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

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

Terminator3Arnie

Watched: 1 December 2019
Format: A DVD from my collection.
Seen before? Yes, at the cinema on 19 August 2003 and a couple of times since.

Note: I have already reviewed this film as part of another blogging series – you can read it here. So instead of focusing on the film itself, this article is about how its iconic star turned his back on acting soon after the movie’s release…

Review: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s final films before his move into professional politics. He announced his candidacy for Governor of California in August 2003, just six days after T3 had been released in the United Kingdom, and then won a recall election in October. Almost inevitably, he was soon nicknamed the Governator.

He’d made no secret of his electoral ambitions while an actor, talking publicly about his Republican leanings, attending a rally for George Bush Snr in 1988, and later serving in some ambassadorial-type roles for President Bush. Considered a moderate Republican – a centrist who advocated financial conservatism but also supported liberal issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage – Governor Schwarzenegger was initially a popular leader. For many, he came across as sensible, no-nonsense and conciliatory, even appointing a Democrat as his Chief of Staff. In 2006, he claimed a second term by a winning margin of more than a million votes. However, his approval rating dropped appreciably during his time in the Governor’s Mansion, finishing on a record low of 23 per cent, and he was dogged by allegations about sexual misconduct.

All this meant that Arnie’s movie appearances were put on ice for a few years, with the period 2003 to 2012 notable only for some cameos. He’d already filmed an ear-scrappingly awful appearance in 2004 adventure film Around the World in 80 Days before running for office, then he took time away from his political schedule to work briefly on comedy The Kid & I and action mash-up The Expendables.

An actor who deliberately engineers such a long break from a Hollywood career is an oddity. Studios clearly favour stars with recent cachet and assume audiences have short memories. So when Arnie returned to the movies full-time after seven years as California’s 38th Governor, he found that the world had moved on. He was now on a noticeably different level of the industry. It’s true that his star had begun to wane anyway, his appeal lessened by age, over-familiarity and the fact that his style of high-concept action film was going out of fashion. His starring roles in the years immediately before his gubernatorial adventure – End of Days, The 6th Day, Collateral Damage – were simply not in the same class as his 1980s heyday. But not playing a lead character for nearly a decade resulted in the post-Governor Arnie having to accept roles in what were essentially straight-to-video projects.

He starred as a sheriff in The Last Stand, a prisoner in Escape Plan, a SWAT team leader in Sabotage – undistinguished parts in films that most people have now forgotten. In fact, the return to the big time came only when Arnie went full circle. In 2015 and then again in 2019 he returned to the Terminator series, essentially short-circuiting the two halves of his movie career.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Another close friend I wanted to touch base with was Andy Vajna, who with his business partner, Mario Kassar, had produced Total Recall and Terminator 2 and owned the rights to Terminator 3… If they were enthusiastic [about Arnie’s political ambitions], I meant to hit them up for a lot of money for the campaign… When I went to their office to talk about the governorship in April 2001, I didn’t expect them to bring up Terminator 3. I’d signed a “deal memo” to star in it if it ever got made, but the project had been in development limbo for years… Jim Cameron had moved on to other projects, and as far as I knew, they didn’t have a director or a script. But as I made my pitch about politics, I saw them looking at me as if to say, “What the fuck are you talking about, running for governor?”‘

Seven nano-technological transjectors out of 10

Next: Red Sonja

REDUX REVIEW: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, James Cameron)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

Terminator2

Watched: 21 November 2019
Format: A DVD copy I’ve owned for many, many years.
Seen before? Yes, many times. This film was released when I was 12 years old – I sneaked into a cinema to see it.

Note: I’ve already reviewed this film, and you can read my thoughts here. So instead of going over old ground, this redux review will instead look at how wonder-director James Cameron actually damaged the film by giving us too much of a good thing… Spoilers ahead…

Review: When released in the UK in August 1991, Terminator 2: Judgment Day was so impressively sharp and focused that few viewers would have taken out a single frame. But what about adding some? Well, that’s what its writer/director, James Cameron, did when the movie was issued on VHS and LaserDisc in 1993. He used the opportunity to add back some footage he’d been persuaded to leave out of the theatrical release. For better or worse, this longer cut – known as the Special Edition – is now the default version of the film, being shown on television and released on home video as if the 1991 cut had never existed.

