The Terminator’s perfect shot

With Terminator Genisys on the way, Ryan analyzes what might just be the most powerful shot in James Cameron's The Terminator...

“…the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present. Tonight…”

You can tell a lot about how effective a movie scene is by watching it again with the sound turned off. Stripped of its dialogue, sound effects and music, can the sequence still communicate its message?

James Cameron’s The Terminator, blessed though it is with a superb score by Brad Fiedel and numerous quotable lines, could work almost as well as a silent movie. So much of Cameron’s feature debut (discounting Piranha II: The Spawning, from which he was fired after just two weeks) is told through body language and skilful shot composition.  

Watch The Terminators opening again without sound, and you’ll see just how effective and lean its visual storytelling is. A pre-credits sequence shows us the future, where the machines have taken over and mankind hunkers down in the dirt. We’re then taken back to 1984, where two figures emerge from a blaze of light and smoke – one staring and implacable, the other writhing in pain.

Those polar reactions to the experience of time travel – an agonised gasp from hero Kyle Reese, mechanical indifference from the killer cyborg – tell us more about these characters than a page of dialogue ever could. It isn’t difficult to see why Cameron cast former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800: it’s all in his body language, his heavy, plodding gait and, most of all, that unblinking, mask-like face.

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Nowhere is this more apparent than in what is, for this writer, the most striking shot in The Terminator, and one of the most subtly effective in Cameron’s long career.

It arrives at around the 15 minute mark, at which point the T-800 has arrived from the future, stolen some clothes, a car and a cache of guns, and embarked on his pre-programmed mission: to kill Sarah Connor, a woman who will one day give birth to a resistance fighter who will lead mankind’s counterattack against the machines.

Determined to do a thorough job, the T-800 decides to kill every Sarah Connor listed in the phone book. Through sheer bad luck, the target at the top of the list isn’t the mother of humanity’s savior, but an ordinary woman living in suburbia. 

We watch as the T-800 pulls up on a road where children are playing in the sunshine. Having run over a toy truck (a foreshadowing of explosive events to come later in the film), the T-800 emerges from its car and stomps towards the wrong Sarah Connor’s house. 

One insistent knock on the door later, and Connor answers, peering through the five-inch gap afforded by the safety chain.

It’s here we get that perfect shot: 

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There’s an eerie power to the way director of photography Adam Greenberg frames this tiny moment. The stark black of the door and the jamb isolates the angular quality of the actor’s face and the piercing look in his eyes. We’re suddenly looking at the T-800 from more-or-less the perspective of the wrong Sarah Connor (Marianne Muellerleile), with the shot taken from just over her left shoulder. We’re given a moment to study the cyborg’s unreadable expression, which gives away nothing more than a kind of weird, silent determination.

The shot also symbolises how effectively The Terminator plays with the conventions of the slasher horror genre. Cameron once said that he’d written the film as his own response to hits like Halloween and Friday The 13th – both horror films that, like The Terminator, were shot with relatively low budgets.

“My contemporaries were all doing slasher-horror movies,” Cameron said. “John Carpenter was the guy I idolised the most. He made Halloween for $30,000 or something. That was everyone’s break-in dream, to do a stylish horror movie. It was a very slasher film type image. And it really was the launching pad for the story.” 

But where the killers in most slasher movies where masks and sneak around in the shadows, The Terminator‘s cyborg looks passably like an average human being. In the shabby, stifling and chaotic version of Los Angeles Cameron draws, the T-800 can get away with walking down a busy street or driving around in broad daylight.

That perfect shot, however, is the first hint that the T-800’s face is as much a mask as the ones worn by Leatherface or Michael Myers.  It’s all there in that cold, chilling expression, and the stark way it’s framed, which recalls a celebrated scene from John Ford’s The Searchers

In that film, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is shown looking into a world of domestic happiness he can never attain, while his own realm – the Texan wilderness – looms up behind him.

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The T-800 is itself something akin to a character from a western – its lead-footed walk and implacable expression owes a debt to Yul Brynner’s robot cowboy in Michael Crichton’s Westworld, which married the genre to sci-fi and horror in 1973.

The shot from The Terminator both echoes the one in The Searchers and inverts it:  here, the outsider is a mountainous incarnation of death, literally busting its way into an average suburban home. 

We all know what happens next: the wrong Sarah Connor is brutally gunned down, and the T800’s trail of destruction continues. It all builds to the 30-minute mark, where the Terminator attempts to kill the right Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in a busy nightclub.

That set-piece marks the start of a relentless chase through LA – one that Cameron manages to sustain for almost an hour. Over the course of it, the T-800’s fleshy mask is gradually peeled away to reveal what Cameron once called “death rendered in steel.”

Before all that, The Terminator prowls through its opening act, gradually revealing the T-800’s strength and lack of compassion through a series of striking sequences: the cyborg’s attack on a group of punks. Its casual murder of a gunshop owner (played by the great Dick Miller). And most of all, that perfect shot: the Terminator’s face. Human yet somehow inhuman. Handsome yet also cold. It’s the face of a being that can’t be reasoned with. That doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear.

That will not stop, ever, until you are dead. 

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