1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Fantasy, Scifi

Idaho Transfer (1973)

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Director: Peter Fonda
Screenwriter: Thomas Matthiesen

This essay is offered as part of the Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2020, a festival founded by Jamie Uhler and hosted by Wonders in the Dark, held to honor the memory of the late cineaste extraordinaire Allan Fish, considering films in the public domain and freely available online

By Roderick Heath

Peter Fonda famously left John Lennon uneasy but also creatively stirred when, as the young actor dropped LSD with the Beatle and his bandmate George Harrison, he recounted a childhood accident when he almost fatally shot himself in the stomach, reporting “I know what it’s like to be dead.” Lennon was inspired to write his song “She Said” sporting his riposte to the utterer, “It’s making me feel like I’ve never been born.” Fonda would for his part later try, when he became a film director, to articulate his enigmatic report from the fringes of existence. Fonda, son of movie legend Henry Fonda, found himself a figure strongly associated with the emerging counterculture vanguard around Los Angeles, an association that would briefly make him a major cultural figure. After making a mark in a small role as a young recruit confronted by the ugliness of life in Carl Foreman’s antiwar epic The Victors (1963), Fonda’s embrace of the hip scene in Hollywood saw his rise to conventional stardom frustrated, but he gained starring roles with Roger Corman in cheap and spurious but fascinating attempts to court a youth audience with tales of the new bohemia like The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967).

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Fonda accepted a sense of mission in trying to convey a more authentic sense of the zeitgeist in working with his friend and fellow actor Dennis Hopper on a project that eventually became Easy Rider (1969). Fonda and Hopper’s divergent sensibilities were thrown into sharp contrast in making the project a reality even as they joined in fertile collaboration. Fonda’s ambitious and thoughtful approach saw him turn to satirical writer Terry Southern to co-write the film with an eye to making an epic portrait of assailed Americana, but Hopper would later claim it Fonda and Southern took too long and he finished up writing most of the film himself. Hopper was generally accepted as the film’s auteur and engine for its rugged, improvisatory, freewheeling artistry. Hopper and Fonda’s quarrel over both the credit and profits for the film would spoil their relationship for decades, but Fonda did get a crack at directing in his own right on the back of Easy Rider’s industry-jarring success, whilst Hopper rolled on towards glorious disaster with The Last Movie (1971).

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Fonda eventually directed three films, starting with 1971’s The Hired Hand and ending with 1978’s Wanda Nevada, with Idaho Transfer in between, a film penned by writer Thomas Matthiesen, his one and only screenplay. All three of Fonda’s films can be described, in their fashion, as oddball twists on the folklore of the Western film his father had been so strongly associated with, and are highlighted by their dry, sauntering, deeply eccentric sense of style. Whilst Fonda’s acting career was going more commercial at the time as he appeared in a number of rubber-burning action movies, Fonda’s films as director were more resolutely eccentric and none were box office successes, although The Hired Hand, with its trancelike and fatalistic evocation of the Old West landscape as a place of brutal violence and individuals afflicted with blurred identity, has slowly gathered a potent cult following as an emblematic “Acid Western.” Wanda Nevada tried to court some of the popularity of Paper Moon (1973) in transferring the theme of a roguish man and an apt young female pupil to an earlier period setting. Idaho Transfer, coming between, saw Fonda tackling an environmental theme close to his heart. Produced independently on a very low budget, Idaho Transfer never had a chance of gaining significant attention, as the distributor who took up his project folded just as the film was due to be released, leaving it scarcely screened. Fonda later regained the rights and let the film pass into the public domain, and shot a brief prologue in which he appeared extolling his concerns.

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Idaho Transfer manages a rare trick, in seeming both a pure-sprung product of its time but also still awaiting its moment, trying to nail down an ever-elusive undercurrent of the modern psyche. Fonda’s evocative palette here was applied to a science fiction parable. At the outset two young researchers, Isa Braden (Caroline Hildebrand) and Cleve (Joe Newman), are glimpsed capturing snakes and studying them amidst the craggy, sunstruck reaches of the Craters of the Moon National Monument, a field of lava forms in rural Idaho. Isa climbs down through a metal door set in the ground, into a small chamber buried in the lava, and after stripping off most of her clothes and making adjustments to a control panel, is transposed into another, larger, brighter room: Isa has just travelled back in time to her present day. She is the daughter of scientist Dr George Braden (Ted D’Arms), who’s made an unexpected, and very secret, breakthrough in time travel whilst officially working on a government-funded project researching matter teleportation. Her father has assembled a team of intellectually advanced young scientists and assistants to travel through time, or “transfer” as they call it, to a point 56 years in the future, where for some reason all signs of functioning civilisation in the vicinity have vanished. Nearby towns are deserted and no broadcasts are detectable. The project team has inferred some cataclysmic event has occurred in the meantime.

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Isa is assigned to bring her sister Karen (Kelley Bohanon) into the team, and despite her father’s instructions to tell Karen everything, she avoids explaining about the potentially debilitating health effects of transferring, which are so severe the team’s doctor Lewis (Fred Seagraves) thinks it would be fatal for anyone over twenty years old, as it causes haemorrhaging in the kidneys. Karen has just spent a spell in a mental hospital recovering from an unstated crisis, and casually tells her sister she lost her virginity when she was raped by a fellow patient. Isa first takes Karen out to the lava fields in the present, to get her familiar with the environment, and they encounter some footloose hippies heading to a music festival. Karen then takes Isa forward in a transfer whilst instructing her in how to operate the machinery. In the future Isa suffers a fall into a crevice and seems badly injured, so Karen quickly brings her back to the present, but can’t get help before Isa dies, apparently not from the fall but from transferring too many times. When the authorities discover what’s been going on at the project a short time later, they move to shut it down and round up all of the personnel, but a number of the young people follow a prearranged plan to gather supplies and equipment and transfer en masse to the future.

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Despite being the son of a major movie star, Fonda’s childhood background had been anything but idyllic. His father Henry was remarkably ill-starred in his marital life, compounded by his problems with private emotional expression which Peter in particular would contend with until his father was on his deathbed. Peter and his sister Jane’s mother Frances Ford Seymour had committed suicide whilst in a psychiatric hospital after suffering from severe depression, and Peter’s near-fatal accident had occurred a year later. Peter’s recourse to both the bohemian drug culture and artistic creation might well have had an aspect of therapeutic necessity, and by and large seemed to have worked. The Hired Hand and Idaho Transfer are closely linked in their mood of blasted and alien persistence and fragmented time, and resemble an interior portrait of life as experience through a depressive lens, with the latter film engaging those aspects not just on a stylistic level but also in its storyline. “I’m hip to time,” his character Captain America famously noted in Easy Rider, and here he shows us what he meant, knowing that the passage of the ages has no substance without the limitations of human perception to know it.

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The needling signs of personal relevance to Fonda are borne out in the traits Karen shares with his mother, the film an inferring study of a state of mind, portraying the space within Karen’s head in confronting a world of anxiety about what kind of future is possible in the wake of psychological collapse and assault, and avatar for a flailing youth movement confronted by a great existential brick wall: where to next, and is there any next anyway? “I used to have nightmares that looked like this,” Karen says as she surveys the lava fields in the post-apocalyptic future, “They were beautiful nightmares.” This line encapsulates the whole film and the spirit it tries to animate. Idaho Transfer is on one level an evocative, semi-abstract portrait of people in a setting, following on from Easy Rider and The Hired Hand as experiential engagements with the American landscape, and a negative space portrait of post-human witnessing as cinematographer Bruce Logan’s camera gazes upon the wastes of Idaho with an atavistic sense of locale. The schism between those who can withstand the transfer and those who can’t, along a firm boundary between the youthful and the mature, suggests at once a metaphor for generation gaps and also for the state of youth itself, able to weather certain terrible blows and recover more easily only to later realise the wearing consequences to soul as well as body.

