Last night I caught a showing of The Terminator, the original film from 1984, from about half-way in. I’d seen the film many times, but not for many years. As I was watching it I had this strange feeling like I was watching the baby-steps of something that would go on to become a collossus, that being the Terminator franchise as well as the larger career arc of James Cameron. I happen to think there’s something significant about starting small that is (or at least WAS) the key to erecting new tentpole franchises. I also think you can look back on these works, so many years later, and see what it is the creative person really meant to say or do across his or her career, as that pattern wound up repeating itself again and again. As such, the Terminator is a great case-study.
Before I get started it might be a good thing to acknowledge that just because something’s a franchise doesn’t mean it has a stellar track-record. Budgets of each sequel tend to bloat while the original team of cast and crew is slowly replaced by others. The Terminator is a poster-child for a troubled franchise. It’s a baby that James Cameron effectively gave up for adoption after T2 (yes, Terminator 2 popularized the practice of using catchy acronyms for sequels).
Now, the best way to write this piece would have been to first watch Terminator Genisys, because that film is basically a Back to the Future 2 style revisit of much of the iconography of the first film. Star Wars Episode VII also struck a similar nostalgic chord in replaying plot points without actually going back in time. Things coming full circle like this is a sign of a franchise that is out of new ideas and also reaffirms that there was something truly unique and precious about the very first entry, no matter how low-budget and outdated it may now seem to modern audiences.
Film franchises from this era were rarely thought of as such. They simply became franchises because of the cult-popularity of the original. The failures of the sequels can therefore sometimes be excused as being a function of trying to continue a story that didn’t have enough loose ends. Even though Terminator 2 is considered by most to be better than the original, even it is guilty of the sin of repetition. Sending more Terminators back in time is not unlike, let’s say, The Empire building yet another Death Star in Return of the Jedi or The Force Awakens. There can only ever be a “first-time” in the minds of the audience when the tapestry of the fictional universe is first revealed, that moment when you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. Sequels are largely comfort food for those who just want another visit back to Oz.
Rather than fixating on the syndrome of diminishing returns of sequels I’d really like to zoom in on the qualities of The Terminator in particular that may have been responsible for it rising above seemingly similar B-movie fare.
BANG FOR THE BUCK
James Cameron got his start working production design for the king of B-movies, Roger Corman. Corman is someone who has a bad reputation with critics, but is well-respected within the film industry itself because he was a genius of making low-budget films. Remember that this was all before the digital revolution. Shooting movies on film and having to employ all analog practical effects was very expensive. Corman was like MacGuyver. He innovated all sorts of ways to make the most of whatever he could get his hands on. While it’s true that the artistic merits of his films tended to be lacking, that ability to squeeze maximum bang for the buck deserves recognition. It was also the perfect way for an up-and-coming filmmaker to learn the ropes.
The overarching thesis of this blog is essentially a rant about today’s showbiz where everything seems to be a corporate marketing decision and huge budgets are thrown at reviving or continuing existing properties. As successful as that strategy has been, it all owes itself to earlier eras where people had to employ every trick in the book in order to weave their stories.
Cameron always seems to make the most of his budgets, even Avatar. It’s just that he doesn’t really have to face the same limits he did in the early days. His limits are now more technological than budgetary.
The original Terminator had plenty of technological limits as well. The Terminator skeleton model was handled via a combination of stop-motion and a puppet-like miniature. Arnold’s damaged head was handled via a combination of a puppet and makeup. And the flash-forwards of the future were handled through a series of techniques that I’m not even totally aware of, but probably a combination of front/rear projection, miniatures, careful camera angles, etc… It really was a masterpiece of sleight-of-hand in those days.
Star Wars had “In a Galaxy far, far away…” and The Terminator had this unforgettable nightmare sequence of the future:
It’s the fact that this is merely a glimpse into the future that makes it powerful. It leaves you wanting so much more, but it only returns to the future once.
This segment is shown mostly in closeup, so you get a very constrained view of the future-war landscape. Budgetary reasons probably limited how much of the future-war we saw, but it was because we’re only given such brief visuals that our imagination was engaged. It was several years before Terminator 2 came out, and even then the future-war was seen only briefly. Only when Christian Bale’s Terminator Salvation came out did we see it in full glory, but there’s something about the imagination that makes it more powerful to have NOT seen all of it. This is similar to the let-down of the Star Wars Prequels. The Old Republic and the Clone Wars were better hinted at than seen, at least by virtue of how George Lucas botched it.
Not only that, you have to remember that the theme of the film is largely about Sarah Connor having to work through her shock, denial, and disbelief that this future dystopia will come to pass. We too need to come at it from the same blissful ignorance. To immerse ourselves too much in the future war would be to break our sense of identification with Connor that such a future could in fact happen, let alone that it was pre-ordained.
We’ve been so desensitized these days with post-apocalyptic visions of the future that it almost no longer has any impact anymore. But back in the 80s we were still living this dual reality of the 80s synth pop and spiky hair on the one side and the continuing specter of nuclear annihilation on the other. The Terminator brought those cold-war fears to the forefront within the frame of a prescience of A.I. deciding that humanity had to be eliminated.
So while today, spectacle is what matters most, this film relies on people’s subconscious fears and imaginations to bridge the gap that it’s budget couldn’t deliver. The end result is to create a much deeper resonance than merely showing everything in modern microscopic detail. In other words, low-budget filmmaking, at its best, approaches art via an expressionstic approach. This is something that Cameron has unfortunately abandoned in his quest for deeper and deeper literal immersion.