Cameron has form for this kind of thing. He likewise re-edited 1986’s Aliens and 1989’s The Abyss, releasing longer versions a few years after their cinema runs. In the cases of those sci-fi greats, the longer cuts were even better than what had come before. Both now had deeper, more resonant subplots that shed intriguing light on the main stories, as well as some fun extra details. Crucially, the pacing of neither film was damaged. Both still played extremely well.

Sadly, the same can’t be said about Terminator 2. An extra 16 minutes were added in 1993, coincidentally the same minute-count that Cameron had added to Aliens: Special Edition. However, a lot of the additions come during the middle phase of the story, meaning a tight, tense chase plot now feels a bit flabby. The result is *far* from awful. It’s still a wonderful movie, whichever version you watch. But by expanding Terminator 2, Cameron slackened the tightness and few of the extra moments justify their inclusion. 

Early in the film, for example, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is locked up in a psychiatric hospital. The heroine of 1984’s The Terminator has gone off-the-rails since her encounter with a time-travelling killer android, but we viewers know that her ‘paranoid’ ravings about the imminent end of the world are spot on. If being incarcerated wasn’t bad enough, the Special Edition has some bonus footage of the institution’s sadistic porters abusing her. The original cut had trimmed this plot point back to a perverted moment where one of them licks her face, but now they beat her with nightsticks. All this emphasises her awful existence some more, but the original cut played fine without it.

Also in these sequences, Sarah now has a lengthy dream in which her lost love, Kyle Reese, appears to her and tells her to stay strong for their 10-year-old son, John (Edward Furlong). The scene was Michael Biehn’s only contribution to the film, so he ended up being cut out entirely in 1991. It’s a decent character moment, for sure, but the movie didn’t suffer from its loss. We understand Sarah’s motivation perfectly well without it. More interesting is how the scene develops: after Kyle’s pep-talk, Sarah’s dream takes a very dark turn. In a brilliantly surreal moment, she runs (in nightmarish slo-mo) out of the hospital and straight into an idyllic park, where children are gleefully playing on slides and roundabouts. Sarah, of course, knows that the world is heading for an apocalypse – and her unconscious now conjures one up: a massive fireball that graphically rips across the whole area, blowing buildings down and immolating everyone in sight. Trapped behind a wire fence, Sarah screams until she too burns – and then she wakes up in the hospital. In the 1991 version of the film, she only describes this nightmare. Seeing it, rather than talking about it, has several advantages. It ramps up Sarah’s already intense fear; it’s a very visually striking sequence; and by using children it ties thematically to Sarah’s desperate need to protect her son.

Later, after John breaks Sarah free from the hospital, with help from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘good’ Terminator – the movie heads into its middle phase. The ‘bad’ Terminator, a T-1000 played by Robert Patrick, is chasing the others across country – and he’s intent on killing John, who is destined to grow up to be the leader of the human resistance in a war against sentient machines. James Cameron was a marvel at these kind of stories, building and maintaining suspense and mixing it with muscular action and character insights. In the theatrical release print, the balance was perfection. But in the longer cut, we now get quite a few extra dialogue exchanges between Sarah, John and Arnie’s T-800. Each moment is fine in and of itself: well written, well played, enjoyable. (Mostly: a quick scene of John trying to teach the T-800 how to smile is far too goofy.) But they all whiff of ‘deleted scene’ material. They underline or spell out subtexts that already exist in the 1991 version, and – more importantly – let too much air into the taut chase plot. The film is better without them, for the most part.

The one addition with the biggest claim on being an improvement is when John and Sarah operate on the T-800, who has revealed that he has a chip in his processor that prevents him from learning. It idea to deactivate it expands the nice character thread about John’s relationship with the T-800. While his mother considers Arnie to be purely a machine, John – who has already grown to trust the T-800 – knows he can crack the programming if they switch off the chip, and this will allow their ally to be his own person. It also shows us John’s burgeoning leadership skills, as he pushes through the plan and even confronts his mother when she attempts to destroy the chip. Moreover, the operation is dramatised via a sensationally complicated shot in which we see the side of the T-800’s head opened up, revealing the mechanical innards, while at the same time we can clearly see it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger sat in the chair.

