It took a killer robot from the future to make me aware of a few things, but these didn’t sink in until many years after the robot had been crushed by an industrial press, and had returned in a number of sequels of decreasing quality. (Except for T2: Judgment Day.)
Yeah. It took that movie with that guy, to make me fall in love with the medium of film through an unpopular, disrespected genre, a minor language barrier, and the magic that happens in between the frames. The Terminator obliterated the popular notions of science fiction as a genre filled with eggheads in lab coats pronouncing doom from runaway tech, and became a prime example of how pure cinema, along with other art forms, can cut across languages and cultures. Unlike other art forms, only cinema can combine images and sounds in ways that create a third new thing in the retina of the viewer. In the hands of skilled, intuitive filmmakers, a film becomes a private aural-visceral symphony that affects the audience in ways that the most careful storyboarding and planning cannot anticipate.
“Film spectators are quiet vampires.”Jim Morrison (Source)
James Cameron recycles the ingredients of sci fi schlock and late night B-movie plotlines and serves up a multi-faceted blue neon and steel jewel that maintains a deft and sure hand as it changes moods. Sometimes it’s a horror movie upon which action happens. Sometimes it’s an action movie upon which future shock intrudes, and for a very brief time, it’s a film about a doomed romance upon which horror and action insinuate. The pacing, editing and score make you forget that the film’s structure hinges on the head-spinning premise that Sarah Connor’s protector (Michael Biehn, also the father of her child) has traveled from the future on the orders of the leader of the resistance (Sarah’s son), to protect Sarah from the Terminator. Sarah Connor’s son, John Connor, sends Kyle Reese (Biehn) to the past to protect Sarah Connor, becoming the father of her son, John Connor, along the way.
But this is all academic dissection. This is something I can only do now with hindsight, possessing a better understanding of the English language, and having sat through hundreds of movies that in a greater or lesser way, have tried and failed to accomplish what The Terminator did.
Going back in time, to when I first saw this movie on video as a 9 year old boy in Puerto Rico with a very limited grasp of English, dialog was not going to help me figure out what was happening. And lucky for me, I didn’t need it. This film rolled over me like a fever dream, enveloping me in its existential horror. On the conscious level it gave me chills, thrills, and a great sense of exhilaration when Sarah Connor, now without her protector, completes her story arc from helpless girl to heroine by pushing the red button and activating the industrial press. On a subconscious level, there was this Kafkaesque situation of this thing, sent across time and space to kill this girl for something that has not yet happened. A machine without remorse that couldn’t be bargained with and relentlessly pursued Sarah till it was reduced to a metal torso dragging itself over a concrete floor, the initial image James Cameron saw in a nightmare he’d had years before. At that time I didn’t know who Kafka was, or what existential meant. Nevertheless, I felt those things watching The Terminator.
“The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension.”
In between the action scenes there’s the beats. Sometimes they sound close, like a character. At other times they’re faint, a distant metallic echo heard from a great distance, like a metal hawk seeking out its prey. Other times it’s layers of droning sounds that resembles the sounds cutting through the night of Kyle Reese’s future, where Terminators seek out humans. Even when he’s not onscreen, the soundtrack reminds us of the the hulking stranger hunting for Sarah Connor in the night. The score’s rhythmic industrial beats and cold blue cinematography project distant impressions of an approaching tech dystopia that couldn’t be articulated, but could be intuited.
There had been other films that communicated emotions without the help of dialog. The Graduate left me uneasy. The Stepford Wives caused anxieties in me that as a child I couldn’t explain. But these films only did this for me in certain parts. Scenes that are still imprinted in my mind. Scenes that had to give way to more traditional scenes. The kind of scenes favored by actors because of the Oscar potential inherent in them. The Terminator was the first film that took me on roller coaster ride of emotional highs and lows from beginning to end where dialog and emoting was nearly superfluous. A particular form of magic that only happens in film took place with The Terminator. Ideas and emotions were being communicated at a cellular level, before language became a mediator, and even a sort of emotional neutralizer. Having re-watched it a few times as an adult, with a much better understanding of English, the rushes of sensation it delivered to me as a child have dulled. That telepathic thrill The Terminator gave me back then across a language barrier has now been tempered with dialog and exposition.
In the larger context of time and place, it became the zero ground cultural event of the the 80’s. In the same way that there had been before and after Jaws, before and after Mean Streets, and before and after Star Wars, now there was before and after The Terminator.
And in the same way that the horror, urban crime drama and the space opera genres were elevated by the previously mentioned films, The Terminator elevated science fiction into something cool and glamorously bleak. The faint traces of techno-phobia that had been explored in science fiction films of decades past were re-purposed by Cameron and presented in a way that felt new. For me this was the realization that science fiction was the genre. As much as I enjoy westerns, action, dramas, and everything in between, science fiction became my favorite genre, and The Terminator sent me looking for more of what that film made me feel. In print, film and other visual media, only science fiction gives me that particular thrill that happens when ideas propel narratives and emotions. Films like Johnny Mnemonic. But that’s an article for another time.
Written by Mel Cartagena
Mel Cartagena is a copywriter and graphic designer by day, and in between he writes and directs films, and writes and draws comics. His favorite places are bookstores, cafes, movie theaters and museums.
If you can’t find him on these places he’s likely looking either new ramen shops, or the perfect slice of tiramisu.