For someone who saw the sequel first, telling prospective viewers that the benevolent, ass-kicking cyborg from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (T2:JD going forward) used to the villain in the original is perhaps the easiest way to sell them on it. As my cinephilia began to take root, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was newly released on home video. I tired of the marketing blitz rather easily and frankly thought there was no way they’d top T-1000‘s novel methods of delivering devastation despite ten years of advancement in visual effects since T2:JD. As I bid a favorite childhood cinematic icon a farewell, I put off catching up with its origins just the same. Until now. The day finally came that I did what every self-respecting pop culture consumer needs to have done (among other titles, of course) to be in the loop and no longer be a pretend cinephile.
Not surprisingly, this is also both James Cameron’s and Arnold’s breakthrough film. It should come as no shock that The Sequelizer himself began his career helming (you guessed it) a sequel. So, for me, he went from being known for a sequel (T2:JD), directing Titanic, putting the twist on what a sequel can do (Aliens), beginning it all with a sequel (Piranha II: The Spawning). The Terminator, despite dialing up the action and horror, features fairly original sci-fi ideas about time travel, the apocalypse, and a rudimentary discourse on machine AI. A soldier from the future (Michael Biehn) is sent back in time by his superior, and leader of the human resistance against the Machines, to prevent the assassination of his mother (Linda Hamilton) long enough for his conception and rearing to occur. This pretext for action exists to ensure the survival of the human race as the Machines also attempt to preempt their destruction by doing the same; send a Machine of their own to eliminate the catalyst of their future eradication.
In hindsight, the sequel follows the same cinematic beats of the original yet with smaller, quieter bangs, proving given more to its budgetary constraints and therefore subdued stylings. And the first film appears more what a diamond in the rough would. Both feature the obligatory sequence herein; a face-off with a faddish subculture following infiltration, a standoff in slo-mo as both villain and hero converge on the target, incompetent authority figures incredulous at the hero’s paranoid delusions, a flash-forward to the apocalyptic scenario to be averted, a final showdown in an industrial site with the machine emerging from a huge blaze, and a trip to Mexico where a weapons cache is kept. The original wins out for two things, however; Linda Hamilton’s tits before her pecs wiped out every trace of their contours in T2:JD.
All jokes aside, Sarah Connor’s transformation across both iterations of herself was an impressive acting feat by Hamilton. Though occurring off-screen, kudos to Hamilton for showing the acting range in the metamorphosis between the powerless and battle-tested, PTSD’d out Sarah. T2:JD proved quite illustrative and emblematic of Cameron’s knack for constant refinement and perfectionism. And what better avenue was there than a mulligan? The original is a glaringly darker film both in temperament, tone and color palette. Nearly the entirety of plot occurs at night, when the prowl can evade detection more easily. Sex is more prominent and for good reason; the film was a product of its time so its inclusion wasn’t as jarring, John Connor had to feature in somehow so the inclusion was narratively warranted, and, finally, the stakes weren’t as big early on, with more pressing matters on the front burner than procreation in T2:JD.
I saw shades of Cronenberg’s Rabid, particularly the cinematography in how Cameron painted Los Angeles and treated the body horror aspect of the machine’s internal anatomy. But the gun-toting fireworks, metal-on-metal mayhem firmly separate Cameron from all his Canadian sensibilities now. Not that he’d shown much to begin with, but between his work in both Terminator films and the Alien sequel, the Regan-era machismo get a gloriously prominent showcase. Unless ‘no problemo’ passes for an apology in Machine logic.