How was it done? The shot is a mirror trick: near the camera is a prop head but we read it as Schwarzenegger facing a mirror. In fact, the mirror is an open break in the wall, through which is the real Arnie. Linda Hamilton is on one side of the divide, with her *twin sister* doubling her in the ‘reflection’. Terminator 2 has always been justly praised for its revolutionary CGI, but old-school gags like this make a film buff swoon.

Elsewhere, there are changes centred on the character of Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), the scientific engineer whose work will one day trigger the apocalypse. We now see more footage of him working at home, and his two young children playing in the house. There are also extra shots of Sarah outside the house as she gets ready to assassinate him. Again, it simply expands ideas and plot points that are already there in the 1991 cut, which sold the notion of Miles as a decent family man well enough.

That sums up the 1993 re-edit. It takes a spectacular action movie – one of the finest ever – and makes it longer. It adds, it expands, it over-explains. And in doing so, it reduces the effect and the power. Less is more.

Schwarzenegger Says:Seven years had passed since The Terminator lifted both our careers, and Jim Cameron and I had always felt committed to a sequel. He’d directed a couple of huge pictures since then – Aliens and The Abyss – and, finally, in 1990 he got the rights and preliminary financing in place for Terminator 2. Still, I was a little thrown when Jim sat me down at a restaurant and told me his concept for my character in the film. “How can the Terminator not kill anyone?” I asked.’  

Nine dipshits out of 10

Next: Pumping Iron

Acknowledgements: To make sure I wasn’t missing any extra footage, I checked my notes against these excellent posts that also look at the Special Edition’s changes:

https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2018/04/battle-of-the-cuts-terminator-2—theatrical-vs-sp.html

https://stason.org/TULARC/movies/terminator/1-2-2-What-scenes-were-added-to-the-T2-Special-Edition.html

https://www.movie-censorship.com/report.php?ID=5698359

REDUX REVIEW: The Terminator (1984, James Cameron)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

TheTerminatorRedux

Watched: 14 October 2019
Format: A 35mm print projected at the Prince Charles Cinema in London’s West End.
Seen before? Yes, many, many times. 

Note: I have already reviewed The Terminator as part of another blogging series – you can check it out by clicking on this link. So instead of focusing on the film itself, this article is about one particular viewing…

Review: It’s a rainy October evening as I head into central London to watch The Terminator, a film I’ve loved since I was a child, on a big screen for the first time. I don’t specifically remember my first viewing of this sci-fi action masterpiece, but it will have been on VHS in the mid-1980s. At that time I adored films; I adored Hollywood films; and I especially adored Arnold Schwarzenegger films. I also, thankfully, had a mother who let me rent violent movies. I’ve watched it many times in the 30-odd years since, but tonight I get the chance to see it projected in a cinema setting. I’m excited beyond measure.

The Prince Charles Cinema, housed in a 1960s building that was initially a theatre, is the only independent cinema in the West End and is located on a pedestrianised side street to the north of the tourist-heavy Leicester Square. I’ve been here several times before, so am well used to the set-up: the small entrance where you can buy popcorn, the small bar where you can buy drinks, the chalkboard where they invite you to suggest movies they should run. It has two screening rooms – a 104-seater upstairs, a 300-seater downstairs – and at 6.15pm tonight The Terminator is being shown in the latter.

I get out my phone and show the email containing my pre-bought ticket to a friendly guy at the door. This has been a big change to cinema-going in recent years, hasn’t it? Not only the notion that you pre-book online rather than just show up and pay there and then, but also that your ‘ticket’ is a barcode in an email. Part of me – a rather big part of me, if I’m honest – misses the old system. I fret about my phone battery dying and them not letting me in, or the barcode not scanning properly. I worry that too many things can go wrong. In fact, the day before my Terminator trip, I went to see the newly released movie Joker at the Everyman Canary Wharf (a very fine little cinema indeed). I’d bought my ticket on their website the night before, but the email never showed up. In the end it hadn’t mattered: I’d simply strolled in, taken my seat, watched the film and strolled out again afterwards. Not one member of staff had challenged me. But it had added an unnecessary level of anxiety to the process.

