It’s quite astonishing to look back at The Terminator and see how much James Cameron did with such a small budget – or at least such a small budget compared to his later films. By the standards of Titanic and Avatar, his first blockbuster was made on a shoestring, and yet his taste for spectacle is already fully-formed, and possibly even more ingenious for having to operate within such tight constraints. Above all, The Terminator is a tribute to the power of austerity, economy and opacity, driven by a propulsive minimalism that has continued all the way to the present, where it’s clearest in Cliff Martinez’s brand of synth-propelled montages.
In part, that’s because The Terminator more or less plays as a sustained montage sequence and a single escalating chase. Six films into the franchise, it’s easy to forget the eeriness, originality – and, again, the economy – of this opening premise. We start with two figures time travelling from 2029 back to 1984 Los Angeles – a robotic killing machine, dubbed the Terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a regular human, Kyle Reese, played by Michael Biehn. Meanwhile, we follow Sarah Connor, an Angeleno played by Linda Hamilton, as her daily activities gradually converge with these two missives from the future. Since the subsequent story is now part of American folklore, it’s also easy to forget how much Cameron holds back during the first two acts, only revealing the connection between these two plot strands late in the piece, when Kyle paints a terrifying picture of the future of Los Angeles.
In only a few years, he informs Sarah, machines will take over the city sprawl, killing the vast majority of humans, and forcing the rest into an underground movement, composed of soldiers like himself. In time, however, a resistance will emerge, led by John Connor, Sarah’s unborn and unconceived son. In order to counteract this resistance, the machines have constructed the Terminator, a time-travelling robotic soldier who has returned to 1984 in order to kill Sarah before she can conceive her son, let alone give birth to him. Kyle has managed to get a hold of the same time travel technology, and has followed the Terminator back to the 80s, where he vows to help Sarah survive this robotic emissary from the future.
The stage is set, then, for a sublime exercise in cyber-horror, starting with our first introduction to the Terminator himself. This was the role that Arnie was always born to play – his body already looked post-human, and his acting was always robotic. It was also the role that Los Angeles was always meant to host. While the Terminator has technically travelled back from the future, we first meet him through a primal birthing scene in which he seems to emerge from the most panoptic point in Los Angeles – Griffith Observatory. Before cloaking himself with armour, he’s naked, and turns to face the city in his nudity, commanding it with his phallus, and the phallus of all the action heroes that he condenses into his singular torso. The action hero was a logical extension of the male gaze, a conflation of eye and phallus, and Cameron distils this eye-phallus to Arnie’s dual eyepieces here, which take in the whole city.
From the outset, that means that Arnie’s face and phallus are both irresistible and inescapable. This attaches an erotic intensity to Cameron’s gradual revelation of the Terminator’s face, which starts off human, and gradually disintegrates into so many fetishistic-mechanical components. Sarah and Kyle primarily fight the Terminator’s face too, a gesture that both castrates and empowers him, since it does away with the minutiae of his features, but only to distil him to a luminous pair of eyes, a male gaze that has transcended the need for a body. As a result, Arnie is both hyper-embodied and curiously disembodied, shifting the film into a surreal key whenever his face is in the frame – most explicitly with a nod in the direction of Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou when he puts one of his eyes back in place. By extension, the most evocative parts of the film ask us to fetishise Arnie’s phallus, by way of his face, via a series of extreme low-angle shots that collapse them both into a single monolithic presence, placing us so far below him that eye and phallus fuse.
This creates spectacles that would be frankly homoerotic were they not so embedded in the action lexicon of the early 80s, albeit inflected in a more science fiction direction. At heart, action films were invested in both courting and reproaching the homoerotic gaze, since the logical conclusion of their intensified male gaze was a world in which men were both the subject and object of the gaze, the person looking and the phallus being observed, creating endless feedback loops that escalated the male gaze to hallucinatory and hyperbolic proportions, like a testosterone-fuelled hall of mirrors. We see that process in the opening shots of Arnie’s buttocks and bare back, as well as in the film’s broader erotic affinity for Arnie, despite its characterological affinity for Sarah and Kyle. While we want the humans to win, it’s impossible not to be intoxicated by Arnie’s phallic potency, so it makes sense that he was rebranded as the good guy and aligned with the humans in Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
Arnie’s erotic intensity means that The Terminator is never entirely free from his phallic gaze. There is no space that fully exists outside of the Terminator, which makes the future even more foreclosed, and Kyle and Sarah’s battle even more precarious. In the opening act of the film, the Terminator seems to erase space altogether, as Cameron resorts to tight shots that refuse to establish much about our location, along with chase sequences that move too rapidly to give any specific sense of place – just a rhythmic oscillation between dim zones and bright light. To some extent, Arnie’s musculature is the topography of this opening act, only permitting us to gaze on the panorama from Griffith Observatory when his massive back is centred in the frame, like a lens that we must travel through to engage with expansive space. There’s a distant echo here, of the Griffith Observatory of Rebel Without a Cause, where James Dean and Sal Mineo come closest to articulating their own homoerotic affinities too.
In other words, this opening act makes it clear that the Terminator is most at home in what Gilles Deleuze described as any-place-whatevers, meaning that Cameron has to temporarily hold place at bay until he finds a non-place commensurate to the Terminator’s presence. He finds it, in the second act, with Downtown Los Angeles, which at this moment was both the most old-fashioned and futuristic part of the city – the most old-fashioned because the very idea of a downtown core was anathema to the decentred sprawl of Los Angeles at large; the most futuristic because Bunker Hill, one of the most historic parts of Downtown, had recently been razed to make way for an austere postmodern district funded by East Asian capital. This is the Terminator’s true home, right down to the Tech Noir nightclub where he first makes contact with Sarah in a New Wave phantasmagoria. While Cameron can relax into a more specific sense of space now, he sticks with the tight close-ups, which make the present (at least the Downtown present) feel curiously provisional, and highly vulnerable to the future.