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Idaho Transfer’s low budget manifests in its Spartan production values and visuals, but Fonda nimbly makes these lacks part of the stark aesthetic, which lacks the overtly hallucinatory interludes of The Hired Hand, but maintains the same dreamlike aura and mood of punch-drunk dislocation as that film and portions of Easy Rider. The opening shots resemble a public TV documentary about field biologists, but the naturalistic approach helps bolster Fonda’s evocation of spacy dislocation infested by creeping dread. Fonda contrasts the bland institutional space of the transfer project headquarters, a warren of white walls, glaring lighting, and functional machinery, where all sign of nature has been exiled save people themselves, and the vistas of the Idaho scenery, a space where no sign of civilisation has taken hold save for the metallic oblong forms of the transfer units fixed in the lava. Both environs seem like places where people persist more as memories than beings, the young folk already living in a zone that shrugs them off in disinterest well before they reach the future. Isa and Karen’s encounter with the hippie travellers offers a brief moment of solidarity and cheer, but later after heading into the future, Karen contemplates their fate. Isa responds duly, “The hitchhikers? Try not to think of them. They don’t matter anymore.” Even before any cataclysm has occurred, the world is suddenly now full of ghosts who don’t know they’re dead.

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Although lacking equivalent, fastidious technique, Fonda’s efforts here resemble at points Werner Herzog’s stringent attempts to convey a similar sensibility in films like Heart of Glass (1976) and Where The Green Ants Dream (1984) with their days-of-future-past evocations and bewildered sense of humans trapped on the Earth, and anticipate where Andrei Tarkovsky would head with Stalker (1979), to which Idaho Transfer bears a strong resemblance in both mood and motifs, evoking concepts just as large with means just as sparing. Idaho Transfer also certainly fits in amongst the sprawl of films released in the early 1970s regarding apocalyptic angst, informed by a counterculture-inspired concern for ecology and nuclear war, ranks including the likes of No Blade of Grass (1970), The Omega Man, Zero Population Growth, THX-1138 (all 1971), Silent Running (1972), and Soylent Green (1973). Idaho Transfer is however quite distinct from them except perhaps THX-1138, another, more forcefully crafted but no less idiosyncratic by-product of early New Wave Hollywood potential and effort to mate art-house aesthetics with sci-fi. Idaho Transfer avoids the usual pretext apocalyptic sci-fi narratives, to set up action-thriller stories except for brief spasms late in the movie, presenting instead a work of tensile poeticism that echoes today more in works like those of Kelly Reichardt and later Terrence Malick.

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Aspects of the story have an intriguingly prototypical aspect in terms of some sci-fi ideas nonetheless. The specific details of the transferees having to remove all metal objects and much of their clothes in order to travel without risk are very similar to those detailed in The Terminator (1984) over a decade later, and like that film Idaho Transfer rejects a jaunty view of time travel in favour of one that almost conceives of it as close to a form of death and rebirth, or perhaps more like a Caesarean section, sliced out of one reality and dumped in another. The ending is offered chiefly as a lacerating metaphor, but also lays seeds for a driving idea of The Matrix (1999), that of bioenergy tapped as fuel as a cynical answer to resource shortage. Cleverly conveying reality-twisting with the absolute minimum of resources, Fonda illustrates his central sci-fi conceit with techniques that can scarcely be called special effects, the transfer process itself consisting merely of sped-up and stroboscopic footage of passengers moving between locales and time zones. The Craters of the Moon look entirely the same in the two time periods, a natural zone oblivious to the height and passing of the human civilisation that has claimed the continent around it.

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Transferring has a certain likeness to taking hallucinogens as a means of escaping a purely liminal sense of existence (and also bears a certain puckish resemblance to the motorcycle riding of Easy Rider). Isa’s surprising death early in a film she seems to be the main protagonist of sees her sister confronted by the sight of her lifeless form with face pressed in a pool of her own vomit, a harsh vision of the physical cost of transferring and also a touch that suggests Fonda here is meditating on the downside of the drug culture and the impact of addiction. Much as Easy Rider revised the Western movie template as an inverted course through a succession of defeated dreams and The Hired Hand offered the usually celebrated wanderers of Western folklore as interchangeable and inept in creating true civilisation in terms of honouring their human obligations, Idaho Transfer literally portrays decolonisation. Fonda’s pantheistic surveys of the landscape invoke the power of the natural world to persist and shrug humanity off like an insect pest. Fonda sharply disturbs the placid ambience when the young team members are obliged to spring into action and execute the planned group transfer as government authorities visit the installation and it seems the political situation out in the world is deteriorating swiftly: Fonda films their hurried preparations for departure in lunging hand-held camerawork, the scramble for survival illustrated although the narrative eventually reveals it to be essentially pointless.

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A couple of adults including Lewis make the transfer too despite the risks. The escapees take some comfort in knowing that despite of the crackdown they might still be able to return for a time as the power supply to the transfer machinery can’t be easily cut off, but some, like Leslie (Dale Hopkins), quickly begin feeling troubled at the thought of being marooned. When the units stop working, one team member says it’s only a temporary glitch. Karen surreptitiously returns to the past and fruitlessly tries to contact her father, and then collects supplies whilst dodging security patrols. Ronald (Kevin Hearst), one of the boys on the team, transfers back to fetch her, literally dragging her away leaving dropped toilet rolls in her wake, a deft piece of physical comedy. One aspect of Idaho Transfer it’s been much-criticised for is the acting by the mostly green and nonprofessional cast, and indeed quite a few of them are wooden. But the rough, blowsy performing style largely helps the overall air of verisimilitude, and the basic theme of people who are scarcely adults trying to negotiate a forbidding future, callow and jagged, even clumsy in their emotional expressions. Karen is inducted into a crew of bright young nerds who turn a stoically observant and scientific eye on their circumstances.

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Bohanon, whilst clearly raw, nonetheless proves a striking lead, called upon to progress from a gangly and pallid survivor of troubled youth to a sturdy-looking prototype for a James Cameron action heroine in her physicality, even as her psyche matures far more spasmodically. Casting Keith Carradine, the only member of the cast to go on to a notable career, as team member Arthur signals a plain sense of personal continuity, as Fonda’s fellow progeny of Hollywood royalty, son of his father’s co-star in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Nor does the similarity feel accidental. The early scenes of Ford’s film set amidst Dustbowl squalor and ruination wove a similar mood to what Fonda chases here, one of haunted isolation and desolated place, and in Idaho Transfer plays like Fonda’s spiritual sequel. Another aspect of Idaho Transfer’s unique texture is the score, provided by Greenwich Village folk scene stalwart and regular Bob Dylan collaborator Bruce Langhorne, who had also provided The Hired Hand’s music. The way Fonda shoots scenery with Langhorne’s music on the soundtrack establishes a wistful sensibility contrasted with the increasingly grim sense of entrapment gripping the humans at roam in that scenery, great natural beauty and lustre confronting the characters with their own doomed lot rather than elevating as in the Hudson Valley School painting tradition, that awed yet imperial sensibility in regarding the beneficence of the land, which Fonda evokes and disrupts.

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The team eventually decide to try heading for Portland, Oregon, with the bulk of the party under the leadership of Cleve travelling down to and along the Snake River whilst Karen and Ronald are assigned to scout out an overland route and meet up with the rest of the party further along the river. Arthur, Leslie, and another girl who’s hurt her leg, Jennifer (Meredith Hull), are left behind to tend the base camp. As they tramp across the country, Karen prods the phlegmatic Ronald to become her lover, and though Ronald at first plays brusquely and professionally disinterested in Karen’s overtures, she eventually has her way with him. Later she confesses she thinks she’s pregnant to Arthur, news Ronald seems to take with equanimity. Karen tries to hold on to fragments of hope and delight, from the thought of having a baby to delighting in an improvised woven ring someone gives her, and begins to contemplate the gender politics of a new world: “I suppose it doesn’t matter since we have a fresh start now…Call the boys girls’ names and the girls boys’ names.” Lewis separates from the larger party as his kidneys start to haemorrhage and seeks a peaceful, solitary end. When Ronald and Karen spot a train parked and rusting on a railway line, Ronald goes to check it out, and later reports the wreck is crammed with bodies wrapped in plastic bags within, which he theorises were being taken from a coastal city to a dumping point inland when the same deadly force overwhelmed the drivers.

