MGM // 1984 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // May 30th, 2011
"There's a storm coming." -- Sarah Connor
In the late 1970s and early '80s, James Cameron (Avatar) was steadily building a career in the movie biz doing production design and art direction for low-budget Roger Corman releases like Battle Beyond the Stars and Galaxy of Terror, as well as for John Carpenter's Escape from New York. In 1981, he was tapped by Corman at the last minute to direct Piranha II: The Spawning, a sequel to Joe Dante's 1978 Piranha for which he'd originally been hired as a special effects supervisor. Helming the schlocky monster movie about killer fish gave Cameron the directing bug. Soon he was developing an original science fiction action movie about a murderous robot from the future. The result of Cameron's efforts was 1984's The Terminator, a sleeper hit that not only established Cameron as an up-and-coming director but also made a bankable action star of former Mr. Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger (Predator).
Now, The Terminator lands on Blu-ray -- for the fourth time -- in this fancy Blu-ray Book edition from MGM.
A scatter of lightning delivers a hulking Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 cyborg (Schwarzenegger) to 1984 Los Angeles. Sent back in time from the post-apocalyptic world of 2029 in which a global defense network named Skynet has become sentient and is trying to eradicate the human race, he is here to assassinate Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, Children of the Corn), a waitress destined to give birth to John Connor, the leader of the future human resistance. If the Terminator succeeds, the resistance will fail even before it's begun. Connor's counter-move is to send one of his freedom fighters, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn, Aliens), through the time portal to protect Sarah from the cyborg. A mad frenzy of nightclub rampages, cop slayings, car chases, and gunfights ensues.
WARNING: Major spoilers ahead. But, really, you haven't seen
The Terminator? Seriously?
Much as I think Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of the greatest action movies ever made (marred slightly by some weak humor and an occasionally grating performance by Edward Furlong), The Terminator remains my favorite entry in the franchise. For one, it benefits from James Cameron's energetic ingenuity in working with limited means. It's a taut and tough little flick that avoids the bloat common to the director's later pictures with their nearly unlimited special effects budgets. Unable to assemble an endless parade of dazzling optical effects shots, Cameron relied heavily on trick shots, smart editing, hard-R violence, and gritty performances from his actors. The Terminator shamelessly straddles the divide between glossy Hollywood spectacle and grungy exploitation, and the results are relentlessly fun.
The Terminator also benefits from being the only movie in the franchise capable of standing on its own, completely independent of the increasingly rococo mythology outlined in the subsequent pictures. Cameron's initial killer cyborg picture is a tightly structured closed-loop narrative (which may or may not have been liberally borrowed from the writings of Harlan Ellison, depending on whose lawyers one chooses to believe). For a movie that is ostensibly about a stone-faced murderous robot, bloody gunfights, and spectacular explosions, The Terminator is wickedly intelligent. The evil sentient computer Skynet initiates its own doom by sending its assassin back in time to kill the mother of its greatest threat, John Connor, before he is born. Connor's response to the threat to his existence is to send his own father (who is younger than him in his timeline) back in time to protect his mother, and ensure his own conception. On top of all that, it is the Terminator's no-holds-barred aggression that inspires Sarah Connor to become the sort of woman who raises her son as a hardened survivalist capable of challenging the misanthropic tendencies of artificial intelligence run amok. John Connor sends Reese back in time with a message to his mother that the future isn't set in stone, but the movie's tightly structured plot, which is weighted with a playful sense of fatalism, begs to differ: Skynet's attempt to pre-emptively eliminate John Connor is indirectly responsible for Connor's existence in the first place. Think about it too hard and your brain will explode.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Biehn are top-billed in The Terminator, but Linda Hamilton is the real star of the show. The divide between the crazed, militant Sarah Connor of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the terrified, out-of-her-element waitress in The Terminator isn't as stark as many viewers assume. Describing this earlier version of Sarah as a traditional damsel in distress is wrong-headed because The Terminator's central narrative concern is Sarah's rapid evolution from wilting female victim to grab-the-situation-by-the-balls heroine. At one point in the movie, Kyle Reese explains that he volunteered for his one-way trip into the past in part because he wanted to meet the legendary Sarah Connor in person, the woman who taught John Connor -- a man Reese admires more than any other -- everything he knows about leadership and survival. By the end of The Terminator, we can see that Sarah is becoming that legendary figure. Reese ultimately fails in his mission to protect her, and is murdered by the Terminator. It's Sarah herself who succeeds in terminating the killer cyborg.