It’s not a huge turnout tonight at the Prince Charles, which is a bit of a surprise. There are only perhaps 20 to 30 of us here. But this cinema has a brilliantly eclectic programme – later this week, for example, it’s also showing a documentary about Miles Davis, Eddie Murphy’s new film Dolemite Is My Name, a recorded performance of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s show Fleabag, the horror film Get Out, Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and 80s flick The Lost Boys. A screening of James Cameron’s 1984 classic doesn’t therefore stand out, no matter how much I adore it. There’s just so much choice.

After a refreshingly brief period of ads and trailers – no multiplex-style half-hour of tedium here! – the lights go down and the film begins. They use a variety of formats at the Prince Charles, sometimes loudly trumpeting the fact they have a 70mm copy of, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey… or sometimes whispering that they project a few films digitally. Tonight, I’m watching The Terminator on an old 35mm print, which is occasionally scratchy and damaged.

Rather than detract, I find that this actually enhances the experience. We’re living through a shiny, sleek era of apps and high-def and broadband, and of course that’s great and has brought untold benefits. But it’s wonderful, once in a while, to be reminded what popular culture used to be like. To wallow in the nostalgia of imperfection and to feel a bit more connected to the world around you.

The print I’m now watching is clear and sharp and shows off Adam Greenberg’s cinematography brilliantly. But it’s also undeniably aged, gritty, textured. It’s been round the houses. It has history. The reel changes are also noticeable – if, that is, you know to look out for an occasional flashing dot in the top right-hand corner of the screen. (This device tips off the projectionist that they need to switch over to a new reel. I first learnt about it when I saw an old episode of Columbo in which the murderer’s alibi was based on making a reel change at a certain time. The practice has now vanished from multiplexes due to digital projectors.)

All this is part of the fun of seeing a favoured film on the big screen. It’s not a dispassionate experience; it’s emotional and visceral. When you know and love a movie as much as I know and love The Terminator, you’re viewing it in a different way from most people. Most people, it seems to me, watch a film once. Their pleasure comes from experiencing a new story for the first time, and after that they’re not sure what you’d get from it. They perhaps find the idea of repeat viewings peculiar, but for people like me rewatching movies is a vital part of the process. I once heard the film critic Mark Kermode being challenged about this on the radio. Sounding bemused by the notion of watching one film many times, the presenter Richard Bacon asked how often Kermode had seen his favourite movie, The Exorcist. Kermode guessed at least 200. ‘It works for me every time,’ he explained, ‘and every time I see it, it looks like a different film.’

I haven’t seen The Terminator or any other film quite that often, but tonight could easily be my 20-something-th viewing. Therefore the story doesn’t take me by surprise any more. I know every scene, every beat, and I can – and this evening I occasionally do – mouth along with the dialogue (‘The Uzi 9mm?’, ‘Look at it this way: in a hundred years, who’s gonna care?’, ‘Fuck you, asshole!’). But my enjoyment isn’t lessened any by this. It’s partly due to familiarity. It’s like seeing and hanging out with an old friend, even if you know it’ll mean hearing the same anecdotes and the same jokes. It’s also the effect Mark Kermode mentioned about The Exorcist. Each time you watch a cherished film, in some ways you see it anew. Already knowing *what’s* happening on screen means you can focus on *why* and *how*. You can appreciate the detail, you can track certain aspects, you can try to understand why it works so well.

Also, having it projected onto a big screen, which of course is how director James Cameron intended it to be seen, gives me a new context this evening. All my previous viewings had been on a TV. The early ones were also cropped into the ghastly pan-and-scan format. Now I can look up from my comfortable seat and enjoy The Terminator in its correct aspect ratio (it was shot with spherical lenses and is projected at 1.85:1), playing on a screen around 10 feet tall by 20 wide. I can be thrilled by the story, excited by the action, entertained by the wit, intrigued by the clever storytelling, wowed by the intensity and the sharp direction, charmed by the cast, impressed by the craft in the art design and music and camerawork. Outside it’s raining. In here, I’m safe and happy.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Released just a week before Halloween 1984, [The Terminator] was the number-one movie in America for six weeks, on its way to grossing close to $100 million. I didn’t quite realise how successful it was until… some people stopped me walking down the street in New York. “Oh man, we just saw The Terminator. Say it! Say it! You’ve got to say it!” “What?” “You know, ‘I’ll be back!'” None of us involved in making the movie had any idea that this was going to be the line people remembered.’

