It’s weird to get twenty minutes into what you believe to be a rewatch and realize, “Wait, I’ve never seen this movie before.” It’s existed in your head for so long as this false memory, and now you’re discovering what it actually is for the first time. The idea of The Terminator I’d been carrying with me for all this time was quite a ways off from what the film actually is. I think it’s been mischaracterized in recent years as the developing franchise has cemented its identity.
People like to draw a line between The Terminator and its sequel in much the same way we do with Alien and Aliens (the latter of which, of course, was also directed by James Cameron). In the popular imagination, the first film in both series is a lowkey horror-thriller, and the second film is a large-scale action blockbuster. This dichotomy describes the Alien films quite well, which led me to believe the same must be true of the Terminator films. Terminator 2: Judgment Day is absolutely an action film of massive scope, after all.
But The Terminator isn’t the subdued thriller I’ve seen it characterized as for so long. This is a pretty straightforward action movie, albeit one more focused on ratcheting tension than explosive catharsis. There are multiple combination shootouts and car chases. A huge fuel tanker explodes in a Fury Road-esque fireball. A dozen cops get massacred. And it’s not like it’s some low-budget creeper, either. There’s a lot of incredible effects work in this film.
I should stop talking around it and actually talk about the film itself. It’s great! Cameron, even this early in his career, had a strong command of camerawork. The precision with which the camera will sweep down to meet a fleeing character or speeding car is so exciting to watch. There aren’t any rough edges on this film. It’s exactingly shot and paced. It never feels too stiff, though. It’s methodical, but not overly engineered. It’s a bit like the T-800, I suppose — quite lifelike in appearance, but with the calculated ferocity of a machine.
Speaking of the man himself, has Arnold Schwarzenegger ever been used better since? The 90s recasting of him as slapstick straight man is as tragic a miscalculation as an actor has ever suffered. Even the T2 version of him that learns human emotion feels a bit contrived in the face of his Terminator performance. Any actor can conjure charisma, but it takes something special to make yourself a void of it. That’s what Schwarzenegger does here. He’s a bit like the Xenomorph, actually, in his towering stature and terrifying lack of humanity. Later films turned “I’ll be back” into a heroic catchphrase. Here, it stands out for its bluntness and lack of subtext. Schwarzenegger plays the Terminator with the absence of personality, and that’s what makes him so compelling a villain.
Having now (finally) seen both, I feel comfortable saying that I prefer The Terminator to its sequel. There’s fun to be had with the bombast of T2, but it’s missing the formal precision of the original. And certainly none of the subsequent terrible sequels come close to matching it. Somehow I doubt the man behind Deadpool is going to show the same innate talent for moviemaking that James Cameron did with only his second feature. However you feel about the some of his films’ more troubling elements, there’s no denying that Cameron has got the goods as a director. He’s just one of those wunderkind guys who can pick up a camera and make something perfect. It’s a real shame he’s stuck in Avatar-land for the foreseeable future.