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In this section, the narrative most clearly becomes a tragicomic lampoon of the basic proposition of the Western, the fumbling anti-pioneers tramping a path through the wilds, even encountering the dead of a massacre like many a Western hero, albeit with the enemy a negation: westward the course of empire unravels. Fonda never specifies exactly what’s caused the catastrophe, which could be nuclear conflict but seems more like biological warfare. Finally Ronald and Karen reach the river and meet up with the other team, and find they’ve brought along a girl they’ve named Anne (Kim Casper), one of a community of third-generation survivors they encountered. In a motif reminiscent of Planet of the Apes (1968), the human survivors all seem to be deaf and developmentally disabled to some degree through mutation, and yet, as one team member notes, they seem incredibly happy, and another says they’re the most compassionate people he’s ever met. Observing that, apart from hearing loss and slight motor retardation, Anne seems more or less normal, the team considers the possibility of finding an equally high-functioning male and mating them. Karen wryly suggests the men of the team should impregnate her instead for a better result, and then tells them she thinks she’s pregnant. The team drop on her a bleak fact Lewis informed them about and which Ronald didn’t have the heart to tell her: the transfer renders anyone who does it sterile, and the symptoms of pregnancy she’s experiencing are most likely psychosomatic.

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Again Idaho Transfer pivots into a psychological portrait where the exterior developments are extensions of Karen’s damaged headspace, as this revelation brutally dashes not just Karen’s emotional recompense but all hope the team might form the core of a new civilisation: they too have become just more ghosts haunting the land. Ronald’s attitude had already signalled a disdain bordering on anti-natalism when he answers Karen’s comment, “I’m a woman, you know,” as she confesses broody emotions with, “That gives you the right to have a bunch of kids?” By way of comforting her, he tells her, “Perpetuation and all the crap that goes with it is just a big hoax anyway,” and advises her to simply enjoy her own existence before letting it all fade out. This attitude to life is evoked as Fonda notes his characters skimming stones across water with an almost artistic sense of technique, trying to launch further and more gracefully each time but always destined to sink into dark. Such a forlorn and astringent attitude feels of a unit with Fonda’s own efforts to be at once unsentimental and open to experience as its own meaning, if not entirely a personal statement, as he also clearly empathises with Karen as the sensate antithesis to such taciturn logic, trying to maintain against all fact some sense of a living purpose, the character who feels the essential meaning of things rather than numbing them with intellectualisms.

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Karen decides to separate from the team, leaving early in the morning and hiking back the way she came to the base camp, hoping to see Arthur again and perhaps return to the past. When she does reach the base, she finds Jennifer’s rotting corpse in a crevice, whilst Arthur’s savaged body lies in one of the transfer units. Karen is launched upon by Leslie, who’s gone violently insane and tries to bash Karen’s brains out on the lava, but Karen manages to protect herself with her arm just enough. Whilst Leslie goes after Karen’s dropped knife, Karen dashes into one of the transfer units, and sits within bleeding and traumatised, listening as Leslie beats a stone on the hatch and crows that the units still aren’t working. Karen hears a buzz emitting from the machinery and tries it, successfully transferring to the past. She materialises before an utterly bewildered security guard, desperately explaining she wants to transfer back to a point earlier in time when she can stop Arthur and Jennifer’s killing, to the guard’s utter incomprehension and alarm. Karen frantically tries to reset the transfer machine whilst soldiers mass outside the chamber. Karen arrives back in the future but is soon confronted by evidence she’s gone much further than the earlier transfers, finding the transfer units in ruins and the camp debris old and corroded, the land now in bitter winter.

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Fonda saves his last, bitterest, bleakest touch for the very end as Karen sees what strikes her as a sign of civilisation and salvation, a car cruising along one of the ancient roads. She gropes her way to the roadside as Fonda offers flash cuts to her experiences throughout, as if her substance is breaking down. The car’s driver (Michael Kriss) stops, picks her up, and carries her back to the vehicle. Instead of putting her inside, he opens the boot, and pushes her: as the trunk hatch closes, we hear Karen’s bloodcurdling scream. The driver gets back into the car and drives off with his wife (Erica Joeres) and young daughter (Vicki Dietrich), and their dialogue makes it plain that these can-do people of the future have started using other people as an energy source. The daughter says she doesn’t think Karen was “one of them,” although the father assures her she was. The suggestion here seems to be that these “normal” people, who resemble a cold-blooded caricature of an ideal nuclear (post-nuclear?) family have been using the mutated survivors as biofuel. The unaffected ones might be people who gained shelter during the calamity or the superior offspring the transfer team wanted to foster, or even somehow might be, depending on how much time has passed and how accurate Lewis’ diagnosis was, the progeny of the transfer team. As the daughter ponders what they’ll do for fuel once their source runs out, the father says, “They’ll figure out another way for us.” “But what if that’s too hard?” the daughter persists, “Or expensive? And what if they decide they can’t change?…We’ll use each-other then, won’t we?” And the car rolls on over the horizon.

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Fonda leaves behind his relatively straight sci-fi scenario into a realm closer to fable here, illustrating his concept of civilisation coming at the cost of constantly dwindling resources and a social-Darwinian process of consumption, for a more surreal and fantastical device, although it certainly also concludes the movie’s narrative proper with an apt taste of blood in the mouth. At the same time, this is also a precise symbolic encapsulation of the psychological distress that grips Karen finally claiming her into a black pit of total nihilism. As an ending this manages to outdo the last two films Fonda had a hand in when it comes to leaving off on a dark and downbeat note, with the Idaho state motto offered, “Esto Perpetua,” or It Is Perpetual, offered as a queasy promise and threat. Even if it had gained a proper release at the time, Idaho Transfer was obviously never going to be the stuff of a popular hit even by the gritty standards of the early 1970s, and is probably still too spare, too severe, to make it as a major cult object. But if you get onto its strange wavelength it leaves an aura of blended melancholy and meditative pensiveness lingering for days. It is, in the end, as much a portrait of Fonda’s struggle with his interior world as with his worries about the outer one, but his most singular achievement in the end is to erase the difference, and the warning Fonda sounded has only grown from a dull throb of anxiety to a blaring alarm in the intervening years. Certainly Idaho Transfer represents a fascinating labour from a rarefied talent, and whilst it’s a good thing it’s available to all today, it also certainly deserves to be seen in a far more respectful state.

Idaho Transfer can be viewed for free on YouTube here.

 

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1980s, Action-Adventure, Film Noir, Scifi, Thriller

The Terminator (1984)

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Director: James Cameron
Screenwriters: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd, William Wisher (uncredited: Randall Frakes)

By Roderick Heath

Night. Dark. Ruination. Los Angeles, 2029. Monstrous metallic death machines traversing an apocalyptic landscape of twisted metal and structures, piled skulls crushed under caterpillar tread, laser beams slicing brilliance through the dank night. Darting human figures dodging the blasts. Instantly The Terminator plunges the viewer into a zone imbued with two contradictory impulses, at once ablaze with kinetic immediacy and vibrancy, and also haunted, moody, oneiric. A title card announces “the machines rose from the ashes of nuclear fire” and the battle between them and mankind’s survivors raged for decades, but will be decided in the past, “tonight.” The machinery of the present day – garbage trucks, front-end loaders, diggers – ape and presage the monstrous cast of the futuristic marauders. Spasms of brilliant energy discharge. In the two spots about the city, where the rubbish flits upon mysterious urges and the brickwork glows electric blue, naked men appear amidst a ball of white light. A version of birth rebooted for a new way of conceiving life and death. Two kinds of body disgorged from these pulsing portals, one hulking and glistening with honed perfection, the other curled in a foetal ball, smoking sores and scars on his body like the stigmata of future reckoning. The hulking man surveys Los Angeles’ nighttime sprawl and encounters a trio of punks, mechanically repeating their mocking words before making a clear and direct demand for their clothes. The price for resistance proves hideous.

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James Cameron, the kid from Kapuskasing, Ontario, found the answer to his dualistic mentality in movies. The former student of both Physics and English dropped out of college and educated himself in special effects techniques and wrote stories whilst working as a truck driver. But it wasn’t until he saw Star Wars (1977), announcing an age where his twinned fascination for technology and creative endeavour could find expression, that Cameron properly decided to become a moviemaker. Cameron made a short film about battling robots, Xenogenesis (1978), with some friends. Like many young wannabe filmmakers before him, Cameron got his break with Roger Corman, joining his low-rent studio New World Pictures. He quickly gained a reputation as someone who could get the budget up on screen, working on trash-cult movies like Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1978), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Escape from New York (1981), and Galaxy of Terror (1981). Cameron was hired as special effects director on Piranha II: The Spawning in 1981, a sequel to Joe Dante’s darkly witty 1978 film, but the sequel was being produced by Italian schlock maestro Ovidio Assonitis. Assonitis sacked the original director after clashes and Cameron got a field promotion to take command of the shoot, although he too eventually would be fired and the movie patched together by Assonitis.

