9 January 2009

THE TERMINATOR (Dir. James Cameron, 1984, US) - 'It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear...'

Long before Schwarzenegger morphed into a bogus, inarticulate political representative and James Cameron was swallowed up the by mediocrity of ‘Titanic’, they had together for a brief moment collaborated on something very special, very original and very low budget. Released in 1984, ‘The Terminator’ is perhaps the ultimate benchmark in low budget independent film making and today remains respectably and rightfully positioned alongside similar eighties ‘B’ movie American masterworks such as John Carpenter’s ‘Escape From New York’, Alex Cox’s ‘Repo Man’ and Walter Hill’s ‘The Driver’. What these films share in common is that they were very shrewd to disguise their low budget limitations by opting to shoot at night. Though ‘The Terminator’ is clearly a brilliantly effective science fiction film, Cameron also demonstrates endless visual possibilities, using as his guide, one of the leanest and most economical screenplays ever written. Not a single shot is wasted.

However, compare such an uncompromising philosophy to the juggernaut that is ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’, a hugely entertaining action film, and it becomes painfully apparent how in some cases the overwhelming size of a Hollywood blockbusting budget can shatter the notion of working under certain constraints. It is those constraints that make films like ‘The Terminator’ such a taut and incredibly enthralling piece of genre cinema. It is hard to believe that ‘The Terminator’ was made on a relatively low budget but its eventual transformation into a lucrative franchise not only confirmed the originality of Cameron’s concept, it also immortalised the culturally iconic figure of Schwarzenegger as the relentless, Uzi wielding cyborg. It is interesting to consider why ‘The Terminator’ has attracted the status of a ‘B’ movie when in fact Cameron is able to elevate the material out from its exploitation origins, producing a time travel narrative that is both intelligently structured and aesthetically translated through a nightmarish representation of Los Angeles.

To categorise ‘The Terminator’ as a ‘B’ movie is in fact partly linked to the critical contempt with which the science fiction genre has been treated in the study of cinema and Hollywood film genres. Had the film been associated with either the gangster or western film genre, then surely its status as a ‘B’ movie would not had been as forthcoming from some of the critics. What is so striking about the film in light of today’s sedate and mind numbingly mundane Hollywood cinema is it’s incredibly raw, energetic and visceral power that comes largely from what is a wonderfully under rated editing technique of montage and cross cutting by Mark Goldblatt who would reunite with Cameron on the second film, producing what is perhaps the greatest chase sequence in a Hollywood high concept action movie.

The idea of time travel had always been a staple of science fiction literature and the unexpected box office success of ‘The Terminator’ film led to a cycle of Hollywood financed time travel films like ‘Back to the Future’. ‘Blade Runner’ had already been released two years prior to ‘The Terminator’ and its cyberpunk origins seemed to have inspired Cameron in being able to successfully import the quintessential science fiction convention, that of technophobia. The motif of technology turning against society and people was not at all new or prescient yet Cameron manages to structure key moments in the narrative around the failure of technology so that the distinctly violent struggle between Reese (Michael Biehn) and The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) takes on an added metaphysical potency which actually makes a potentially implausible central idea into an altogether more imaginative one.

What also separates this from other science fiction at the time was Cameron's intelligent yet risky reinvention of the genre by generating audience sympathy by having the spectator relate to a female character whose eventual empowerment challenges traditional gender assumptions. Another term strongly associated with 'The Terminator' film is neo noir, another vague and unexplained cinematic term which is useful in positioning the feel for bleak, dystopian urban landscapes in the lineage of classical noir iconography that was shared by similarly distinctive noirish films like Michael Mann's 'Thief' and Walter Hill's 'The Driver'.

In essence, Cameron confounds genre sensibilities by simply pulling apart the conventions of science fiction and producing an 'urban noir cyberpunk' science fiction film that makes it seemingly impossible to categorise for any discernible fan of genre. Another ideologically fascinating idea that Cameron seems to be criticising is the demise of punk culture as The Terminator's convenient first encounter with a group of anti social punks immediately gives him an unusually anti conformist visual identity which is incidentally maintained throughout the rest of the film. Though he assumes the role of the archetypal villain, the accidental punk image seems to offer a contradictory reading of The Terminator as a symbol of mainstream resistance and expression of cultural dystopia.

Both Cameron and Schwarzenegger would continue collaborating but this film made at the very start of their careers seems ironically like a cinematic high point and is certainly one of the key films of a period dominated by rampant commercialism that was mirrored in the steady rise of the blockbuster.


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