Movie Night With Urbaniak: The Terminator

The Terminator perfectly embodies two crucial truths about motion pictures:

TRUTH 1. With a truly excellent script at its core, a movie can weather all sorts of strikes against it. TheTerminator sports some special effects that looked barely acceptable when the movie was released in 1984 and now look barely above the work of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen, some occasional bad acting and generally cheesy, low-budget, badly-dated 80s production design. It still works beautifully because the script is tight as a drum and as compact as a Gremlin. Aspiring screenwriters, get out your notebooks and weep hot, bitter tears of envy as you behold the screenplay for The Terminator. Learn its lessons, go forth and do likewise and nothing will prevent you from wild success in filmmaking.

The motion of the narrative of The Terminator could not be more perfectly shaped. The first act presents all its players, tells us nothing about them except their actions, and sets them on an irreversible collision-course toward each other. There is no scene where the Terminator explains who he is, there is no scene where Reese pets a dog to make him “likable,” there is no scene where Sarah Connor complains to her roommate “look at me, I’m pushing 30 and I’m still working as a waitress! I’m such a mess, I’ll never get a guy or have kids! My life will never mean anything!” The Terminator moves implacably toward his goal, Reese moves implacably toward his, and Sarah gets caught in between. Once the characters all meet up, chase each other and exchange gunfire, they break apart for the start of Act II and we finally get a little information about who Reese is, who the Terminator is and why they’re doing all these crazy things. As the confusion lifts, solid, eternal themes emerge — destiny, fate, motherhood, fatherhood, the nature and purpose of humanity, all dealt with with a maximum of economy, grace and visual acuity. What Urbaniak calls “the moebius-strip nature of the time-travel movie” is intricately laid out in scenes that are heavily expository yet crammed with suspense and action, so that a 106-minute movie with a complicated backstory flies by in no time whatsoever. Events follow hard upon each other so that the story plays out over a matter of days, the few scenes of rest contain tidbits like a robot peeling off its face or a tutorial on building pipe bombs, the emphasis is on pursuit and jeopardy, sacrifice and honor. The love story, improbable as it is (two people meet, one a soldier from the future, fall in love, have sex and conceive a child, all within 24 hours, while being pursued by an evil, unstoppable robot) works because it stands as the inverse of the antagonist, a character who exists only to destroy.

TRUTH 2: Different narrative forms naturally lend themselves to different aspects of existence. The novel is ideal for presenting the inner lives of its characters, the play is ideal for showing people in a room talking and movies are ideal for showing large metal objects hurtling through the air. Or, to put it another way, novels are good for delineating thought, plays are good for presenting speech, and movies are good for displaying action. The action, however, cannot be action for its own sake. The lesser talents who followed James Cameron into the arena of “80s action movies” often did not share his intuitive sense of what constitutes effective action. An action setpiece in a movie is a lot like a song in a Broadway show. In a good Broadway show, the songs are memorable and powerful and also advance the plot, so that the narrative stakes at the end of the song are higher than they were at the beginning. In the bad Broadway show, the songs are “show stoppers,” big production numbers exuding spectacle and bombast, after which everyone goes back to doing exactly what they were doing beforehand. And so it is with the action movie. The excellent action sequence is a culmination of narrative, sharply expresses character, is innovative and surprising, uses location in a vital and thematic way, and serves as a plot turn without which the narrative is meaningless. The 80s and early 90s teemed with movies whose action sequences did none of these things. These movies are largely forgotten now, but the ones that remain, principally the Die Hard movies, the Terminator movies, Aliens, the first 80 minutes of The Abyss, and a few others stand as the fulfillment of not just action movies but as a genuine fulfillment of the potential of the cinematic form.

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36 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: The Terminator”
  1. craigjclark says:

    Who picked this one? You or Urbaniak? And are you planning on watching any horror movies in the week leading to Halloween?

    • Todd says:

      We need an excuse to watch The Terminator?

      I have no specific plans to watch scary movies in holiday tradition, although my manager did make me a gift recently of a new edition of Poltergeist, which is one of my all-time favorites.

      • craigjclark says:

        No excuse required. I was just curious.

        I saw that Poltergeist had a new edition out. It’s disappointing that they couldn’t get Tobe Hooper to do a commentary on it. It might have laid to rest some of the long-running theories about who actually directed the movie.

        • Todd says:

          I would opine that the absence of a Tobe Hooper commentary absolutely lays to rest some of the long-running theories about who actually directed the movie.