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The resulting film was dull and silly, although it betrayed hints of Cameron’s sleek visual talent. During a bout of food poisoning Cameron contracted as the production wrapped up, he had a nightmare about robotic torso chasing him about with stabbing protuberances. Cameron turned his dream into a script with the help of writer pals Randall Frakes and William Wisher, and went into a producing partnership with Gale Ann Hurd, Corman’s former assistant. Cameron was determined to direct the project, but he couldn’t get backing from studios around Hollywood. Cameron and Hurd finally gained backing from the British Hemdale Pictures, and made his debut for the tidy sum of just under $7 million. Whilst Cameron went to England to shoot Aliens (1986), The Terminator proved a startling hit, a signature icon of the age of VHS and seed for a franchise that’s produced five sequels to date on top of a TV series, all of highly varying quality. Cameron found epochal success with Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), which anointed him as the all-time box office champion twice in a row, only to be recently, finally dethroned by Avengers: Endgame (2019), a film which to a great extent can be regarded as both a clear descendant and pale imitation of the kind of sci-fi action movie Cameron made king.

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The Terminator’s opening reels betray Cameron’s nascent epic sensibility with the immediate onslaught of potent imagery matched to a script unafraid of thinking big even whilst creatively adapting it to a tight budget, whilst gaining immeasurably from an authentic feel for place. Cameron turns downtown LA into a neo-noir zone splendid in its seamy and desolate hue, where the homeless and wretched litter the streets and cops cruise in their own paranoid battle with mystery in the night. Early scenes of the film parse fragments of information to distinguish the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and their distinct yet fatefully joined missions, as the former casually unleashes terrible violence to get what it wants, whereas Kyle only strips the trousers off a hapless derelict (Stan Yale), and nimbly eludes the cops whose attention he attracts. Reese manages to overpower one cop and bewilders him by demanding to know what year it is, before fleeing within a department story and exiting dressed. Cameron quickly has Reese don a long overcoat to underline his noir hero status whilst arming him with a shotgun he steals from a cop car and readily joining the other night flotsam stalking the LA downtown in the wee hours. Daylight brings the mundane sight of young waitress Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) riding a scooter to the diner where she works with her roommate Ginger (Bess Motta) and tries valiantly to get through days clogged with frenetic work and humiliation.

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Sarah’s name has been rendered totemic without her knowing, as both future visitors have searched the phone book for her name. The Terminator enters a pawn shop and kills the owner (Dick Miller) to obtain his horde of quality guns, before heading on to the home of one Sarah Connor, shooting the woman repeatedly at the front door. Ginger alerts Sarah to the bloodcurdling apparent coincidence when it’s reported on the news. That night, as Ginger prepares for a night in with her boyfriend Matt (Rick Rossovich) Sarah decides to head out on the town but soon becomes convinced she’s being followed as she spies Reese trailing her, she takes refuge in a dance club called the Tech-Noir, and when she learns that a second Sarah Connor has been killed she calls the police, who warn her to stay put. But she also calls Ginger, just as the Terminator has killed her and Matt, and he heads to club. Just at the point where the Terminator is about to shoot Sarah, Reese unleashes his shotgun, filling the Terminator with wounds that should be fatal, but only plant the man on the ground for a few moments. Reese and Sarah flee and Reese explains that the hulking man is a type of cyborg, sent back to kill her to prevent her giving birth to her son John Connor, beloved in the future as the great leader of the human resistance, and Reese was dispatched in pursuit to stop it.

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Whilst relatively limited in comparison to his immense later productions, The Terminator still stands as the Cameron’s best film to date, and, taken with its immediate follow-up Aliens, helped bring something new and galvanising to post-Star Wars sci-fi cinema. Cameron didn’t invent the sci-fi action movie, but he certainly perfected it. The Terminator matches the qualities of the title entity as a lean, precise, utterly driven unit of cinematic expression. Cameron managed something unique in the context of 1980s low-budget genre cinema. That zone was replete with inventive movies that often purveyed a weird and subversive attitude in comparison to the more high-profile releases of the age even whilst mimicking their trends: 1984 offered some strong entries in the same stakes including Repo Man, Trancers, The Philadelphia Experiment, and Night of the Comet, but none have left anything like the same cultural footprint. Perhaps that’s because The Terminator avoided the waggish edge those films had: whilst hardly humourless, The Terminator takes itself and its ideas with deadly seriousness and contours all into a cool, kinetic style, perfect for compelling an audience without yet hearing the call of the bombast and filed-down edges of multiplex fare.

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Cameron established immediately that he knew how to not just set up an interesting and bizarre story but how to keep it moving with headlong force and concision. The name of the Tech-Noir club nods to Cameron’s aesthetic mission statement, in fusing fatalistic thriller intensity with the chitinous sheen and intellectual flickers of sci-fi. Cameron incidentally revealed fetishism for malevolently cool hardware, and his fascination for the mindset of the battle-hardened. Cameron’s confusion in this regard might well have even helped his eventual conquest of the mass audience. Cameron’s initial purpose with The Terminator was to make up for a severe lack he perceived in sci-fi cinema: the lack of a robot movie that summarised the iconic power of the concept that had so often decorated the cover of pulp magazines. The vision of tingling paranoia and evasion amidst a grubby midnight world after the mediating opening title sequence carefully likens the world Reese lands in as a sector of the present day a visitor from a grim future like Reese can recognise and operate within. The glimpses of that future allowed throughout the rest of the film involve much the same game of eluding and pockets of poor and filthy people subsisting as they’re hunted by hostile forces.

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Then there’s the reason behind Reese’s arrival: the artificial intelligence (unnamed in this film, dubbed Skynet in the sequel) that sent the Terminator back into the past for a pinpointed assassination, an entity constructed for defence logistics that suddenly became self-aware and tried to wipe out humanity. The intelligence’s last-ditch plan after being defeated in a long insurgency reveals an amusingly robotic logic that can only perceive in limited terms: Skynet perceives its enemy, John Connor, as a variable to be erased, rather than one nexus for the human will and energy inevitably turned against it. Cameron’s engagement with the post-apocalyptic subgenre strained to remove direct political references, as the artificial intelligence’s intervention subverts the Cold War that had heated up again in the early Reagan era by portraying both the USA and the Soviet Union as the mere incidental arsenals for the machine’s plot: te superpowers’ illusion of control is mere grist for the ghost in the machine. But the portrayal of the results of Skynet unleashing such destruction still kept company with a spasm of bleak and portentous portrayals of such events around the same time in fare like The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984). Reese’s methods involve something like urban guerrilla warfare, ironically looking less acceptably normal than the Terminator itself as he wanders the streets with glazed eyes, filthy pants, and sawed-down weapon tucked under his arm and plastic explosives cooked up with household products in a motel room.

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In concept The Terminator is only a degree removed from a thread of speculative cinema ranging contending with the idea of urban guerrilla warriors from Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1973) through to the Mad Max films and variants like Enzo Castellari’s Bronx Warriors films, as well as works tussling with thrillers rooted in post-Vietnam angst like Black Sunday (1977) and First Blood (1982). Cameron had even written a script, eventually much-revised, for Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984). Cameron’s fascination with the fallout of the Vietnam War, an aspect still echoing loudly in his work by the time of Avatar, comes into focus here as Reese is offered as a veteran still at war even whilst returned to the ‘normal’ world. Cameron would back it up with Aliens in offering a blunt metaphor for the American grunt’s-eye-view experience of the war, whilst The Terminator leans heavily on time travelling warrior Reese as an analogue for a damaged veteran still carrying on the war on the home front. Such recognisable affinity was given a new charge by Cameron’s exacting technique and careful aesthetic, and well as the edge of his sci-fi conceptualism, suggesting all such conflicts are a trial run for the coming ultimate war. Reese’s experience is also imbued with Holocaust overtones as he displays the identifying tattoo, cast with chilling aptness in bar code, he retains from years in the AI’s disposal camps where survivors like Reese were used like sonderkommandos. Reese recounts how John Connor helped organise the prisoners, break out, and begin their war, leading to a hard-won victory where only Reese’s mission remains the last, strangest fight.

