The Terminator: Directed by James Cameron; Written by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd; Orion.
The Terminator is a machine, designed by other machines to hunt down and kill human beings. At first, one feels the same way about the movie Terminator itself: it is perfectly constructed to excite, frighten, dazzle, and arouse other appropriate emotions in the average American movie audience (which nowadays seems to be half teenager and a quarter young adult). After the initial thrill or shock wears off, however, the viewer begins to realize that the movie is not only skillfully crafted popular entertainment, it also conveys clearly–and not without subtlety–some important points of popular morality.
Since most of America has seen it by now, I will not be spoiling anyone’s fun if I talk about the plot–a sort of spin-off of War Games, in which Norad’s computer threatens to start World War III on its own in order to teach erring mankind lesson. In The Terminator, the machines of the future provoke nuclear war in order to destroy mankind. When they are only partially successful, they turn to other devices to accomplish their nefarious end (among them cyborgs, machines that look like humans). Eventually, however, a leader appears among men–one John Connor–who rouses the human survivors to a successful resistance against the machines. The machines have only one hope. They send their latest model human destroyer, the Terminator (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, world-class body builder and star of the Conan movies) into the past in order to destroy John Connor’s mother before she can bear him. The humans also get one man, Kyle, through before destroying the time machine. In the world of 1984’s Los Angeles these two–marvelously programmed cyborg and brave and determined human–wander,seeking Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), one to kill, the other to save her.
Sarah Connor, as it turns out, is a silly contemporary American girl, working as a (lousy) waitress in a fast food joint and living for her weekend dates with equally silly young men with fast cars. (When one of them stands her up, her indignant roommate tells her, “He can’t do that to you, even if he does own a Porsche!”) Then one horrible, ordinary Friday all the other Sarah Connors in L.A. start dying violent deaths, one after the other. And she realizes that she is being followed.
There ensue all the car crashes and shootings and blowing up of cars, buildings, and human beings (in order of moral significance) that any teenager could desire. The tension never lets up, and each time our hero from the future blowsSchwarzenegger away, he gets up and starts chasing Sarah again.
If you are into scary, this is one radical flick.
The movie’s promoters have wisely chosen to sell it as an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, and so it has been reviewed and so praised as good of its lowlykind. The good thing about movie reviewers is that if you don’t tell them what a movie is about, they will never guess on their own. I say this because the movie is not about Arnold Schwarzenegger, as wonderfully well cast as he is as a creature that looks human only on first glance. (Did you know that machines have Austrian accents?) The movie is about how one frivolous, not very smart or very chaste American girl of 1984 learns how to become a woman. I mean that last word in its full intensity, since a number of films in the last few years have had an apparently similar theme, from Private Benjamin and Alien to the last two Dirty Harrys and even, as a subplot, Red Dawn. In each of these movies, however, the women learn to survive and triumph in a man’s world of violence and power by mastering men’s violent skills and attitudes. But in The Terminator Sarah Connor learns how to be a woman by making real love to a real man, by bearing his child and bringing that child up to be a survivor and a leader.
The two mandatory sex scenes make the point emphatically. In the first, Sarah’s roommate and her boyfriend make “passionate” love, while she listens to her radio with her earphones, rocking and rolling in both meanings of that term. Sarah and Kyle’s decision to make love comes after fighting and learning together and in full consciousness that they are begetting the future leader of their race. The first scene is funny in the best traditions of current teenage exploitation movies; the second is serious, even solemn.
Although this is a movie about Bildung, education, the actual learning is played down; we are left to infer it. When Kyle must leave Sarah for a whik, he gives her a gun. She puts it aside with disgust and proceeds to make a reckless telephone call that will lead the Terminator straight to them. But by the end, the pregnant Sarah is leaving the city to drive into the mountains, cradling her gun and telling to a tape recorder what her son will need to know to accomplish his mission in the future. Sigourney Weaver in Alien, to mention another successful sci-fi flick, also triumphs over non-human violence, but basically as a woman who learns how to be Captain Kirk. In Terminator, Linda Hamilton triumphs over the nonhuman and in the process learns what it means to be a woman, with a woman’s duties and capacities and a woman’s role. Terminator is one of the most explicitly reactionary films of the past decade. When are they going to notice?
A few hours passed viewing a recent prestige film, Falling in Love, provokes another thought. Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep put on tour de force performances as two middle-class suburbanites who develop an obsessive passion for one another that destroys their marriages and their personal lives. The perfection of the actors’ technique only underlines the moral obtuseness of these two destructive middle-aged adolescents.
Traditionally, popular art was meant to be and was proud to be pure entertainment. If you want to send a message, call Western Union, quipped one Hollywood mogul. High art, on the other hand, tried to unite the utile and the dulce, to use Horace’s terms, to mingle pleasure and instruction. We have reversed all that. The expensive films with big name stars are now exercises in technique, which is the politest I can get about Falling in Love. Vulgar art, the films of Eastwood and John Milius, for instance, or The A Team and Magnum, teach courage and patriotism and what it means to be a man or a woman.
“When the cities lie at the monster’s feet, there are left the mountains,” I thought with Robinson Jeffers, as Sarah Connor drives off at the end of Terminator. The treason of the cultural elite is consummated. When the citadels of high culture have fallen to frivolity and obscenity, there is still, what? Mr. T. Tom Selleck. Clint Eastwood. And, yes, The Terminator.cc
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