          As for our reasons for watching The Terminator, I have two words for you: Lance. Hendrickson.

          • craigjclark says:

            I wouldn’t be so sure about that. It’s also possible that Hooper feels that he lost that fight decades ago and no amount of backfilling is going to convince anybody now.

            And yes, Lance Hendrickson is a perfectly good answer. Between this film, Aliens and Near Dark, his place in the horror/sci-fi pantheon is secure.

            • Todd says:

              When Poltergeist came out, Jobeth Williams was on a morning talk show talking about the making of the movie, and was telling a story about acting opposite nonexistent special effects, and said something like: “And Steven, the director, would say ‘okay, so this stick with a piece of tape on it is the mouth of hell’…”

              At which point her interviewer said “Steven?” To which Williams replied “Oh, did I say Steven? I meant Tobe, of course.”

              That evidence, of course, is circumstantial, but all you have to do is watch all of Spielberg’s movies and then watch all of Hooper’s movies to see who is the director of Poltergeist. Poltergeist teems with warmth, surprise, incident, humor, wonder and generosity, qualities everywhere in Spielberg’s work and completely absent from Hooper’s.

              • craigjclark says:

                If it is the case that Spielberg directed the movie and Hooper was nowhere near the set, why was he used as a proxy? That’s the part that I never understood about the whole brouhaha.

                Also, while I wouldn’t say Hooper’s oeuvre evinces much warmth, wonder or generosity, I’d say his early films have plenty of surprise, incident and humor, even if the laughs in a film like Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Eaten Alive stick in the throat. And the TCSM sequel with Dennis Hooper is so far over the top it’s practically an out-and-out splatter comedy.

                • rxgreene says:

                  Form the “behind the Movie” special i saw a few years back, Hooper started off as the Director, with Speilberg as more of an Advisor (Producer?) in the back. As the movie progressed, Speilberg took on more and more of a Directorial role until Hooper was effectively ousted, and Speilberg was running the show. IIRC – Speilberg was in on the edits as well, so it was effectively his picture no matter who started it.

                • Todd says:

                  If it is the case that Spielberg directed the movie and Hooper was nowhere near the set, why was he used as a proxy?

                  I was told once that Spielberg intended to direct Poltergeist all along, but as the schedules came together was shooting E.T. at the same time, and that there is, apparently, a DGA rule about a director directing only one movie at a time. So he hired Hooper to be the “director,” then did as he pleased. Which, I imagine, was a very uncomfortable situation for Hooper.

                  • craigjclark says:

                    The sad thing is Hooper probably thought this was his chance to be taken more seriously by the powers that be and it blew up in his face. Heck, I’ll bet he even thought he was doing Spielberg a favor by taking the reins of the project.

            • nom_de_grr says:

              It’s too bad Near Dark never got any real traction, it’s a great movie. I even liked what most people consider to be a weak ending.

      • gdh says:

        You can watch Poltergeist any time; the proper type of movie for Hallween is the Self-Consciously-“B” Movie. Your Army of Darkness or Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter.

  2. chrispiers says:

    I read all your analyses of films and absolutely love them. I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to share your insights.

    I think I especially enjoy when you analyze movies that might not otherwise receive such lavish attention such as Octopussy or even this one. I’d love to see you take on an 80s horror film or some recent big-budget spectacle film. Just curiosity on my part, really.

    Anyway, thank you.

  3. dougo says:

    Hey, tell the ‘Banster to update his own damn LiveJournal one of these years.

  4. teamwak says:

    I do love The Terminator movies, including 3 (to an extent); but the stop-mo looks awfully ropey now! lol.

    On a totally different subject, as this blog is mainly populated with cat lovers, can offer up this gem?

  5. craigjclark says:

    In case you haven’t read his review yet, Ebert has finally gotten around to seeing Grindhouse and he wasn’t all that impressed with it.

    • Todd says:

      Ebert seems to have fallen prey to a common error — regarding his personal experience as essential to judging art. “I’ve been to La Grande Jatte a thousand times, I’ve never seen a lady with a monkey there. What a ridiculous painting.” He praises Tarantino and Rodriguez for being so film-history savvy, then preens that he has never seen a double-bill like the one they present. Otherwise, I sympathize with a lot of his viewpoint — Grindhouse is difficult to comprehend conceptually, because the directors are paying homage to really bad movies but are trying to make really good movies at the same time. It worked for me, but Ebert got his car stuck in the conceptual ditch, as did the vast movie-going audience.