ABANDONING “GENDERED” STORYTELLING
What drew me to Cameron’s films the most as a teenager was how he dealt with gender. The term that was coined for Ripley in Aliens, for instance, was Rambolina. Sarah Connor in T2 was cut much from the same cloth. But Cameron does more in his films besides just present female action heroes. He also adds a surprisingly feminine touch to the action genre itself.
Films, even today, tend to be designed to appeal to a specific demographic. Action films are for men and romances are for women. A romantic subplot in an action film, if any, would be there primarily to suit the sensibilities of men. Cameron blurs the lines between what constitutes male or female storytelling. While his films tend to be very muscular and action-heavy, they also often contain details more associated with female-friendly romance. The Terminator is a great example of this in its treatment of the relationship between Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese.
The union of Sarah and Kyle is, on its surface, a plot-device. But it is not handled as merely a plot-device. Depending on your point of view, it could be seen as the very heart of the film itself. Anyone who knows anything about romance novels knows that women are not against action per se. They just don’t tend to like action for its own sake. The Terminator frames the action in an extremely romantic context that would be quite familiar to the readers of tawdry romance novels. You know, novels that feature bristling pirates and swashbuckling.
Action means danger, and danger can be sexy when a hero comes in to protect you. A primal example of this is Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard. It’s worth noting how the song from The Bodyguard is stylistically so similar to the song from, let’s say, Titanic.
At its core, The Terminator IS The Bodyguard, only the male love interest dies at the end (sorry, spoiler). Reese functions as Connor’s bodyguard and through the process of protecting her, she falls in love with him. There’s little sexier than the idea of a protector, and the casting of Michael Biehn was the epitome of the macho but “emo” hero, soft-spoken and sensitive and vulnerable. He volunteered for a one-way trip to save a woman he fell in love with based on nothing but an old photo.
NOTE: It appears nobody has even saw fit to flag this clip for the brief sex scene and nudity. It’s a sign of the times that this is considered harmless but was definitely R-rated grade back in the 80s.
To go even more into psychology here, The Terminator is an even more powerful romance than The Bodyguard because the most extreme romantic frame one can imagine is to start out with a woman fearing that the man is a mortal danger and then swinging around to entrusting him as her protector. Sarah literally bites Reese’s hand as if he’s a potential rapist or serial killer. The process of moving beyond fear into trust and ultimately love is an extremely powerful romantic theme that you see in things like Pride and Prejudice. Here it’s just amped up to 11 by virtue of the fantastical time-travel and apocalyptic device.
I don’t have any statistics handy to prove it, but I would guess that The Terminator won over a huge number of women because of the romantic aspects. These women were engaged by the action just as much as the men were. It’s just that the reason they were engaged was because of the context, that it created a romantic bubble in which to play out a romance-novel style trope of the white knight protector. The men were more interested in seeing the explosions and gunfire. But the bottom line is it was able to crossover in a way that never happened before.
James Cameron’s ability to create films that appeal simultaneously to different demographics is a key reason he rose to the top of filmmaking. That pattern of presenting no-nonsense action for men and character development or a romantic subplot for women has continued with most of his films. Even Aliens had Ripley become a surrogate mother to Newt as well as provide an budding but unconsummated romance between Ripley and Hicks.
The overall theme of gender in Cameron’s world is to throw away the idea of male vs. female sandboxes or that films of a particular genre can only appeal to one gender or the other. A Cameron movie is a mashup of super-macho elements as well as a surprising amount of sentimentality. So there’s a progressive aspect in sucking audiences in on the basis of what they’re predisposed to like but being given some useful exposure to the other end of the spectrum.
Since then, blockbusters have started to key in on this and now try to be more of all things for all people, with varying degrees of success, but Cameron was a trailblazer in this arena.
The Terminator’s reputation was sullied by a lawsuit from author Harlan Ellison who accused Cameron of palgiarizing his script for the Outer Limits episodes Demon with a Glass Hand and Soldier. Here is Ellison’s recollection of the legal issue:
It’s important to understand that Everything’s A Remix and that good artists borrow and great artists steal. That being said, The Terminator is not simply these two episodes mashed up. It has more than enough innovation of its own to be considered its own entity. The settlement with Ellison and his subsequent credit is no more justified than would a shoutout to Akira Kurosawa have been appropriate in Star Wars or the long string of shoutouts that you’d need to attach to a Tarantino movie. The problem with The Terminator was Cameron’s brusque way of gloating openly to others and using the dreaded term “ripped off”. Ripped off implies theft. Inspiration does not. In my opinion, these were really sources of inspiration rather than intentional plagiarism.
Originality has been a topic that has continued to dog Cameron on and off since, though, with a ton of criticism being logged about how Avatar was Dances with Wolves or Fern Gully. Again, this is merely a sour grapes response as once you open that Pandora’s box you realize how really nothing out there is devoid of some earlier inspiration. It’s all in the execution and adding an extra ingredient that represents your unique spin. That’s something Cameron did here, whereas, IMHO, Moana did not (2nd time I’ve referenced Moana since I saw it. I guess I’m hating on it).
And so, in summary, I ask this rhetorical question:
Has the era of the modest franchise-starter gone away for good?
It seems likely, which is why I need everyone to get off my lawn because I’m over-the-hill reviewer!