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Cameron’s grasp of time as a fluid and dimensional rather than a purely linear concept helped give the film, and its follow-ups, room to breathe in terms of cause and effect: “One possible future,” Reese tries to explain to Sarah before admitting he doesn’t grasp all the technicalities, implying regardless that the version of the past he’s landed in might not lead back to the same future, but probably will as long as the variables are still in place. That’s why the storyline erects a straightforward paradox as Reese becomes Sarah’s lover and father to her child, the man who will eventually find it necessary to send him back in time. Despite the many heady and imaginative elements fed into it, The Terminator shows Cameron sticking with established formulae when it came to make low-budget genre cinema in that moment. The film freely blends the basic pattern of the slasher style of horror movie with a style of thriller built around car chases and gunfights. Sarah Connor is a standard final girl in many respects, defined by her relative lack of worldly and sexual confidence compared to hot-to-trot Ginger who bangs her boyfriend with her Walkman turned up loud, channels nascent maternal instincts into her pet iguana, and slowly grows from frayed everywoman to resilient survivor. Like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and other slasher monstrosities, the Terminator moves with the steady remorselessness and lack of human register of fate itself, and repeatedly comes to life again for fresh onslaughts after it seems to have been laid low.

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The key difference is that those monsters rely on a supernatural mystique whereas the Terminator is a comparatively rationalised force. The way Cameron employs the slasher killer figuration allows him to exploit its key value – it’s a narrative style cheap and easy to stage and blessed with straightforward velocity – whilst also extending the psychological tension in Reese’s inability to establish his veracity until the Terminator provides proof, by which time it’s too late. Cameron also signalled the slasher mode’s end by pushing it into a new zone that would prove much more difficult to imitate because it required more special effects and makeup input, and audience would seek something more clever and substantial from then on. Schwarzenegger’s cyborg devolves from ultimate specimen of manhood to one losing bits of skin and flesh, slowly revealing the underlying robotic form, until only the mechanical being is left. Cameron also pushed against the grain of the slasher style in situating the drama squarely in an urban world where the forces of authority are ultimately revealed to be just as powerless before the marauding evil, and toying with the underlying moralism of the slasher brand. The Terminator offers a story in which, for a saviour to be born, the heroine must enthusiastically engage in premarital sex. The film toys constantly with imagery of birth and tweaked religious impulses. John Connor’s initials clearly signal his messianic function, and he’s the spawn of a figure that falls from the sky and comes to give Sarah the new gospel.

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Cameron readily admitted to emulating Ridley Scott and George Miller, assimilating the cyber-noir of Blade Runner (1982) and the rollicking ferocity of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981). Interestingly, even as Cameron sublimates of Blade Runner’s atmosphere and ideas, he strays closer to Philip K. Dick than Scott’s film did in one crucial aspect: Dick’s original theme was that however close the facsimile of the replicants was to the human, ultimately they remained creatures without souls, without transformative empathy. Another of Cameron’s inspirations, the 1960s anthology TV series The Outer Limits, would eventually prove a thorn in his side. The ever-prickly Harlan Ellison, who had written two notable episodes of the series with similarities to Cameron’s eventual story, “Demon With a Glass Hand” and “Soldier”, would sue Cameron and his studio for plagiarism, a contention that was eventually settled out of court against Cameron’s objections: Ellison received a vague credit. To be sure, the basics of The Terminator do resemble Ellison’s episodes, although a great deal of sci-fi often borrows and remixes ideas in such a fashion, and the way Cameron develops his variations on the same themes proves quite different.

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Another strong antecedent is Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973), with its similar basic plot of a marauding killer android. Crichton’s film presaged The Terminator and some other ‘80s sci-fi-action hybrids in its visual motifs, introducing a post-human viewpoint as the deadly machine stalks its foes utilising point-of-view shots overtly placing us in a post-human way of perceiving the world’s textures. And, of course, the ace in the hole proved to be the casting of the former bodybuilder turned actor Schwarzenegger in the lead role. Schwarzenegger, who had become an odd kind of movie star appearing in the documentary Pumping Iron (1977), had been acting off and on since the late 1960s, and with Conan the Barbarian (1982) was promoted to leading man. Whilst that film had been a fitting vehicle for Schwarzenegger in emphasising a childlike quality within the hulking form, The Terminator went one better in turning all his liabilities as an actor into strengths. Cameron had intended the Terminator to be played by someone like the actor Lance Henriksen with whom he’d worked on Piranha II. The cyborg was supposed to be, after all, an infiltrator, without characteristics that would normally draw the eye.

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Nonetheless he found the entire project gained a new and specific gravity thanks to his star’s presence. Schwarzenegger’s grating Austrian accent, slowed down and levelled in a monotone, became perfectly unified with the character, as in his famous threat/promise to a cop at a duty desk, “I’ll be back,” before driving a car through the front doors. His line deliveries became then chiselled little runes depicting the awkward interaction of a machine mind and human custom, most amusingly illustrated when, trying to ward off a nosy hotel janitor, he punches up a selection of retorts and choose “Fuck you, asshole.” Schwarzenegger’s body meanwhile encapsulated the idea of bristling, unswerving threat and force: where Cameron’s initial concept was to utilise the cognitive dissonance between the form wielding deadly force and its impact, casting Schwarzenegger erased it, as he looked like he might just be able to ram his hand into a man’s chest and rip his heart out. A good deal of the film’s signature mood is illustrated simply by the image of the Terminator cruising the city streets in a stolen cop car, a renegade influence that nonetheless readily adheres to an image of pure authority, face bathed in red and green light, eyes promising cold execution.

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Although he ultimately came out of it with the least lasting credit amongst the major figures of The Terminator, a great deal of the film’s quality is due to Biehn, who perfectly embodies the future warrior, every nerve and muscle in his body honed by decades of brutal warfare and twitching with tormented survival instinct, and yet still retaining a streak of fractured romanticism. Cameron allows him a veritable Proustian streak as he constantly drifts into reveries of the future past, all of them invoking moments of trauma, as when he recalls battling robots monsters only to be trapped inside a toppled and burning truck, but also signalling the things that keep him human, as in the last flashback/forward where he retreats into an underground bunker where fellow survivors persist and settles to dream upon a photo of a lovely woman taken in another world, an image he clearly adores: it is, of course, a photo of Sarah gifted to him by John.

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This sequence is perhaps my favourite in the film as it offers Reese’s memory through a lens of the dreamy remove shading again into nightmare. Cameron evokes Reese’s feeling of peculiar hominess in the grim hovel he shares with other people, a sense of intimate shelter contending with such bleak jokes as a mother and child staring at a TV that proves to house a warming fire and people hinting rats for food. The abode is despoiled when penetrated by a Terminator that cuts loose with a laser canon, Reese’s memories fixating on the glowing red eyes of the murderous cyborg glimpsed through the murk and the photo of Sarah blistering and blazing in the fire. Upon waking, Reese finds that Sarah has dreamt of dogs, the barking sentinels that warn of a Terminator, somehow having shared some portion of his liminal space. Sarah herself is the first of Cameron’s many, celebrated gutsy heroines, although pointedly she doesn’t start as one, complaining that “I can’t even balance my chequebook” in response to the suggestion she’s the mother of the future. Cameron makes the idea of biological function both an ennobling prospect and a cross to bear as Sarah finds herself tethered to this aspect of her female being, whilst Reese, however heroic, serves his function as drone protector and inseminator and then dies, purpose spent.

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The film’s most recent extension, Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) honourably attempted to allow the alternative of a woman not being simply defined by the man she might birth but become a leader in her own right, but whilst this ticked a rhetorical box it spurned the weird force of Cameron’s initial metaphor for maternity itself, considering every woman as the mother of the future, surprisingly little tackled in the sci-fi genre and a major aspect of The Terminator’s nagging novelty: it found a way to make motherhood seem inherently heroic. This ironically essentialist take on gender functions contrasts the mechanical way of assembly lines and the Terminator’s perfectly self-sufficient body that is nonetheless functionless beyond dealing out death, a most perfectly inflated and reductive evocation of a certain ideal of masculinity. The film’s first sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), would stretch Cameron’s thinking further to the point where he offers Sarah a few years down the line as having become Reese, just as wiry and honed and ablaze with terrible, maddening awareness.