Ten plates of burly beef out of 10

Next: The Expendables 2

Terminator Salvation (2009, McG)

Salvation

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

During a war with sentient machines, John Connor is given a mission to storm the opposition’s headquarters. Meanwhile, a mysterious man can’t remember anything since his own death 15 years earlier…

Main characters:

* Top billed is Christian Bale, playing the third on-screen John Connor we’ve had in this series. (The fourth if you count a cameo of an older version in 2029. The fifth if you count a TV series. More on that later…) After the teen of T2 and the twenty-something of T3, John is now a man of 33 (ie, the age that another idealistic JC was when he was crucified) and is fighting for the human resistance forces in the post-apocalyptic war we’ve been told about since the original movie. It’s a tough, harsh, cold world as the few remaining humans attempt to combat all-powerful metallic overlords. John has yet to reach his destiny position as the movement’s leader, however; here, in 2018, he has superiors whose orders he doesn’t always agree with. When he meets a cyborg with no love for the enemy, Skynet, John is not enamoured but reluctantly joins forces with him to mount a rescue of some humans prisoners. (That’s right, even after his experiences the previous two films, this John Connor finds it hard to believe that a cyborg might be a good guy.) Bale gives a typically po-faced, deadly serious performance, often doing little more than barking his dialogue into a handheld radio. The actor also famously lost his shit on set after the director of photography distracted him during a take. (To be fair to Bale, he later apologised profusely.)

* When we first meet Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), it’s in a prologue set before Judgment Day. He’s on death row after a criminal incident that killed his own brother and some police officers. Soon before his execution he’s persuaded to donate his body to Cyberdyne – the tech company featured in the earlier films. Then, much later, an understandably discombobulated Marcus awakens in a nightmarish future: 15 years have passed, there’s been an apocalypse, the machines have taken over, he’s not aged a day, and he’s very clearly not dead any more. WTF? He soon encounters murderous robots, but is saved by a man called Kyle Reese who says he’s a member of the human resistance… Then, after a big action sequence that should have killed Marcus, we learn that he is actually a cyborg. (He’s more shocked by this spectacularly obvious ‘plot twist’ than we are.) Turns out, he was built by Skynet to be an agent who could unknowingly infiltrate the resistance and get close to its figurehead, John Connor. Having met John, what does the cyborg Marcus do? Does he assassinate him? Take him prisoner? No, he’s so outraged by what’s been done to him that he agrees to help John defeat Skynet… Did the IT boffins not see that one coming?! Worthington is nominally this film’s lead actor, and in fact there are rumours that initially Marcus was the POV character throughout. (Then Christian Bale was hired, necessitating a swelling of John Connor’s role. Before that, Connor had been a cameo.) But the actor plays the part too tough-guy for us to care much about him.

* Kyle Reese is, of course, younger than when we knew him in the original Terminator movie. He hasn’t yet travelled back to 1984, he hasn’t heard of Sarah Connor, and he hasn’t even met John Connor. Young and impulsive – and just a bit cynical – he constitutes the LA branch of the resistance. He gets to wheel out one of the franchise’s key lines of dialogue – ‘Come with me if you want to live…’ – but is later captured by the machine forces, which provides John (who knows Kyle will one day go back in time and be his father) with the motivation to rescue Skynet’s human hostages. Kyle is played by Anton Yelchin, who fails to remind us of Michael Biehn’s original in any way beyond having the same name.

* Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood) is a resistance pilot who crashes near Marcus after a big action sequence, so he helps her disentangle from her parachute cables. As he has knowledge about Skynet’s forces, she takes him to see her boss John Connor… Blair is certainly a sexy character, and it’s not a bad performance, but she’s a perfunctory role. She’s just there to move Marcus from plot point to plot point.

