Joe’s $1-a-week cinema #1: The Terminator
Director James Cameron, 1984, starring Michael Biehn. Spoiler alert: Michael Biehn dies.
The first time I saw The Terminator I think I was about 12. This strikes me as the correct age because I turned it on in the middle of the sex scene and I was annoyed yet sweaty at the same time.
In retrospect I suppose it is possible that I was quite comfortable with the sex scene and simply annoyed at Michael Biehn, a man who never quite found his place in the world and was disposed of in the first Terminator film because nobody knew quite what else to do with him. Indeed there is every possibility his death scene was ad libbed.
The most positive reaction one can have about Michael Biehn in a movie is a sense of “What is he doing there?” This at least occupies the mind. In the case of The Terminator the answer was to ensure that the robot he was fighting wasn’t the worst actor on set – or even the worst Teutonic actor on set.
It wasn’t until the sequels that it occurred to the producers that someone playing a robot could act any way he damn well pleased and there was nothing much Leonard Maltin could do about it. Likewise it was realised that one Teutonic actor was more than enough for any film and in the great coin flip of life Michael Biehn came up tails.
I always thought this was unfair. After all, he was only trying to save humanity. But like anyone who tries to save humanity he was at first disbelieved and then later killed – just like Jesus and, to a lesser extent, Bob Brown.
One of the initial problems was that Biehn’s claim to be a time traveller sent from the future to save the world was greeted with great scepticism by Sarah Connor, and not just because of his delivery. We have to remember that this was 1984 and the highest form of technology was the Walkman. Even when the Terminator begins his killing spree of every single Sarah Connor his most sophisticated source of intelligence is the LA phone book – how many Sally, Susan and Steve Connors died needlessly?
And so when Michael Biehn is forced to pretend that he’s from a future that has perfected time travel but not yet developed YouTube the Stanislavski method is of no great use to him. Regardless of such hurdles, however, he does succeed in his primary aim of impregnating Sarah Connor with the baby who will grow up to become his commanding officer.
This would appear to be a recipe for workplace conflict, or at least a sitcom pilot, but remarkably Biehn displays little compunction about being bossed around by his precocious son. Likewise John Connor appears to have little concern at sending his father back in time to knock up his mom and face certain death, a typical Generation Y attitude.
Pedants may at this point question how Michael Biehn was even alive in 2029 when he was killed by the Terminator in 1984. This displays a fundamental ignorance of the complexities of the space-time continuum, which I do not have the time to go into here. Suffice to say, it worked.
More important is that Michael Biehn’s demise at the hands of the Terminator signalled a turning point in popular culture and, to say the least, all of western civilisation. For the first time in a major Hollywood action film the hero was killed without having even vanquished his nemesis. And the death came not in some noble or passionate contest of honour, but by a cold and bloodless machine. As Wikipedia notes, “The Terminator feels no pain, has no emotions, and will stop at nothing to accomplish its mission,” which makes it only slightly more human than Kevin Rudd.
This had a two-fold effect: The first was that it challenged the cheerful American notion that the good guys would always win as a result of God, government or genetics. Here was a mainstream film that said that death was pointless, inevitable and in some cases, particularly if you were Michael Biehn, desirable. The second was that it played a great trick of the light on western audiences. You follow the film almost all the way through presuming that Michael Biehn is the chief protagonist and Sarah Connor something of a talking MacGuffin. Then suddenly in the dying minutes – literally for Michael Biehn – that is flipped on its head: the true hero is Sarah Connor and one realises the film is in fact not just a shoot ‘em up between two blokes but the story of her forging as the matriarch of a celebrated robot-killing dynasty.
Indeed she reminds me a lot of my own mum, except for the robot-killing. I give it four stars.
See it at: All good video stores
Look out for: Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a surprise appearance as the Terminator
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