Jordan Hiller's Essential 80's Collection continues - with #20...
Throughout his extraordinary, legend in his own time career, James Cameron has done very little that cannot be legitimately considered well ahead of its time. He maneuvers through Hollywood with the confidence of a prophet. In the 1980’s alone, Cameron, via his own brand of brainy technique and force of nature will, ignited one world class franchise (with 1984’s The Terminator), carried on the legacy of another (1986’s Aliens), and (if you can forgive the unforgivable final ten minutes) created a self-contained masterpiece of human drama and science fiction (1989’s The Abyss). We can track Cameron’s remarkable success and unparalleled risk taking from that decade all the way to the Avatar-obsessed present. His uncanny ability to introduce and establish the next big thing, whether in the realm of effects (T2 and True Lies), acting (Titanic’s Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) or gargantuan budgets that pay off, has been consistently met and complimented by his devotion to storytelling. James Cameron will never be as bold or accomplished a filmmaker as, say, a Steven Spielberg, but, pound for pound, the director can go head to head in the arena of cinematic innovation with anyone, and the few times where he loses it’ll be close.
Although The Terminator was not Cameron’s feature debut (that honor goes to 1981’s Piranha Part Two: The Spawning) the time traveling, apocalyptic, cyborg-centric mindfuck of a movie about Kyle Reese, a man sent back to 1984 to protect Sarah Connor, the mother of an unborn resistance fighter, from a relentless robot killer (and Reese winds up being the child’s father!) needless to say marks the beginning of James Cameron’s tremendous run. The Terminator, because of its impact and staggering concept (the script was written by Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd), immediately made Cameron a contender, certainly evidenced by his subsequently being trusted to direct the sequel to Ridely Scott’s 1979 classic Alien. And Cameron, despite being on the fast track, did not leave his Terminator cast in the dust. With the film having become a modern classic, James Cameron essentially made the careers of Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, and even arguably Arnold Schwarzenegger. The first two actors are left with B caliber résumés outside of their work with Cameron (Biehn also was featured in Cameron’s Aliens and The Abyss, Hamilton in the first two Terminator movies). This is not to suggest that neither star earned their keep for Cameron. Biehn, all wild-eyed, raw, rugged manliness as Kyle Reese grits his way through the film, providing a very sturdy and memorable hero to root for. Biehn infuses his performance with the perfect mix of sensible determination and lunatic madness. His pain and experience in the bleak future oozes from his every gesture and slightly offbeat line reading. Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, more or less a generic damsel in distress with horrific 80’s feathered hair in The Terminator, transformed herself (likely under Cameron’s ubiquitous iron fist) into the survivalist fighting machine mom who dominates the screen with such gravitas in T2.
Schwarzenegger is an 80’s conversation all his own. Along with Stallone, Schwarzenegger represents the paradigmatic 80’s action hero – impossibly inflated, larger than life, inarticulate, and surgically precise with a monotone “Fak You, Azzhole.” The Austrian giant already had a couple of Conan movies under his belt when Cameron utilized his brawn for the first of the three films they would eventually work on together, and Ahnold clearly would have made it regardless (after all, you don’t become the Governor of California without the right kind of savvy), but it was The Terminator movies that legitimized the actor. The quality of the film and his considerable contribution to its excellence made Schwarzenegger the actor relevant. The Terminator compelled audiences to take Schwarzenegger seriously. The public would eventually learn that if James Cameron believes in something or someone and bets on them, well, that’s smart money. And Schwarzenegger, as the titular Terminator, delivers the goods. For someone who was well known at that point as a noble heroic type on screen, the level of menace Schwarzenegger brought to his character is quite impressive. His intimidating physicality along with superior makeup effects supplied by the maestro Stan Winston helped him create one of the most terrifyingly believable villains of all time (and that comes to include the Terminator concept in general, a tradition continued brilliantly by Robert Patrick in T2). Perhaps because Schwarzenegger is permitted to speak so sparingly, and because the actor’s accent and delivery are so identifiable with his persona, The Terminator, of all Schwarzenegger performances, is most easily separated from the actor (moreso for this reason in T1 over T2 or T3). The character in the first of the series, a merciless, souless murdering devil, truly lives and exists on its own terms, which is the greatest gift an actor can give to a movie.
For all its narrative ambition and the heavyweight presence of Schwarzenegger, The Terminator would have remained a profoundly distressing film experience for a separate reason that in fact is very 80’s.
The machines have not yet taken over, but the ominous vision of the future that Cameron depicts through the haggard, desperate countenance of Kyle Reese and his manic efforts to save Sarah Connor, appeared to be in motion back then. Though technology in many, many ways makes our lives better, there is good reason to be paranoid, and one can imagine what the 80’s felt like to someone as gifted as Cameron, who gazes at the horizon and sees beyond it. While the TV commercials were promoting wonderfully useful inventions like Apple IIes and Teddy Ruxpin, Cameron closed his eyes and shuddered. Instead of a home computer and a taperecorder bear, he saw Cyberyne Systems and Skynet coming online.