Other characters:
* Dr Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter) is the woman who comes to Marcus’s prison cell in 2003 and gets him to sign away his body to Cyberdyne. He twigs that she’s a cancer suffering whose time is running out. Later, in 2018, Skynet’s AI mainframe uses her likeness when talking to Marcus.
* General Hugh Ashdown, played by the dependably gruff Michael Ironside, is a resistance bigwig who clashes with the impetuous John.
* John’s wife and confidant, Kate Connor (Bryce Dallas Howard), is no longer the vet we met in Terminator 3. Now she’s shifted to human medicine, all the better for fixing up war casualties. She’s also pregnant. Despite a new actress, she’s still a fairly boring character who only really exists on the periphery of the plot.
* Barnes, played by rapper Common, is one of John’s lieutenants.
* Sarah Connor’s voice is heard when John plays some of the cassettes of advice she made for him in the 1980s. Linda Hamilton returned to rerecord the lines so that new inelegant information could be crowbarred in. (‘This is tape number 28. It’s Sarah Connor to my son, John’).
* Star (Jadagrace Berry) is a mute child who hangs out with Kyle. She seems to have psychic powers of some kind – or maybe just an uncanny sixth sense.

Where: The prologue takes place in Longview State Correctional Facility. When we cut to the future the events range across California – taking in both LA and San Fransisco. John also has a diversion out to sea, because the resistance’s headquarters are housed on board a submarine (cute idea). When on land, Terminator Salvation’s vision of a nuclear-winter West Coast amounts to either dusty, arid scrub and deserted highways, or bland, bombed-out ruins of cities. Other than the obvious broad strokes, the locations and production design do little to texture the story.

When: The opening scene is set in 2003 – so before the events depicted in Terminator 3. The bulk of the movie is then in 2018, which is some years after Judgment Day in this new Terminator timeline. At one point, Marcus says he was born on 22 August 1975, making him 28 in the prison scene.

I’ll be back: Partly because he was then the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger was not directly involved in this fourth Terminator movie. So here his famous catchphrase is instead said by John Connor before he leaves for a mission. Schwarzenegger does, however, still have a hefty presence in the film. Making use of CG technology that was then quite new and is now becoming a cliche, we see a T-800 burst out of a metallic booth and attack John. It looks exactly (well, nearly exactly) like a 1984 Arnie and the incidental music clangs heavy with the famous old Terminator cue. It’s a remarkably impressive visual effect, and the scene does actually make plot sense too as John has stumbled across the T-800 development lab.

Spin-off: In the year before Terminator Salvation’s release, a TV off-shoot called The Sarah Connor Chronicles had begun airing. Starring Lena Headey as Sarah and Thomas Dekker as John, it was a sequel to the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (in other words, it ignored Terminator 3 and created *yet another* alternate timeline). The story saw Sarah, John and a reprogrammed Terminator protector (Summer Glau) evading Skynet agents sent from the future while attempting to avert the coming apocalypse. After a fun-enough start, the series soon lost its lustre and was axed after 31 episodes across two seasons.

Review: It seems that eras tend to get the Terminator film they deserve. In 1984, cinema was in the wake of visionary and impactful science-fiction movies like Star Wars, Alien and Blade Runner; it was also the golden age of slashers such as Halloween and Friday the 13th. So therefore James Cameron’s original Terminator blended the two genres, creating something as smart as it was stylish; as downbeat as it was intense; as much a horror film as it is a sci-fi. Seven years later and the world had moved on. Hollywood budgets had grown, as had the digital technology available to filmmakers, so Terminator 2: Judgment Day added huge spectacle, revolutionary CGI and 1990s confidence to the mix. By the time the series reached Salvation, cinema had evolved again. The noughties saw a rush of sequels and reboots that took their subject matters more seriously than previous incarnations – see for example 2005’s Batman Begins (with Christian Bale), 2006’s Casino Royale and 2009’s Star Trek (with Anton Yelchin). Terminator Salvation nominally does the same trick as those films, but what it lacks in comparison is dynamism. The best of that era’s series relaunches tell their stories with pace and style and just the right amount of character complexity. They’re also often *fun*, even while being much less frivolous than, say, Batman Forever or Moonraker. But Salvation is a dour, drab and depressingly straight-ahead film. It has a grimy and colourless visual palette, which is at least in keeping with the shallow characters, broad-stroke emotions and functional plotting. There’s no *heart* to any of it. This is also very much a sci-fi war film, overloaded with bombastic action (admittedly including some fun long takes) and Terminator tech that feels like it’s been cut-and-paste from another noughties reboot: 2007’s Transformers movie.

Five two-day-old coyotes out of 10

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

Terminator3

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 comedy 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