      • craigjclark says:

        The thing that amuses me the most about his criticism is that in my write-up of the film, I actually mentioned how it perfectly evoked movie-going experiences I’ve actually had.

        Also, I have to wonder how he got hold of the theatrical version since I doubt it’s still playing anywhere in Chicago.

        • Todd says:

          Roger Ebert is a big, powerful guy, a titan and eminence gris in the film-commentary industry. He can have his people call up the Weinsteins’ people and have them set up a screening for him. Scorsese, Eastwood, Allen, they all have their own screening rooms and get stuff sent to them all the time.

          • craigjclark says:

            I figured it was something like that, but I also wonder if it’s the case where he sees these “catch-up” movies on film on a movie screen or whether he watches them at home from a DVD. One way or the other would definitely color the experience.

  6. ghostgecko says:

    Hey now! A lot of Harryhausen’s work is superb. It may not look realistic to a viewer today, but it’s damn gorgeous, especially considering what grueling effort the animation itself requires, and the fact he pretty much had to invent a lot of the techniques he used. Special effects wouldn’t be where they are today without his example, and helluva lot of CGI looks crappier than his stop motion. Terminator’s animation looks bad because it’s just not very good, period.

    • Todd says:

      I mean no disrespect to either O’Brien or Harryhausen, just that The Terminator’s special effects aren’t advanced beyond what those guys did thirty or sixty years earlier.

      • ghostgecko says:

        Yah, true, but there still weren’t a lot of options for a low budget pic in 1984 except puppets & stop motion. Terminator’s stop motion was fairly clunky; Bride of Re-Animator had some a few years later that still looks believable now.

  7. curt_holman says:

    Terminator question

    The Poltergeist discussion made me wonder: do you have an opinion about Harlan Ellison’s lawsuit that The Terminator plagiarized Ellison’s “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand” episodes of “The Outer Limits” (and I think, to a lesser extent, his short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”)? My understanding is that the studio settled the suit and gave Ellison screen credit, although Cameron wanted to take it to court.

    My feeling was that the film had only superficial similarities to Ellison’s works, but I might feel differently if I watched all of them back to back. I’m also not sure of the point at which superficial similarities become appropriation of ideas.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Terminator question

      I’m not up on the details of Mr. Ellison’s many lawsuits. Neither am I sure of the dividing line between homage and theft. I’ve been involved in two lawsuits in Hollywood, both of which I am sure involved no theft. In one, the judge sided with the defendant, in the other it sided with the plaintiff. I shrug and move on.

      Hollywood recycles ideas all the time, and also steals ideas all the time. In one of the lawsuits stated above, I was called in to prove that the studio hadn’t stolen one writers idea, and wanted me to show that they had actually stolen my idea instead. For this I was to be compensated not at all. It was a little weird.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Why Abyss’s 80 first minutes?

    Hi Todd,

    I’m new to your blog, and it’s really a great place to learn more about screen writing. Really helpful.

    But I’ve got a question.

    Why only the first 80 minutes of Abyss?

    I just think that it’s one of the best Cameron’s movies.

    What didn’t you like about the end?


    • Todd says:

      Re: Why Abyss’s 80 first minutes?

      I agree that The Abyss is one of Cameron’s best movies, but it falls apart for me once Ed Harris discovers the magic glowing alien city at the bottom of the ocean. He takes such great pains to stick to the implacable logic and terror of undersea life, and then in the last act just throws all that out and the magic glowing aliens can do anything they want. I’ve seen both cuts of the movie several times, and I don’t find the “director’s cut” to be better, just bad in a different way from the theatrical release. The message of “be nice to each other, or we’ll blow the shit out of you” just doesn’t make sense to me.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: Why Abyss’s 80 first minutes?

        That’s an interesting point of view. I’ve never watched it from this angle. You make me want to watch it again and see how your theory will confront with my own opinion of the film.
        I just thought that the last part was a beautiful piece of visual poetry and hope and that it was a great way to counterbalance the technical/cold side of the first part of the movie.
        It touches to the heart and yes, it probably doesn’t really match to the terror of the undersea that we’ve seen until now, but it’s just a wonderful way to reunite this couple around the belief of something magic lying under the sea.
        Definitly need to find back my DVD copy of this great movie…