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The film’s more earthbound and familiar aspect is provided by an array of supporting characters, most of whom fall victim to the Terminator, including Ginger and Matt. The cops tasked with investigating the spate of Sarah Connor homicides are Traxler (Paul Winfield) and Vukovich (Henriksen), a splendid pair of workaday non-heroes with palates deadened by bad coffee and cigarettes and existential miasma, and the police psychologist Dr Silberman (Earl Boen) who interviews Reese and rejoices in the brilliant complexities of his psychotic delusion. Such men try their best to defend a reality they don’t realise is crumbling, and come supplied with running jokes like Traxler’s lack of interest in Vukovich’s anecdotes. Sarah and Reese are arrested after surviving another battle with the Terminator, with the possibility of alternative explanations for what’s happened presented to Sarah. Just after Silberman leaves the station the Terminator comes crashing in, blasting his way through the small army of police with cold efficiency, including Traxler and Vukovich, whilst Sarah and Reese take the chance to escape custody. The police station slaughter is another of Cameron’s nerveless action sequences, the Terminator’s ruthless brutality and efficiency finally described at full pitch, calmly gunning down cop after cop and shrugging off bullet wounds, hobbling his foes by knocking out the power and then proceeding with his infra-red vision. This scene also incidentally underlines the Terminator’s badass lustre in his complete indifference to adult authority, one clear reason perhaps why so many kids and teens immediately adored it.

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Cameron’s technical expertise certainly helped him in forging momentous images on a budget, his technique incorporating a cunning use of slow motion in the sequence when Reese and the Terminator converge on Sarah in the Tech-Noir. This seems to match the Terminator’s seemingly more distended sense of time and action when seen from his viewpoint. There’s also Cameron’s signature use of filters, particularly steely blues and greys with patches of lancing reds, and the use of plentiful Ridley Scott-style smoke and steam diffusion. Amongst its many precursors, the film The Terminator most resembles in mood and visual palette is Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), another work in a zone of urban noir albeit one lacking sci-fi aspects, similarly propelled by the feeling that its characters are akin to the last living survivors of an apocalypse and yet still persist within the stark and alien textures of nocturnal LA. One significant aspect of the film’s identity is Brad Fiedel’s then-cutting edge electronic scoring, with its throbbing, metallic textures, revolving around a main theme at once ominous and plaintively evocative: the scoring feels perfectly of a unit with the film’s underlying struggle between the mechanistic and the emotional, describing all the blasted landscapes and desperate humanity.

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Reese underlines the absolute relentlessness of the Terminator to Sarah, its complete imperviousness to all forms of reason and dissuasion. The film draws its galvanising pace from the depiction of such unswerving programming. When it does grab some effective moments of downtime, islands of peace must be bought with moments of incredible exertion and frenzied survival will. Humans need things the Terminator doesn’t, and only geography and the maintenance of its camouflage limit it. The notion of the robot made to look human was hardly new – it has a clear precursor as far back as Metropolis (1926) – but Cameron’s vivid illustration of his version, in the mangling of the Terminator’s appearance, offered a newly gruesome depiction of the machine within, the grown human apparel discarded through its many battles until revealing shining metal and a glowing red eye, the organic one that covered it plucked out with Biblical readiness when damaged. Such subterfuge becomes unnecessary as the Terminator zeroes in on its prey. “Pain can be controlled,” Reese tells Sarah, a sign that to function in terrible extremes the human must aspire towards a Terminator-like state to survive cruel realities, but limits to all such remove are eventually found. The human urge to vulnerable connection inevitably sees Reese and Sarah have sex in a motel room they retreat to, after Sarah beholds Reese’s body with all its scar tissue and his mind with all its quivering, innocent need.

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Narrative efficiency reasserts itself with cold humour as Sarah calls up her mother to reassure her about her safety and her mother’s voice extracts her location from her, whereupon Cameron shows the other end of the call, panning past signs of violence to find the Terminator on the phone performing an imitation. This lapse sets up the film’s climax as the Terminator arrives at the motel, with Sarah and Reese warned by a barking dog and fleeing just ahead of the cyborg, which pursues them on a motorcycle. Reese tries to fend off their pursuer with his improvised explosives, but is clipped by a bullet, and both chased and chaser crash on a freeway overpass. The Terminator, after being dragged under a semitrailer, commandeers the truck whilst Sarah has to drag away the injured Reese, but Reese manages to blow up the truck with one of his explosives, and the Terminator stumbles out amidst the flames, collapsing as its flesh burns away in blackened flakes. The lovers embrace by the flaming wreckage, only for Cameron to stage his own variation on the famous, carefully framed revival of Michael in Halloween (1978) as the now entirely denuded cyborg skeleton rises from the wreckage and resumes the chase. Cameron’s penchant for nesting surprising new stages in his climaxes had its first and most sensible iteration here, as once again the constant assaults of the Terminator obey its own logic and capacity to the limit, as well as his intelligence on a plotting level which always tries to make the various crises grow out the previous ones. The terrifying difficulty of halting such a foe is illustrated again and again, and the film’s finally tragic aura stems from the accruing certainty that it can’t be stopped without countenancing hard loss.

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Hard loss comes indeed as Sarah and Reese flee within a factory and, desperate to keep the cyborg away from Sarah, Reese gets close enough to stick his last explosive into its armature, blowing it to pieces but getting himself killed, and Sarah badly injured, in the process. Even this still doesn’t stop the monster as the bedraggled torso keeps after Sarah, dragging itself along with one good hand, the organic and mechanical beings now both crippled, mimicking each-other’s motions as they drag themselves across the floor and through the gullet of a hydraulic press, as mutually entrapped as the Coyote and Roadrunner who, at root, they strongly resemble. Sarah’s final destruction of the Terminator by catching it in the press and crushing it is both the end of the narrative and the culmination of Sarah’s evolution, saving herself with warrior grit and kissing off her great enemy with the ultimate reversal of role, “You’re terminated, fucker.” Hardly the birth of the action heroine, but certainly the modern breed’s debutante party. It’s fitting that, after all the thunderous action and surging drama, the coda returns to meditate upon the film’s rarer quality, that aspect of menacing yet yearning genre poetry. Sarah, now travelling the desert in a jeep with a dog for company, is sold the photo that will become Reese’s icon by a Mexican kid, now revealed to be the image of her meditating on Reese himself in an eternal loop of longing and pain. Onwards she drives and vanishes into Mexican mountains, the storm clouds blowing in suggestive of the oncoming apocalyptic threat, one of the great final movie shots.

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The Terminator’s influence still echoes through action and sci-fi cinema, including its own birthed franchise. Following a relative commercial slip with the undersea alien tale The Abyss (1989) Cameron would take up his debut again and reiterate it as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, released seven years after the original, this time on a record-breaking budget and riding a wave of hype and expense the likes of which Hollywood had scarcely seen since the days of 1950s widescreen epics. In the meantime the Cold War had ended and the Vietnam-age angst of the original had dwindled. Cameron did his best to intensify the nuclear angst with a punishing vision of LA’s destruction in a dream sequence, but the newly positive mood of the moment was reflected in Cameron’s depiction of his heroes forestalling the rise of Skynet and the destructive war. So Cameron deflected his narrative’s stress points into concepts more rooted in societal observation particularly in describing the feckless lot of the moment’s young folk, as represented by the teenaged John Connor, trapped between disinterested representatives of square society as represented by his dimwit foster parents and a new, ruthless Terminator now disguised as a policeman and entirely subsuming the image of authority, and ruined radicalism as embodied by Sarah, whilst recasting Schwarzenegger’s Terminator from embodiment of brute masculinity to an ironically idealised father figure. The film’s excellence as spectacle, with groundbreaking special effects and tremendous action setpieces couldn’t quite hide the degree to which Cameron often settled for lightly riffing on his original script and recycling a settled template. But taken as a pair the two films remain one of the great diptychs in popular cinema. The rest of the sequels are a matter of taste.

