With the release of Terminator: Genisys finally upon us, I’ve been going through all of my old Terminator stuff, discovering that I still own The Terminator Collection: Limited Edition VHS Box Set my parents bought for me when I was a little kid in 1992. It has VHS copies of Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day as well as a special 55-minute cassette containing making of documentaries for both films as well theatrical trailers. Yeah, not much use for those VHS cassettes anymore. Plus, all of that content has since been included as supplementary material on DVD and Blu-Ray releases which have actually producer newer, far better making of docs. However, in 1992 this box set was a must-have for any Terminator fan. The extra VHS was the only place to see some of the fabled deleted scenes! Plus, there’s a super handy 20-page book offering insightful production histories for both movies.
At the front of that book, though, is a two-page introduction written by James Cameron, who at that point was still years away from making True Lies and Titanic and probably still in the middle of trying to make a Spider-Man movie. He re-tells the famous story of his fever-induced nightmare which inspired the first Terminator, and presents his theories for why the films achieved such global popularity. You can probably also see signs of a guy whose ego would grow to the point that he would annoy Hollywood by declaring himself “King of the world!” while accepting the Best Picture Oscar for Titanic. Below is the full essay:
In March, 1981, I lay in bed in a cheap hotel room in Rome with a high fever, no money and no ticket back to the United States. I had been fired from my first directing job, a ruinous production about flying piranha backed by an Italian horror-film producer, and I was pissed off at the world, isolated and alienated in a city where I could speak to no one. I dreamed (or nightmare) about machines with glowing red eyes who walked among us like men, bent on turning the course of history to their own cold purposes. From this fever dream came the idea for a movie which was called “Terminator” in my mind even before a single word of the story was written down. I somehow got back home (don’t ask) and, finding my car had been repossessed, borrowed a clunker from my father to drive across the country. I dictated the story of the Terminator into a cassette recorder as I drove through the night.
I started writing the script in L.A. I drove the streets on rainy nights, seeing only cops and garbage trucks, eating in all-night restaurants like Ships and Du Par’s, asking the waitresses what they thought of this idea or that as I wrote at my booth on yellow legal pads.
My friend Takao, from Tokyo, calls L.A. “Terminator City” because he got the taillight of his rental car shot out on the freeway during his first visit here. He’s right. It is Terminator City. On one of the most infamous pieces of videotape in history are two things: the second, and better known, subject on the tape is the senseless beating by LAPD officers of a man named Rodney King. The first is a distant view of the Terminator 2 crew shooting a scene on the streets of Lakeview Terrance, a few blocks away and a few days before the beating took place. In that scene, Terminator says “we have to avoid the authorities.”
Eleven years after my fever dream in Rome, I should kiss the feet of the scumbags who were responsible for me being in that dark and depressing state of mind because in those years the neo-myth of the Terminator has become a part of global popular culture in a way I never could have imagined. The two films clearly must speak to many people on many levels.
Most importantly, I believe, the films empower the individual. In a vast, seemingly out-of-control world filled with billions of people and forces far beyond our individual ability to influence, everyone wants to count, to make a difference, though it seems so hopeless. Yet when the lowliest waitress becomes a pivot of future history (herstory), we all are empowered with a sense of responsibility for our role in the grand scheme of things. In both films Sarah must solve the problem of her survival, and by extension ours, through her own will, ingenuity and determination.
The films also deal with our relationship to technology…technology which we rely on to live, more and more every day as we rush toward the turn of the millennium, and yet which threatens our extinction. The gun pointed at Sarah by Terminator is the gun pointed at humanity by the nations who build hydrogen bombs.
Technology also threatens to dehumanize us. In a technical, urban society we become machinelike in our responses…form the unfeeling cop to the impersonal bureaucrat to the unsympathetic doctor. As we suppress our emotions we merge with the machine, denying life. We become isolated, alienated from each other, fearful and lost on the inside but proscribed from expressing it, or worse yet, uncaring to that point that the lives of others and indeed even our own become meaningless.
The Terminator is also, quite simply, death. The great implacable. The steel Reaper which cannot be reasoned with or bargained with, which does not feel pity, or remorse, or fear. His mechanism moves with the cold precision of the clock which ticks inevitably for each of us. And we fight death not with will, not with violence, but with love, which creates and nurtures life. Women, who create life from their bodies, must be the guardians of life in the male-driven world where all technological advances seems to lead only to more effective ways of killing.
These themes twist and turn through the two Terminator films. They can be seen in the love between Sarah and Reese which is a candle burning in the darkness of a doomed world, and then in her love for the product of that union, John, the reluctant savior of humanity who teaches the value of life to an unfeeling machine. The redemption of the Terminator himself, at the end of the second film, closes the cycle as the machine becomes human, learning the pain and joy, and thus the meaning of life…even as he must lose his.
Together, Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day comprise a single, complete narrative. The first was made in 1984 when I was an unknown fledgling director and when Arnold had yet to become a movie star, for a cost of $6.5 million. Given the ambitious effects, action and makeup, this was a virtual shoestring. The second film could not have been a greater contrast…with me well-established and Arnold arguably the biggest movie star on the planet, and with its much-publicized budget of $85 million. And yet I like to think there is more the same about these two pictures than there is different.