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#26: the terminator (james cameron, 1984)

(This is the 25th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

A few picks ago, I chose A Better Tomorrow because it “came first,” while admitting that what came after was often even better. The Terminator was James Cameron’s first hit, his second feature (Piranha Part Two came first). He later spent more money (Terminator 2 cost almost $100 million more than the original, which came in at $6.4 million). He became King of the World with Titanic. Avatar cost more than $300 million. None of them was better than The Terminator, still Cameron’s best film.

I recently read an article that asked how Arnold Schwarzenegger was ever a star … you know, bad accent, couldn’t act, blah blah blah. Anyone who wonders how Arnold constructed his movie career is directed to the documentary Pumping Iron, where he charms everyone and psyches out his opponents. Arnold knew what he was good at, he did it, and the results were entertaining for a decade. Commando, Predator, Total Recall, Terminator 2, True Lies … that is not a list to be ashamed of. But none of them was better than The Terminator.

On this list, The Terminator stands in for a bunch of good action movies from the 80s. (The Road Warrior was the very last cut I made to this list … it’s #51, so to speak.) Outside of those two, none of the action films were great, but a surprising number of them were entertaining, even when they were stupid. Some were admittedly vile; I’m looking at you, Top Gun. And I’m not advising everyone to run out and rent Cobra with Sylvester Stallone. But it’s a genre and an era worthy of a Faves list, and The Terminator, even more than The Road Warrior, was the best.

One of the best things about Terminator 2 is the way Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor became an icon for a certain kind of tough heroine. The roots for that characterization happen in the original, where Sarah goes from fun-loving waitress to terrorized target to mother of a future hero to the person who finally kicks the terminator’s ass, all in two hours.

The Terminator has very little flab; it’s a punk-rock action film. T2 fetishized its special effects, which were indeed amazing for their day, but the result was more Emerson, Lake and Palmer than The Stooges. The Terminator had one superb special effect, and it made the most of it: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold is so perfect in the role that when the terminator becomes nothing but machine, with all visible remnants of Arnold gone, you still look at the heap of metal and think “here comes Arnold!”

 

A lot of the comments addressed the Terminator vs. Road Warrior debate, with most folks coming down on the side of Max.

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