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1960s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

The Time Machine (1960)

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Director: George Pal

By Roderick Heath

The 1950s saw the first real boom in cinematic science fiction, and those genre halcyon days owed much to George Pal. The Hungarian-born filmmaker had made his name working in the German film industry before the Nazis came to power with a series of shorts linking music and a clever brand of animation he developed known as Puppetoons. After he moved to the U.S. and started working in Hollywood, he captured an Oscar for his shorts in 1943 before eventually turning to feature production with the 1950 fantasy film The Great Rupert, helmed by actor-turned-director Irving Pichel. Pal and Pichel quickly followed it up with a more ambitious project extrapolating cutting-edge scientific concepts, most of which were still purely theoretical, about what space travel would be like and turning them into a movie titled Destination Moon (1950). Not the best of the scifi work of the era and not quite the first, Destination Moon nonetheless renewed the template for a brand of realistic science fiction first touched on by Fritz Lang two decades earlier with The Woman in the Moon (1929), and proved the catalyst for an eruption of interest in all things fantastical and futuristic that would cram movie screens for the next few years. Pal, who seemed to harbour ambitions to emulate his Paramount Pictures stablemate, Cecil B. DeMille, as a maker of grandiose entertainments, soon produced two more works still familiar to anyone who loves the genre: When Worlds Collide (1951) and War of the Worlds (1953), based on the H. G. Wells novel. His brand came to grief with Conquest of Space (1955), an attempt to return to Destination Moon’s template of hard scifi that was generally rejected as hokey and clumsy, although now its ambition and fumbling attempts at a poetic understanding of space flight now look far more prescient.
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Pal didn’t make another film for three years, and when he did, it came as a straight fantasy for MGM, tom thumb (1958), with Pal himself directing for the first time. The film’s success allowed him to return to scifi with a second raid on the works of H. G. Wells, this time the 1895 novella The Time Machine. Wells’ role in shaping the very concept of science fiction is hard to overestimate. If his predecessors and fellow progenitors Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne opened up the strange new landscapes of speculative interest, the former pair as a psychic vista of strangeness and anxiety, and the latter with a grasp on the potential of machinery, Wells synthesised their approaches and used his real scientific learning to start writing stories that investigated a certain driving idea to a logical end, with his real dramatic and poetic gifts used to shade and guide. Wells was eventually frustrated by the way his early, short, sensational writings overshadowed his more literary and philosophical output even before his death in 1945. His most famous tales also defied easy filming, as they tend to be shaped more like travelogues through certain conceptual universes rather than as propulsive narratives. Pal, however, had no problem overseeing their conversion into forceful blood-and-thunder yarns.
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Partly for this reason, Pal’s approach to scifi has often been divisive for genre fans in spite of his films’ iconic status, as he popularised the form by emphasising elements general audiences could grasp and relate to at the expense of more radical aspects: When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds are littered with invocations of the biblical and parochial in contrast to the more difficult, sceptical, acidic impulses scifi in its literary form was just starting to contemplate. Yet Pal and his various stable directors had a grasp on the essence of scifi in the popular mindset as a place of vast frontiers, grand promise, and outsized threat: When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds successfully visualised the new awareness of the Atomic Age as a place of both possibility and dread in fervent colours and big-type dramatic reflexes. By 1960, the zeitgeist was changing, and Pal took on The Time Machine with a mellower, more thoughtful palate, if also still happily leaping into adventure territory when the time came. Pal saw scifi through the eyes of a man whose life had been shaped by his love of constructing and manipulating his Puppetoons, a modern take on an old mechanistic craft with its roots based on middle Europe’s folk cultures as a new-age wing of the old fairy tale book; unsurprisingly, his next work as director was to be an exploration of the legacy of the Brothers Grimm. The Time Machine manages to be both thoughtful and wistful, but also childlike in its sense of the possible and glee in the process of the impossible.
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The film’s prologue, a series of gently ticking, drifting clocks in the void giving way to the drumming thunder of Big Ben, has a beguilingly poetic quality that infuses the rest of the film, which looks both backwards and forwards with both youthful joie de vivre and an autumnal sweetness. In this regard, Pal’s visuals are inestimably aided by Russell Garcia’s scoring, with sound and image in deep accord in exploring the way the past and the future are another country. As later transposers of Wells’ art would also do, Pal and screenwriter David Duncan wove Wells himself and his ideas into his tale, essentially presenting the anonymous time traveller of the book as Wells himself, or the version of himself he presented through his writing—a thoughtful dreamer and pacifist out of step with the coldly pragmatic mindset of the late Victorian age. Pal also reset the story at the moment of a great pivot, in the last week of the 19th century, charged with intimations of a farewell and a new beginning attendant to every change of year with the special dimension of one world about to give way to another. The book’s recounted narrative is retained, as kindly Scots merchant Robert Filby (Alan Young) and other members of a circle of friends, gruff Dr. Hillyer (a glorious character turn by Sebastian Cabot), boozy Bridewell (Tom Helmore), and stuffy Kemp (Whit Bissell), await dinner with their inventor friend George Wells (Rod Taylor) in his house. Increasingly irked by George’s absence, the men sit down to dinner served up by the housekeeper, Mrs. Watchett (Doris Lloyd), only for George to appear, bloodied, shattered, and dishevelled.
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George, fortified by wine and Filby’s assurances that he has “all the time in the world,” begins to recount the strange adventure he’s had since he last talked to them. A flashback takes them to their last meeting, on New Year’s Eve, during which George tried to thrill and impress his friends with a demonstration of a miniature version of a time machine he’s built. The small machine seemed to work perfectly, but his friends chose to dismiss it as a conjuring trick. Hillyer and Kemp instead prodded George to turn his efforts towards more practical ideas to serve military applications, whilst Filby feared the machine on a more fundamental level, warning his friend that it’s not a good idea to tempt the laws of providence. Frustrated by their lack of belief and understanding, and appalled by more grim news from the Boer War, George arranged for the dinner a week in the future before heading to his laboratory and climbing into the full-sized version of the time machine, determined to brave all dangers and explore the future in his conviction it will prove to be the place where his dreams become common reality.
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The Time Machine chose to take on its source novel in the period during which it was written and employ the odd and fascinating spectacle of super-sophisticated machinery built in a Victorian fashion. In doing so, The Time Machine’s eponymous creation, a glorious thing of brass curves, plush red velvet and blinking multicoloured lights, became one prototype for the subgenre today called Steampunk. The Time Machine wasn’t the first work to render a scifi classic in period, as a handful of Verne adaptations in previous years—Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Byron Haskin’s From the Earth to the Moon (1958), and Henry Levin’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959)—had already exploited the charm and colour of retro conceptualism. But that choice was more felicitous in making The Time Machine because of the nature of its narrative and its themes, and because although submarines and spaceships now existed, the idea of a time machine could still be illustrated in a charmingly vague way. George’s time travels didn’t have to be entirely imagined, and the contrast between his ideals and the reality of the new scientific age could be described, with an extra dimension of introspection from a 1960s perspective.
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First and foremost, George’s plunge into what he calls “the fourth dimension” is both illustrated by and analogous with Pal’s own love of ingenious showmanship, visualising time travel through the basic building blocks of cinema itself—stop-motion and time-lapse photography—and replete with good-humoured flourishes, like the mannequin in Filby’s store window who becomes George’s unageing friend and barometer of shockingly changing tastes in fashion. George’s first stop in future time brings not just the chuffing oddness of a horseless carriage, but also a harsh taste of loss, as he sees Filby wearing a military uniform, only to learn to his sorrow that this is Filby’s grown son James (Young again), whose father has died in the trenches of World War I. George takes away one salve: Filby, who controlled George’s estate, refused to sell the house out of faith that one day George would “return.”
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George despondently returns to his machine and presss on, experiencing his house’s destruction during the Blitz before stopping again presumably in the later 1960s, when atomic war has broken out. Again George is confronted by the sight of people fleeing to air raid shelters, and again meets James Filby in a military role, only this time he’s a silver-suited, white-haired air raid warden urging people to safety, astounded by George’s youthful appearance. The sight of an atomic missile drives Filby away even as Geroge begs him for conversation, and George barely survives the horror of an atomic explosion and the volcanic eruption it sets off. He climbs into his time machine and just manages to avoid being roasted by lava. Instead, he is walled inside a rock form for millennia. When the rock wears away, he surveys a marvellously new green Earth where a sublime harmony seems to have evolved between human structures and the elements. He stops his machine suddenly, causing it to careen out of control, topple over and knock George out. He awakens to find himself close to a strange, Sphinxlike building, and when he begins to explore the landscape, finds it an Edenic place with apparently no one to share it, the huge, super-moderne buildings nearby uninhabited and run down. Finally, he does encounter other people, a bunch of wan, blonde, innocent and yet also almost pathologically indolent folk who call themselves the Eloi. George has to save one woman he sees close to drowning in a river under the blasé gaze of her friends. George makes the acquaintance of the woman, who says her name is Weena (Yvette Mimieux), and slowly begins to plumb the strangeness of the society he’s presented with.
