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I am – Hercules!!

“Wash day tomorrow. Nothing clean -- right?”

“Hey, just what you see, pal.”

“You still don't get it, do you? He'll find her. That's what he does. That's all he does!”

“Hey, I'm not stupid y’know. They can't build anything like that yet.”

Sarah Connor! Kyle Reese! Ginger & Matt! Dr. Silberman! Sarah’s iguana! Bill Paxton! The T-800!

After another summer spent in the Mojave training the new crop of Blue Angels, Alexandra DuPont returns to her regular Sunday night DVD reviews in a big way: with a look at one of cinema’s few perfect works, James Cameron’s original “Terminator.”

Thanks as always to The DVD Journal for the regular loan of the amazing Alex’s reviews.

Review by Alexandra DuPont                    

"Once upon the earth, in a typical town, on an agonizingly beautiful day, a nondescript woman, whose name I forget, killed a monster robot from the future and saved the human race. The End."

— "The Terminator: The Novel," — a one-sentence joke written by
Randall Frakes and
Terminator co-screenwriter William Wisher,
featured among the
Terminator: Special Edition DVD extras.


The most interesting directors (for me, anyway) are the ones Martin Scorcese called "smugglers" — genre adherents (usually Western, sci-fi and horror auteurs) who repeatedly sneak pesky personal obsessions into their work.

[box cover]Just so with James Cameron. These days, Cameron is snorted at by the intelligentsia for being a middlebrow technophiliac with a raging ego and a penchant for spending too much money on his films. This collective sniffing, as near as I can tell, is predicated entirely on the success of Titanic — his romance-novel-handcuffed-to-a-disaster-film blockbuster that went to insane lengths marrying taut action filmmaking to cringe-inducing Harlequin dialogue.

But even Titanic, flawed though it is, is a "smuggled" film, broadly exploring Cameron's twin obsessions — distrust of technology and men sacrificing themselves to empower strong, smart, pissed-off women. One hopes the Terminator: Special Edition DVD (which hits the stores on Tuesday, Oct. 2) will splash a little cold water on film-snob faces, reminding them that Cameron, particularly in his first few films, was the most exciting sci-fi filmmaker since Young Spielberg mined his obsession with benevolent alien father figures. MGM's new DVD — improving on a movie-only disc put out by Image Entertainment in 1998 — should also remind movie buffs that Cameron was able to "smuggle" his themes (however un-subtly) even when he had no clout and his budget was something like $1.95.


Recounting the story is pretty well moot at this point. Released in 1984, T1's high-concept pastiche immediately entered the cultural fabric — a why-didn't-someone-make-this-movie-sooner mix of Corman splatter, Harlan Ellison, Japanese technofetishism, urban paranoia, and monster movie, relentlessly told. (Note that almost all of the film's exposition, and there's a lot of it, happens while characters are fleeing or hiding — a device today's action filmmakers would do well to study).

Waitress Sarah Connor (a pre-commando-training Linda Hamilton) finds out she's the Virgin Mary of the secular human race when a "Terminator" cyborg from the future (Arnold Schwarzenegger) travels back in time to kill her. It seems she's destined to give birth to John Connor — leader of the human freedom fighters who defeat an evil machine race in A.D. 2027. She's aided in her fight against the assassin robot by Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a human who traveled back in time to save her — and who will, as it turns out, sire John Connor and awaken Sarah's inner freedom fighter.

This isn't particularly subtle stuff (John Connor's initials are, after all, "JC") — but, like Planet of the Apes, you can peel apart The Terminator and find yourself rewarded with several cohesive, fully cooked themes and paradoxes. In 1984, when schlocky, low-budget sci-fi consisted of such silly stuff as Battle Beyond the Stars and The Last Starfighter, The Terminator was practically revolutionary.

Here's Cameron's trademark Man-Sacrificing-Himself-to-Empower-A-Woman Theme, smuggled to varying degrees into all his films. Here's a really broad abortion allegory, with a faceless machine state trying to force a woman to "terminate" her pregnancy (a plot in which both pro-life and pro-choice advocates can find thematic succor — maestro!). Here's a Horatio Alger-like tale of self-transformation. Here's the paradox of a man fathering his future leader — the ultimate military service, if you will — and thus creating a self-contained temporal loop that only the five Apes films explored with equal success. Take a step back and behold the paradox of Cameron using every technical trick in the book — a la Lucas and Classic "Trek" — to foster a deep distrust of technocratic society.


Be ye warned: If you haven't watched T1 since the late-'80s (as I hadn't) you may be in for a bit of a shock. The movie itself has become a bit of time travel — thanks to the oh-so-'80s trappings of its fashions and hair (particularly in its infamous "Tech Noir" nightclub sequence, which resembles nothing so much as an episode of "Square Pegs" with squibs). And the movie's admirable lo-fi trappings may disappoint (or even bore) people who consider T2's groundbreaking effects a form of fetish porn.


Tech-heads may be interested to know that this disc was encoded using DVD-14 technology — a single layer on one side, an RSDL dual layer on the other. Content-wise, this is a fat-free platter with slick menus that refute the overwrought T2: Ultimate Edition DVD menus with their brevity.