None of this is to say that Schwarzenegger doesn't deserve his top billing. Hamilton would get her just due in Terminator 2, a movie dominated by the sustained intensity of her performance, but Arnold's hulking presence is the glue that holds the original movie together (even if he's not its most compelling character). To a certain extent, Schwarzenegger and The Terminator made each other phenomena. Schwarzenegger was already famous thanks to the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron and his star turn in John Milius' Conan the Barbarian, but it was the surprise success of The Terminator that launched the Austrian import into superstardom. Cameron tapped him to be the movie's standout draw, but the story goes that Arnold was supposed to play Biehn's hero role (the Terminator was originally conceived as a subtle infiltration unit closer to Robert Patrick's character in the second film, not an outsized demolition man). Only after the director and actor met face to face did they decide to shuffle him into the title role. It was a fateful decision that probably rescued the film from low-budget obscurity. The melding of character and actor proved iconic. Schwarzenegger would go on to play a long list of memorable action heroes in massively successful movies, but he remains most closely associated with the Terminator.
The folks at MGM have shamelessly milked The Terminator for every home video penny that it's worth. By my count, the movie has been release on Blu-ray four times: a 2006 standard keep case edition (one of the first Blu-rays ever produced), a 2009 repackaging that wrapped the original release in a lenticular slipcover matching the design aesthetic of the then new to theaters Terminator: Salvation, a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack release in 2010, and now this Blu-ray Book in 2011. Here's the rub: All of these releases include not only the same transfer of the movie, but the exact same disc -- only the outer wrapping changes from release to release. If you had your fingers crossed for a dazzling new audio/video presentation of the movie, supervised by James Cameron himself, keep them crossed because this ain't it.
The general consensus on the high definition transfer of The Terminator is that it sucks mightily. The general consensus is wrong. The image -- sourced from a 2001 high definition master, and presented in a 1080p MPEG-2/AVC transfer -- isn't up to modern Blu-ray standards, to be sure, but it's not an abomination. It lacks crystal-clear depth, but offers significantly more detail in close-ups than the various DVD releases sourced from the same master. Grain is prevalent throughout the movie, and there's some (occasionally intrusive) source damage, particularly in optical special effects shots. Some of the transfer's flaws are a result of the dated technology used to create the master, but many are rooted in The Terminator being a low-budget production. The image is far from perfect, but it also sidesteps annoying transfer-related problems like excessive digital noise reduction, edge enhancement, or compression artifacts. Could the movie look better if MGM was capable of scraping together enough money to create a new high definition master using current technology? Most definitely. But until that day, this oft-released transfer is easily the best The Terminator has ever looked in a home video format.
Does this Blu-ray sport a rockin' DTS-HD Master Audio track? Heck, no! This thing was mastered a decade ago. It has a relatively beefy Linear PCM 5.1 surround track (assuming you have a receiver that can decode it, which you probably don't), and a compressed Dolby EX 5.1 surround mix that isn't nearly as bright and detailed as we've come to expect from Blu-ray.
Extras include two featurettes and a reel of seven individually accessible deleted scenes. The featurettes are:
Creating The Terminator: Visual Effects and Music (12:58)
In the first half of this piece, the Fantasy II visual effects team discusses the use of miniatures, forced perspective, and stop motion throughout the movie. In the second half, composer Brad Fiedel talks about how dailies of Schwarzenegger as the Terminator inspired him to write the movie's percussive score.
Terminator: A Retrospective (20:31)
This is a fine making-of documentary comprised of period interviews, scenes from the movie, and, most interesting, a sit-down discussion between Cameron and Schwarzenegger in which each gives his perspective on the movie's production.
The single addition to this set is, of course, the Blu-ray Book packaging, which contains 24 glossy pages of photographs, quotes from the movie, trivia, and essays on Cameron, Schwarzenegger, Biehn, Hamilton, and the film. The disc is housed in a flimsy, spindle-less sleeve from which it can too easily slide and get wrecked.
Fresh packaging alone doesn't a double-dip warrant (at least not in my book). If you already own The Terminator on Blu-ray, there's little point ponying up for this admittedly sleeker-on-the-outside release. If you don't own the movie on Blu-ray, it's probably worth grabbing this old transfer (which looks significantly better than its DVD counterparts) until a better release inevitably comes along. The appearance of this Blu-ray Book edition will probably drive down the price of the leftover stock of earlier BDs. I recommend grabbing the old keep case, lenticular slipcover, or combo pack edition on the cheap instead of paying full price for this blatant cash grab.
The Terminator is awesome fun. This new-old release is not. Guilty as charged.
Review content copyright © 2011 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (French)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes