The Terminator

(1984) *** 1/2 R
108 min. Orion Pictures. Directors: James Cameron, Stan Winston, Jean-Paul Ouelette. Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Lance Henriksen, Rick Rossovich.

With the testosterone-fueled, estrogen-boosted action melodrama The Terminator, director James Cameron first took Hollywood by storm. Fulfilling a promise, Cameron also sent his skeptical leading man--Austrian bodybuilder turned actor Arnold Schwarzenegger--into the stratosphere on the strength of a nearly wordless villain role. The Terminator is sometimes cheesy but never out-and-out dumb, dated but a paragon of resourceful economy, with an unlikely but perversely appealing paranoid premise.

Schwarzenegger plays the titular bad "guy"--a Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 cyborg sent back in time from Los Angeles of 2029 A.D. to that of 1984 A.D. Schwarzenegger's comic-book musculature is instantly iconic, as he rises, nude, from the wet L.A. pavement and looks out on a night-light vista. His single-minded mission: to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) before she can conceive and birth her son John, the future leader of the human resistance against tyrannical machines.

Artifical intelligence run amok has set about wiping out the human race: by catalyzing a nuclear holocaust, bar-coding survivors and marching them through death camps, picking off scavenging rebels, and finally attempting to rewrite history. Luckily, the rebels manage to send their own commando: Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), who strives to inform and protect legend-in-the-making Sarah, the innocent who slowly rises to the grim occasion. Feelings stir between these desperate souls, escalating to the all-time pick-up line "I came across time for you, Sarah."

Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd co-wrote the screenplay (with acknowledgment to the works of science-fiction legend Harlan Ellison), and though--by today's standards--the staccato action, Casio-and-drum-machine Brad Fiedel score, and Stan Winston makeup effects feel a bit crude, Cameron stages the action with escalating gusto and a streak of geeky wit. For starters, who better to play a machine than the eternally alien Ah-nold? The Austrian oak gives the disciplined performance of an experienced poser, ably gunslinging and grimacing with unwavering tunnel-vision.

Cameron also frames his flash-forwards to post-apocalyptic Los Angeles like the doodled Grand-Guignol visions of the kid in the back of the class. Using clever misdirection to seamlessly cross timelines, the tread of a bulldozer under Reese's gaze becomes the skull-crushing tread of a futuristic war machine. In the future, a hollowed-out television is a fireplace and a rat is a meal, the eyes of robotic Hunter-Killers glowing red from beyond the smoke and shadows. Cameron uses computerized, infra-red Terminator P.O.V. shots to good effect, and drops in tongue-in-cheek touches like a Dick Miller cameo, an iguana named Pugsley, and a new-wave dance club dubbed "Tech Noir."

Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton's talents are still embryonic, but they suit the genre tone nicely, as do Lance Henrikson and Paul Winfield as amusingly laconic cops. Earl Boen does a nice turn as Dr. Silberman, a snide criminal psychologist, and quick viewers can spot Bill Paxton as a spiky-haired street tough among the first to run afoul of the Terminator.

Sandwiched between Blade Runner and Robocop, The Terminator is a cyberpunk picture that flirts with emotional resonance but mostly focuses on the gut. Heavy artillery and car chases rule the day, paving the way for an ultimate secret weapon: an impressively frightful metallic exoskeleton proving the tenacity of the Model 101. "Come with me if you want to live" remains a memorable line, but not more so than the earnest promise "I'll be back."

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: LPCM 5.1

Street date: 5/10/2009

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

MGM has pumped out another Terminator release, this time in a spiffy Blu-ray Book release that features 24 color pages of photos, essays, trivia and cast bios. This conmes in the glossy style of other MGM and Fox Blu-ray books, with a cardboard sleeve just barely containing the disc in the backof the book (careful how you handle it, or your disc will slip out onto the floor).

A/V quality and bonus features are exactly the same as the earlier Blu-ray release. The best-ever picture is still something of a disappointment, given a lack of restoration work and a transfer from a noticeably old source that sports dust and dirt. Certainly, this is the way to eatch The Terminator on home video—for now—detail is much improved and color is more accurate, despite a black level that's not as deep as one might hope. The bigger selling point for some may be the walloping uncompressed PCM 5.1 mix that accompanies the film on Blu-ray, although purists, like myself, will wish the monoaural mix was also included. Given that monaural source, this upgrade is all the more impressive in its careful separation and incredible punch. Probably intentionally, the dialogue occasionally struggles to overcome the action, which actually contributes to the realism of Cameron's assaultive action sequences; this is one reach-out-and-touch-you soundscape.

Unfortunately, neither of the Blu-ray releases to date incudes all of the previously available DVD extras. What's here includes "Creating The Terminator: Visual Effects and Music" (12:58, SD), an excerpt from the DVD's hour-long doc "Other Voices: Creating the Terminator" with composer Brad Fiedel and special effects artist Stan Winston; "Terminator: A Retrospective" (20:31, SD) with director James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger; seven "Terminated Scenes" (49:56, SD); and trailers.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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