Side One features an anamorphic transfer of the beautifully restored print and a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 EX soundtrack. (Purists beware: The Digital Bits has reported that composer Brad Fiedel re-orchestrated — and altered — some of his opening-credits music. I still consider this one of the best cheapie-synth film scores of all time, and the re-work didn't bother me a bit.)

Side One also features DVD-ROM content — for, believe it or not, PC and Mac users — including "script to screen" Web files linking you to the fourth draft and final draft of the script, as well as Cameron's original treatment. There are also Easter eggs here — audio interview clips (with stills) you can access by clicking various boxes on the borders of assorted menu screens.

Side Two — the gold-tinted side — is a lean collection of snazzy extras. Under "Trailers/TV Spots" we find a 1:26 teaser trailer (featuring Cameron's original production art in lieu of finished special effects), a 1:57 theatrical trailer, and a 3:08 foreign trailer that plays with the mystery of who (or what) is stalking Sarah Connor (and that plays up the film's brutal, bloody elements), plus two 30-second TV spots touting the film's surprise box-office success.

Under a "Documentaries" menu we find two "making-of" features, one brand-new:

"The Terminator — A Retrospective" (18:10) was filmed for the original T2 VHS release; it features those Teutonic braggarts James Cameron and Arnold Schwartzenegger sitting in a living room shooting the heavily-edited breeze about the making of the first film. Among the highlights: learning that Arnold was originally up for the Kyle Reese role, with Lance Henricksen cast as a more nondescript Terminator; the filmmaker's surprise when "I'll be back" became a comic catchphrase; and behind-the-scenes shots interspersed with tales of working with Stan Winston ("It's not a man in a suit — the suit's inside the man"), various cast-and-crew anecdotes, and a recounting of the guerrilla-filmmaking measures Arnold, Cameron & Co. took to finish the film.

• The above chatter is fleshed out — considerably — in the disc's new hour-long making-of documentary, "Other Voices." It features interviews (culled from multiple sources) with Cameron, Schwartzenegger, William Wisher, Stan Winston, F/X supervisor Gene Warren, Jr., Linda Hamilton, producer Gale Anne Hurd, Michael Biehn, pyrotechnics whiz Joe Viskocil, editor Mark Goldblatt, and composer Brad Fiedel. The doc's broken into 14 mini-chapters — covering everything from Cameron's conception of the idea while ill in Rome to assembling his team to nearly starving for a year waiting for Arnold's availability to shooting the lo-fi effects to circumventing (with Hurd's considerable expertise) the "suits" who didn't understand the film's potential. The interviewees even touch on the prickly subject of Cameron's massive ego — or, more specifically, the massive ego he projects onto his film projects. (My favorite Cameron story is the one where he tells producer Bill Mechanic on the Titanic set, "If you want to cut my film, you'll have to fire me. And to fire me, you'll have to kill me.")

Next up are seven "Terminated Scenes" — viewable individually or strung together, and with or without commentary by Cameron (a DVD first):

"Wholesome Sarah" features Hamilton talking to herself in the mirror in her waitress uniform;
"Wrong Sarah" is an extended cut of the Terminator leaving the scene of one of his Sarah Connor murders, oblivious to fleeing witnesses;
"Lt. Traxler's Arc" is a collection of several deleted scenes featuring Paul Winfield and Lance Henricksen as police detectives — climaxing with an injured Winfield giving his gun to Reese, finally convinced that the Terminator is the real deal;
"Sarah Fights Back" explores some of the ideas fleshed out in T2 — with Sarah talking to Reese about blowing up Cyberdyne even as Reese weeps at the future loss of nature ("I wasn't meant to see this!");
"Making Bombs" features Sarah and Reese talking about things he's never seen as they cook some homemade explosives;
"Tickling Reese" is, as Cameron puts it in the commentary, "a clumsy attempt on the part of the writer to show that Reese has rejoined the human race";
• and "The Factory" reveals that the site of the film's climactic showdown was in fact Cyberdyne Systems — with a couple of fairly weak actors finding the Terminator chip and palming it for R&D.

Rounding out the disc is a "Still Gallery" of hundreds of photos — organized under the sub-categories of "James Cameron Artwork" (which looks like really well-done '70s van art), "Production Photos," "Stan Winston Effects," "Fantasy II: Visual Effects," and "Publicity Materials," which features, I shit you not, a smiling Arnold Schwartzenegger in a tuxedo — plus Cameron's 40-page "Original Treatment."

That is all.

— Alexandra DuPont

  • Color
  • Anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1)
  • Double-sided dual-format disc (DVD-14)
  • Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish), original mono (English)
  • English, French and Spanish subtitles
  • Three trailers and 2 TV spots
  • "The Making of The Terminator: A Retrospective" documentary (18 min.)
  • "Other Voices" documentary (60 min.)
  • Seven "Terminated Scenes"
  • Five still galleries
  • Original treatment
  • DVD-ROM "script to screen" features
  • Keep-case

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