NB: The following contains spoilers for The Terminator.
If a film endures for any length of time beyond its initial burst of popularity, one of the likely reasons is because of the craft and attention to detail put into it by its makers.
The Terminator, originally released in 1984, remains a genre classic for precisely this reason: a low-budget film that combines elements of sci-fi and slasher horror, it is, in essence, a pure b-movie – the kind of fodder that draws crowds and then vanishes from memory a few weeks later. Yet writer-director James Cameron made the film with such precision and care that, despite the odd rough edge here and there, it remains thrilling over 30 years later.
One of the things that The Terminator does so well, aside from the effectiveness of things like its music, cinematography and acting, is build suspense through foreshadowing. In other words, big events that pay off later in the movie are set up earlier on in subtle, clever ways.
Take, for example, an early scene in an LA suburb. The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a star-making role) is roaming the city, hunting down everyone with the name Sarah Connor. As the cyborg’s stolen car rolls to a halt outside an average-looking house, the front tire crushes a small toy truck – foreshadowing a later action scene in which the Terminator commandeers an articulated truck during a chase.
Note, too, the little dog that yaps at the Terminator as it strides across a patchy lawn towards the house. It plants a seed for something depicted more blatantly later in the movie: although humans struggle to spot the killer cyborgs in their midst, dogs instinctively know something’s wrong, and start barking. We see proof this in a future scene where a human enclave is raided by a small army of Terminators; the dogs sniff the hands of human soldiers and don’t react. When the mutts start barking, however, it’s an early warning that the cyborgs have arrived.
Later, we cut to another Sarah Connor – this one played by Linda Hamilton, and the Terminator’s true target. When we first meet her, Sarah’s just a young waitress working at a diner – what she doesn’t yet realise is that, years in the future, her son will lead a resistance movement against an army of sentient machines bent on wiping out humanity. As a little wink to Sarah’s importance to the survival of our species, Cameron adds a neat little line of dialogue: after her waitress uniform is ruined by a kid’s dollop of ice cream, Sarah hears one of her colleagues remark, “In a hundred years, who’s gonna care?”
Cameron also quietly garnishes the plot with all kinds of allusions to his story’s human-versus-machine theme. There’s an early scene where we hear an answer machine message recorded by Sarah Connor’s flatmate, Ginger, which goes like this: “Ha ha ha, fooled you. You’re talking to a machine, but don’t by shy, it’s okay. Machines need love too, so talk to it and Ginger, that’s me, or Sarah will get back to you…”
It’s a clever storytelling flourish for several reasons – one, it sets up a hint of suspense, because we’ve heard earlier that the cops know that Sarah’s in trouble, and that they’re ringing around looking for her. But mainly, it introduces the idea that someone could make a phone call, hear a human-sounding voice, and not realise that they’re listening to a machine – which is exactly what happens later in the movie, where we see the Terminator repeatedly impersonating other humans as a means of trickery. At one point, the Terminator fools Sarah into giving away her location by impersonating her mother’s voice over the telephone.
Throughout the film, Cameron juxtaposes the fleshy and the mechanical – enforcing his concept of a society reliant on machines and ultimately betrayed by them. In one scene, Sarah’s protector Kyle Reese (a disarmingly good Michael Biehn) falls asleep as huge digging machines work away in the background; the action then cuts to a sequence in the future, where the pneumatic diggers give way to the deadly machines controlled by Skynet.
Cameron also makes a point of showing exactly where and how the Terminator gets all his weaponry: a scene in gun shop (featuring a cameo from the late Dick Miller) provides a nice bit of storytelling irony – we’re watching a killing machine violently acquire yet more killing machines.
Looking back through The Terminator’s original screenplay, and it becomes clear how much of this was thought about and crafted from the very beginning – not just dreamed up on a whim during the shoot. The little toy truck crushed by the wheels of the Terminator’s car? It’s described in specific detail. The heavy machinery that sits in the background as Reese falls asleep? Yes, that’s here too.
What’s also worth noting is that, either for budgetary or practical reasons, Cameron couldn’t quite realize everything he’d written. Originally, for example, Cameron wrote that Reese would have been joined in his vaunt back through time by a second soldier – but in a freak accident, he materialized in the wrong place and died, impaled on the ironwork of a fire escape. Similarly, the Terminator’s arrival in 1984 was marked by a dramatic thunderstorm – something that would have made the sequence even more atmospheric, but also could have proved costly to stage.
Tellingly, Cameron kept those other, smaller details in his finished movie – even though the low-budget and compressed filming schedule might have prompted a less sure-handed director to eject them. Instinctively, perhaps, the young filmmaker understood that these moments of foreshadowing were an affordable means of building suspense; the repeated allusions to machinery and “tech noir” create the impression of a cohesive, even nightmarish world of science slipping out of humanity’s control. They give a sense of events all building to a crescendo – from the mechanical voice on the answer machine, to the Terminator impersonating a cop’s voice towards the middle of the film, to the bit of trickery that leads Sarah to give away her location in the third act.
The idea of recorded voices has a final pay-off, too, right at the end. Just before Sarah drives off into the desert, ready to face a dark and uncertain future, we see her tape a message to her as-yet unborn son, John. In it, she describes her bewilderment at the strange paradox that led to Kyle Reese becoming John’s unwitting father – an acknowledgement that, although Reese was just a lowly foot-soldier, he too played a part in saving the human species.
Then we see a small boy take a Polaroid picture of Sarah – the very picture Reese is shown holding earlier in the film, adding to the sense of a circular tale completing its cycle. That photo holds such a significance, in fact, that it’s easy to miss the meaning of the dog Sarah has seated next to her in the car: protection, should another cyborg come looking for her.
The Terminator is an action thriller about larger-than-life things happening – killer robots from the future, exploding trucks, huge shoot-outs – but Cameron was a smart enough filmmaker that, even here, in his debut feature, he knew that the small details mean everything. And it’s these details, sown so carefully, that make The Terminator such a timeless film.