This ICHF was written by SkarmorySilver, who you can find at https://twitter.com/silver_skarmory. I may have made a few touch ups and notes here and there, but the bulk of this entry is their work!
(Image source by Ryan Crosby: https://posterspy.com/posters/the-terminator-10/)
There’s nothing human about a machine. It is, at the end of the day, a collection of entirely inorganic parts whose energy is provided by an external source of power, and whose decisions are decided either via outside control or through entirely procedural computation. And yet, the idea of machines becoming like people is an appealing one to sci-fi writers of all stripes. The concept of creating what’s essentially an entire human being from scratch has been around since the very term “robot” was coined by Karel Capek’s play, R.U.R., wherein the mass-produced automata, while organic, are still artificially produced, and therefore open up questions about the morals of such an idea. Since then, human-like robots have been explored in science fiction in so many different ways that I can’t possibly list them all, but one in particular stands out by taking the concept for a frightening spin. The question this literal killing machine poses is thus: “What would you do if there was something coming for you which looks human in every conceivable way, but is, at its core, a glorified computer program?”
The Terminator, from the 1984 film of the same name, lives up to its evocative title in every respect. It doesn’t think, it doesn’t feel, and it doesn’t have morals, empathy, or mercy. It was literally designed for only one purpose: to search and destroy. Nothing will stop it in its relentless mission to complete its goal, and almost nothing can. If you or I were its target, a swift and horrible death would be inevitable. But most frightening of all is that, somehow, it has learned to mimic human beings, in voice, in behavior, and in appearance – the latter of which was given to it, but the point is the same. You could literally walk right past it and never even realize it isn’t actually human. And should it be programmed to kill you, you wouldn’t even know of it until it was too little, too late.
The reason I managed, somehow, to familiarize myself with this movie is somewhat less dramatic than a childhood memory of seeing it – I didn’t actually watch the first movie until early in my twenties, when my family and I decided to watch Terminator: Genesys (the most recently released film in the franchise at the time) and found it mediocre at best, which is typical for a franchise with as may sequels as this. We then wondered what the previous installments were like and promptly decided to screen them too in succession over the next few weekends, starting with the first one. I can say with confidence that, as per tradition, the original is the best of the lot. It’s not 100% perfect, but a lot of it still holds up even today, and while obviously not for the faint of heart, it’s well worth looking for and watching yourself if you can handle the harrowing last act. The only sequel that can match its quality is Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but that flick is in a different league altogether, so I’ll be discussing just the first one here.
The Terminator is seen by many as a science-fiction action movie, but almost every single scene with its famously implacable namesake is frightening enough that I consider it to be, at its broadest, a sci-fi horror flick. The T-800, as it was officially named, actually has a lot in common with a stereotypical slasher movie villain, a nigh-unstoppable force – though not necessarily one devoid of characterization – that does nothing but commit murder and chase the unlucky protagonists around until only one of them is left to see the credits. That said, though, this is not a movie that revels in the spilling of blood. Our android of the hour aside, the characters are not purposely unlikable and they don’t do stupid things just because they can. They’re just ordinary people who have no idea that a malicious computer network decades in the future sent one of its programmed cyborg assassins back in time to kill the person who would have otherwise given birth to the person who’d go on to prevent it from existing in the first place. Need I mention that, in the time period the Terminator is sent back to, its designated target was also just another unimportant civilian? In other words, if could have been programmed to hunt down any human alive on Earth, because anyone had the potential to stop its creator. That message is uplifting, but also unsettling. We frequently underestimate the impact we have had or could have on those around us, and as this movie demonstrates, even a single person can make a world of difference, sometimes without even realizing it. Of course, what mark we can voluntarily leave on the future is up to us to decide, and can swing in either direction – for every John Connor, there is a Cyberdyne programmer with the potential to bring Skynet upon us. And the thought of a future self-aware AI determining that any one of us could change the world enough to undo its existence and use time travel to sic a killer robot on us in the present is nothing if not incredibly creepy. In other words, the perfect material for a horror film.
On the flipside, this underlying theme, that anyone is capable of great or terrible things, is what makes Sarah ultimately besting and destroying the T-800 a triumphant if bittersweet ending. She had to witness a lot of people close to her get mowed down like lawn grass just for existing in her vicinity, but that motivates her to step up and try to stop the mechanical murderer from taking any more human lives just to clear the way to her. There’s no doubt that she’d have to live with the experience for the rest of her life – and as shown in later installments in the film series, this is indeed the case – but she is in a much better place than she used to be, and has proven herself to be more capable than she’d previously thought. And all it took to realize that was char-broiling a deadly cyborg with a pipe bomb and stuffing it into a hydraulic press. You know, typical road trip stuff.
Major kudos must also be given to the way the T-800 is presented. This is one of the most famous roles of Arnold Schwarzenegger for a reason – his performance as the emotionless, code-driven villain in question is played to perfection, and no matter what he does, that dull and almost lifeless look on his face never once wavers even when in mortal peril. This of course means that there is not an iota of surprise whatsoever come the reveal of its robotic endoskeleton, but that doesn’t make it any less nightmarish – if anything, it should be almost a RELIEF to know that it is inherently mechanical… except that it ISN’T. That skeleton-like frame with its glowing red eye-cameras rising from the inferno of the aforementioned pipe bomb, immune to fire and still bent on ending Sarah’s life, is an image straight from the depths of Hell itself. It is indeed one of the most famous scenes in all of science fiction and indeed in cinematic history, simply because of how evocative and terrifying it is. If there was any indication that this machine from the future seemingly could not be, well, terminated, this was it. And as opposed to the CGI that would be used to bring the androids to life in later films, this one uses stop-motion by dint of technological limitations, but while it could’ve easily looked fake and unconvincing in any other context, it actually works in the movie’s favor. There’s something about stop-motion that can seem uncanny to some, and the jerky, almost forced movement of the de-fleshed T-800 as it continues to advance upon a rightly terrified Sarah would not be out of place for a real mechanical apparatus. Nothing else in Hollywood before or since has ever managed to exactly match the feelings evoked by that climactic confrontation, and I’m guessing that audiences watching the original theatrical run of this movie would have had that scene seared into their memories for the rest of their lives. If you hadn’t been scared by any part of the movie before then, you likely WILL be traumatized by the ending, but in a way you’ll fondly remember for years to come.
Predictably, the Terminator and its movie of origin have been ingrained in pop culture ever since they first graced the silver screen, with numerous references, parodies, and quotations in a wide variety of media works and genres. Its popularity and relative box office profit easily convinced Hollywood to continue the story however they could, but while the second film in the franchise is a masterpiece in its own right, I feel like there will never again be a movie that can quite match the first one in terms of tone, pacing, and invoked responses. Perhaps it is the shift from the older more thought-provoking fare to more action-packed, sensation-driven experiences, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but like with many 21st-century sequels to (or remakes of) classics of the 80’s and 90’s, the trend seems to have actually worked to their franchises’ detriment by dint of folding them into an already saturated market for actionized cinema. But just because the sequels aren’t up to par doesn’t invalidate the existence of the original film, and while dated in some respects, its timelessness otherwise cannot be overstated, and I personally can’t recommend it enough. There may be a lot more Terminator movies now, and perhaps too many for some people’s liking, but it’s hard to stop thinking about the one where it all began.