside a club to use its phone. This is where the Terminator first catches up with her, and where Kyle first intercedes (‘Come with me if you want to live,’ he says, coining a franchise catchphrase). So Tech Noir is very important to the story. It also had an effect outside the fiction. The Terminator is part of a sub-genre of movies that blend science-fiction ideas with film-noir stylistics – Blade Runner is its key text – and the nightclub gave the concept a name.

When: The bulk of the story takes place over about 54 hours. According to a line of dialogue, we start in the early hours of Thursday 12 May and events progress until daylight on Saturday morning. It’s usually assumed that the film is set in 1984, the year it was released, but 12 May 1984 was a Saturday. The date works if it’s 1983. (Having said all that, at one point we catch sight of Sarah’s timecard when she clocks in at work – and that’s for a pay period that will end on 19 May 1984. Time-travel stories, eh?) Kyle also experiences a series of flashbacks to his earlier life in the year 2029, and there’s a coda scene set several months after the defeat of the Terminator.

I’ll be back: After about 57 minutes of the film, Sarah and Kyle are at a police station. The latter is under arrest, while the former is being cared for by officers who think she was Kyle’s hostage. In a neat piece of writing, Lt Traxler tells Sarah not to fret: ‘We got 30 cops in this building,’ he says, implying she’s completely safe. The Terminator then storms the station and dispassionately kills every single police officer in his attempt to find her… The moment when he gains entry is where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most infamous catchphrase was born. Walking into the quiet reception area, the T-800 asks to see Sarah Connor. A bored and distracted desk clerk tells him to return in the morning. The Terminator surveys the wooden-and-glass barrier that protects the station’s innards, then leans in and says, ‘I’ll be back.’ A few moments later he does so: in a high-speed car, that crashes through and destroys the station’s lobby… It wasn’t written as an arch piece of ‘movie dialogue’ – James Cameron was going for underplayed irony that would only ping on repeat viewings – but the phrase ‘I’ll be back’ quickly took on a life of its own. It’s been reprised in all the Terminator sequels, as well as several other Schwarzenegger movies.

Review: The idea for The Terminator came to James Cameron in a fever dream while he lay ill in an Italian hotel bedroom (‘It was this chrome skeleton emerging phoenix-like out of the fire’) and that nightmarish quality purveys throughout the movie. There’s a bleak, edgy, violent tone, almost like a Halloween-style slasher film. The incidental music is percussive and unsettling – all harsh clangs, eerie drones and mournful electro washes – rather than a Hollywood score of reassuring lushness. And Cameron’s masterful control of pace and point of view creates tension right from the word go: we feel like we’re experiencing events along with Sarah and Kyle, rather than being objective viewers. The story is simple. It’s a chase movie with the good guys evading the bad. But for various reasons, we’re gripped and intrigued throughout. One is that the sharp script centres on extreme situations, and has no interest in anything that doesn’t help tell the story. Another is that the characters feel like they have lives that exist beyond the barriers of the fiction (Sarah has easy-going, natural friendships; Traxler is clearly a cop who deals with difficult cases on a daily basis; what we see of Kyle’s war service seems like the traumatic tip of an horrific iceberg). There’s also the thematic unity of the movie, which expertly supports a central idea – a machine attempting to kill a human being – with numerous examples of technology being unhelpful. A construction site reminds Kyle of the mechanical war engines of his youth. Ginger doesn’t hear her boyfriend being killed because her Walkman headphones are too loud. The Terminator locates Sarah by listening to an answerphone message. Dr Silberman’s misses seeing the Terminator because his beeper distracts him. But these conceptual jokes never get in the way or draw attention to themselves; they’re part of a fully realised vision, which is exciting, suspenseful and packs a hell of a lot into a lean, trim running time of 103 minutes. The high-octane final 15 minutes are then breathlessly brilliant and focused, almost like a modern action thriller has time-travelled back 35 years to terrorise 1980s cinema. And just when you think it’s peaked with an enormous explosion, we get a then-innovative false ending: the Terminator emerges phoenix-like out of the fire, kicking the movie into an ever higher gear. A masterpiece.

Ten nice nights for a walk out of 10