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The greatest qualities of The Time Machine become apparent in George’s headlong journey through time, experiencing his own erasure from history, the death of friends, and the calamities awaiting humankind thanks to our inability to learn lessons, all with steadily drooping enthusiasm. Pal grasps intuitively the action of time travel not just as discovery, but also as tragedy, as George finds himself doomed to witness looping events and scenes of loss and destruction, until finally, when the rock encasing him and his machine breaks apart, he seems to behold a gorgeous new future. But there are also peculiar proofs of faith, as when George finds that what was his old house has been turned into a park dedicated by James to his father’s love for his friend. There’s a striking intimacy and humanity to much of the film, for example, when George realises Filby has remained behind after his disappointing demonstration to talk, or George’s interactions with Weena, who gropes towards an understanding of him and the apple of necessary, but painful knowledge he brings to her Eden. When he arrives in the future he so dearly wants to see, his pleasure in what he sees is steadily worn down to a state of furious disillusion: the underlying truth about the Eloi and the strange beings that lurk in the darkness they call the Morlocks eventually proves utterly horrifying, but, in a way, less depressing to a man like George, who finds himself shocked and outraged when he finds the Eloi have allowed what’s left of the human intellectual inheritance to petrify and crumble away as they live happily in the sun eating the bounties provided to them without question or heed.
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Wells set out with The Time Machine to disassemble the precious, barely questioned idealism of the high Victorian period, an idealism that had much in common with the 1950s variety—an official faith in the future with a vibrating anxiety over change and threat beneath it all. He took the still fresh and prickly notion of evolution, whose great proponent, Julian Huxley, had been one of Wells’ teachers, and applied it mirthlessly to the satirical idea that if allowed to continue, the stratification of society would eventually lead to two entirely different posthuman species, the Eloi, descendants of a leisure class, and the Morlocks, subterranean workers who, in a twist of brute sarcasm, have become farmers treating the Eloi as free-range cattle and living on their flesh. Pal and Duncan tweaked this concept to look squarely at the idea not just as a permutation of Victorian labour relations, but also as a distant echo of life in the 20th century: the Morlocks round up their flocks of Eloi by blasting out the sounds of air raid sirens that draw the Eloi underground. The Eloi have essentially become children, afraid of the dark and blithe about what supports their lifestyle, but George’s arrival quickly coaxes deeper reflexes from Weena. She braves the terrors of the night to warn him about the Morlocks as he searches for his machine, which he finds has been dragged within the Sphinx. George and Weena spend a night hunkered before a fire after one of the Morlocks has attacked her, but fortunately, the monsters prove vulnerable to bright light and a good right hook.
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The Time Machine treads campy territory in trying to present the Eloi like a mob of listless, young Hollywood ingénues and beach bums (that Mimieux also starred in the same year’s Where the Boys Are amplifies the association), whilst also interestingly prescient on the oncoming age of the counterculture and its history-reboot philosophy, a movement which had much in common with the onset of many similar ideas in the Victorian age that Wells himself often espoused. There is stinging power in the moment when George, led to a collection of books kept by the Eloi by one of their number, realises the Eloi have let their cultural inheritance decay and literally turn to dust, and the previously idealistic and forward-looking savant is appalled and disillusioned to a crushing degree: “At least I can die amongst men!” he bellows in offense before abandoning his attempts to plumb the Eloi culture, because there is none. It’s also hard to deny that on at least one level, the film devolves into a Boy’s Own tale of two-fisted adventure and revolt as George proves the threat of the Morlocks is only as strong as they’re allowed to be. But the future sequences of the film have a similar mood of stripped-down mythos that would later sustain definitive genre TV works like Star Trek and early Doctor Who. In this regard and more, The Time Machine feels like a vital transitional moment in scifi cinema, mediating the chitinous forms of ’50s scifi and the brand that would dominate for the next 15 years or so in English-language scifi filmmaking—looking more closely at human society, its past and present, through the prisms of parable.
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The soul-searching that often bubbled as subtext in ‘50s scifi films here hatches and becomes overt, contemplating the modern inheritance both as one of wonder, but also cringing fear of what terrors it had conjured. The Eloi living space has the quality of being at once futuristic and distantly mythical. The drama turns inward as it contemplates humanity’s fate with an early intimation of the idea of dystopia, a substrata of the genre that’s still powerful, often playing out in extrapolated versions of high modernist architectural environs and evoking common pasts as decayed and neglected memories, and plied with a dusting of fable as here, including the likes of THX-1138 (1971), Zardoz (1974), Rollerball (1975), and Logan’s Run (1976). The headier, questioning aspect of the film seeds many more genre directions, not the least of which was the time travel idea itself, one barely tackled in cinema before this, but which has become an oft-iterated theme in works as diverse as Back to the Future (1985) and Primer (2004). The haunting quality Pal manages to invest in the film continues to recur, especially powerful and poignant in the sequence when Weena leads George to a place where the remains of human civilisation still persist, the voices of men in ages past recorded on spinning rings reporting tales of bleak decline and death; pointedly, both voices heard are Paul Frees, who had loaned his stentorian tones to War of the Worlds as the definitive voice of futurism, now reporting as the ghost of ages lost in a sublime distillation of the scifi creed in a totemic moment: “My name is no consequence. The important thing you should know is that I am the last who remembers when each of us, man and woman, made his own decision.”
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The lingering shadow of the ’50s monster movie still pervades The Time Machine, as the glowing-eyed Morlocks try to snatch Weena. But Pal still manages to generate a weird and tense atmosphere, as when George witnesses the Eloi responding to the Morlock siren call and then descends into their underground works to rescue Weena and in a gleeful action climax as George battles the cannibalistic, humanoid Morlocks, having discovered the gruesome secret in a room littered with human bones by exploiting their great weakness, their fear of bright light. A particular likeness has long intrigued me about this sequence and the way it connects to Pal’s earlier career and background: Garcia’s music in places sounds awfully reminiscent of Igor Stravinsky’s score for his famous ballet The Firebird, suggesting Pal might well have taken inspiration from that work and its roots in Slavic and Hungarian mythology, and evoking Pal’s own musical reflexes from his Puppetoon days. Certainly Pal had long been fascinated with the classic battery of fairy tales and had adapted several as shorts. This connection makes perfect sense to me, as the story is essentially the same, with George cast as the pure hero descending into a stygian underground to fight the demons and steal back a captive princess, fending off evil with light, and the time machine itself cast as the firebird, the vessel of transformative power. And as silly as George’s battle with the Morlocks is in a way, it’s still a genuinely gripping sequence with a great physicality, particularly as Pal’s eye is strong here, with the nightmarish image of the Morlocks advancing on their penned-up intended meals. The film’s corniest moment is also a highlight—an effete Eloi mans up and wallops one of the Morlocks in the back as it throttles George, saving his life.
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A few good socks to the jaw and some fiery brands fortunately prove enough to give the Morlocks hell, being as they are used to victims who don’t fight back. George is able to rescue Weena and some of the other Eloi, blowing up part of the underground city, and a new dawn seems at hand. But the Morlocks set a trap for George, luring him into the Sphinx with his time machine and then closing the doors, separating him from Weena and forcing him to fight for his life before he manages to escape in time, first travelling forward, witnessing the gruesome decomposition of a Morlock he killed, a surprisingly graphic and spectacular visual punch for 1960. George finally returns to his own time to keep his date with his friends. His only proof for his story is a flower given to him by Weena, and again he is disbelieved, taken by his friends as an attempt to break into the penny dreadful market.
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At the last, Filby hears the time machine revving up again after George has dragged it back in from the garden and repositioned it in the laboratory so he can reappear outside the Sphinx before Weena. It’s appropriate that the last notes of The Time Machine return to that mood of wistful longing and questioning as Filby is left contemplating his friend’s resolve when he and Mrs. Watchett notice George took three books to the future with him, leaving it up to the audience to divine which three books they were. This provides a lovely little supernal flourish that closes off the film on just the right note, again nudging the fablelike with the tiniest signs of human nature—a flower in Filby’s hand, a space on a bookshelf, the lights switching off in a house whose owner will never return, and a man shuffling off in the snow back to his family—proffered as transcendental totems.

The cast of the film lived long and well. When Rod Taylor and more recently Alan Young died, I could not help but think, “You have all the time in the world.”

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