In a little less than a year, a sixth “Terminator” film, (untitled as of of the time of writing this article,) will be released, and though remaking episodes three and four would have made more sense canonically, I nevertheless have an excuse to review the first five “Terminator” films.
Here’s my review for “The Terminator:”
To start, the musical score is fantastic. It’s a shame that most people are familiar only with the film’s opening theme. Even those who have seen “The Terminator” beginning to end likely only know the “da-da-da-da-dum” of the drums played in the opening titles. Make no mistake; the opening score is great, but it’s far from the only good theme in the film. The music that plays as Reese (Michael Biehn), having recently arrived in ’84 and looking for clothes, runs from the police is uneasy without being overly aggressive. In contrast, the acoustic melody that plays when Sarah (Linda Hamilton) is introduced is gentle, matching the relative normality and calmness of her pre-fighting life. One of the most striking moments comes at a nightclub, when a song playing within the story of the film fades to musical booms, and the score picks up when Sarah and Reese are on the run in an alleyway. One of the film’s best scores has to be one that accompanies them escaping a police station. In a dream of Sarah’s that shows a robot-dominated future, the music is haunting yet beautiful. When Reese tells Sarah more about his childhood in a motel, an emotional piano score plays. The music of the third act is indescribably great.
“The Terminator” is visually impressive as well. There are multiple distinct looks for different moods, scenes and settings. Scenes with Sarah living a normal life are bright and colorful. Scenes with the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Reese or Sarah once she is on the run from the Terminator are dark visually and lack the vibrance of the latter. Scenes set in 2029 are the darkest visually and a sad blue. Though, some of the special effects are dated; lightning is clearly computer generated, some shots in the last duel are stop motion and some shots in the opening scene may be CG as well; one can overlook them when judging them against the standards of their time.
The cinematography isn’t anything great, but it’s competent enough. “The Terminator” makes three killings shown not on screen, but implied through shots of the Terminator firing his gun, and the silence of his victims. A shot with Sarah as the subject turns into a shot with Reese as the subject. When Reese further explains his background to Sarah, close-ups let the audience see the emotion in both of their faces. Shots near the end of the film aren’t especially well composed, but are emotionally heavy due to their context in the story.
As for the best scenes in the film, the opening scene, despite having some fake looking (by today’s standards) visuals does do a good job setting up a grim atmosphere. The opening credits have an awe-inducing graphic design. Both the Terminator and Reese have great introductions; the Terminator appearing in the year with bold posture, unflinching and always ready to fight, and Reese as a man who has clearly stumbled into a setting that he is not comfortable with. Sarah’s introduction is good as well, showing she lives in a safe, comparatively friendly environment yet struggles with her everyday job. There are a handful of what one might consider mini-twists, executed in a matter of minutes rather than throughout the film’s story, but none of them are executed poorly, few if any feel unnatural and most are executed quite well. “The Terminator” features many great instances of cross cutting. A scene in a police station is excellent, as is Sarah’s vision of the future. An emotional scene between Sarah and Reese is great, and the final showdown is wildly entertaining with a nail-biting duel. Last but not least, the ending is superb.
This isn’t to say the film is perfect. There is one scene that goes on for too long. Robots are bulletproof, resemble humans and can take over the Earth but cannot see in any colors other than red, black and white. Sarah and Reese’s relationship feels rushed considering that Reese convinces her in mere hours to believe in his situation. Human characters survive situations that should kill them. But those flaws can be overlooked when a film has a great number of top-notch scenes and moments from beginning to end that form one of the greatest, most built up, most entertainingly action packed science fiction films of the 1980s.
Cal Sylvia can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org