Indeed, in Cameron’s vision, Downtown is already in the future, already a science-fiction space – especially at night, when the city infrastructure starts to exceed any human scale. We learn that the Terminator emerged from precisely this automated and mechanised city, as the logical embodiment of a fortified Downtown core fuelled by East Asian capital. For long stretches of the film, he looks Japanese, as Cameron emphasises the angularities of his face, and sets him against Japanese cars and motorcycles. His actions are also situated on the cusp of the fortified city, at the nexus between police and criminals, evoking a fortification system that has turned against itself. Like the police, he uses body armour, and spends most of the first Downtown chase driving a police car, but the cops also compare him to drug users who mainline PCP, associating him with the criminal underclass the city is fortifying itself against.
In the process, the Terminator becomes the latest iteration in a long tradition of apocalyptic visions of Los Angeles – visions that typically draw on the unusual distensions and compressions of spacetime that drive both the most dispersed and the most filmed city in the United States. Combined with the postmodern 80s, and what Fredric Jameson described as their waning of any clear sense of the historical past, this produces a profound anxiety about how to differentiate (and recover) the present from the future. Paradoxically, the more that Kyle attempts to emphasise the potency of the present – “a few years from now, all this, this whole place, it’s gone, just gone” – the more Sarah feels the precarity of the present – “You’re talking about things I haven’t done yet in the past tense.” The effect is not unlike Back to the Future, released a year later, but with the end goal of horror rather than comedy. In this case, Kyle and the Terminator cannot ever return to the future, meaning that all they have, and all Sarah has, is a present that already seems to have starting turning into the future anyway.
As a result, the present here is simply the cusp of a totally alien future – a future so alterior that it displaces the present from itself, and turns the early 80s into a supremely uncanny space. To some extent, this reflects a broader anxiety about periodising the 80s in the face of a cultural zeitgeist that was gradually claiming the end of history, and the final victories of America. Kyle’s one artefact from the future is a polaroid of Sarah taken in the mid-80s, with a sweatband and a stylised haircut that forms the next fashion step from her massive bangs of the early 80s. In retrospect, these feel like two parts of the same period but, for the film, the future seems to be accelerating so rapidly that this shift from early to mid 80s fashion is tantamount to the emergence of the Matrix a decade and a half later – the harbinger of a world order that disposes of the present as mercilessly as the most fleeting fashion trends.
While Cameron initially attributes this displaced present to the fortified city, Kyle gradually reveals a more specific origin story for the Terminator. Apparently, in Sarah’s future, the city will develop what we would now think of as a nascent internet – SkyNet, a defence system of networked computers that are “hooked” into everything and develop a “new level of intelligence” in the process. The machines, and eventually the Terminator, emerge from this singularity, but the paradox of the film is that the Terminator cannot access this network before it is fully realised in the present, even if he acts as a emissary from its future. As a result, all his technology relates to weaponry, rather than media – he can shoot a mean arm-gun, but he still has to look up all the different Sarah Connors in the phone book before he finds the right one (and even then, can only confirm that it’s her via answering machine). Meanwhile, the humans in the film are also on the verge of accessing a new networked subjectivity, which Cameron evokes through a series of weird and quasi-comic “conjunctions,” most of which revolve around Sarah’s pet iguana, at least in the opening act.
With this new addition to the backstory, the Terminator becomes an incipient network, while Sarah’s Los Angeles is the calm before the storm, the quiet before the singularity hits, the white noise of machines conspiring right under our noses. The only solution, for both Sarah and Kyle, is to go off grid, which sinks the film into a suspenseful hush as they retreat to the woods, roll their car into the trees, and shelter beneath a bridge, in a drainage ditch that eerily resembles our few glimpses of the future resistance, as if the machines might have taken over on the space of this one quiet night – or on any night in the future as innocuous as this one.
This paves the way for a hushed third act, as Sarah and Kyle go on the run from the future, cresting the wave of the present through a series of transitory spaces until the Terminator apprehends them at a highway motel, and chases them all the way back to Los Angeles via the 2nd Street Tunnel, which travels directly beneath the Bunker Hill gentrifications, and circuits them back above ground to the core of this new postmodern district. At the epicentre of futuristic Los Angeles, the future now starts to emerge, as the Teminator hits, is absorbed into, and takes control of an oil tanker, in what feels like the first step in the singularity – the first fusion of machines that cascades into the robot empire. Sure enough, the ensuing chase ends with the tanker exploding into a miniature apocalyptic wasteland, the first of the flames that might just engulf the city, and which now rarefy the Terminator to skeleton and gaze.
Now, finally, we are at the cusp between the present and future – either the first step in the singularity or the last battle with the Terminator – as the action shifts to a robotic factory, where the Terminator is destined to die or converge with the sentient computers all around him. While Sarah “kills” him by reducing him to nothing more than a gaze, she also renders that gaze more powerful by distilling it, paving the way for an unsettling epilogue in an abstract space “outside” of America – a stylised desert gas station, where Sarah trades epigrams with a Mexican attendant: “There’s a storm coming.” “I know.” She’s alive, and she’s pregnant, but this doesn’t preclude the future apocalypse, or prevent the vast majority of mankind from dying – it just means that John Connor will be there to command the resistance.
This oblique ending is compounded by the complex and contorted narrative of paternity that drives the film. While Kyle comes back in time to save John from the future, he ends up creating John on the one occasion when he sleeps with Sarah – although he doesn’t know it. Conversely, while John sends Kyle back from the future to protect his mother, he has no idea that John is his father, or that the very act of sending him back is, in and of itself, what constitutes his paternity. Just as the film displaces the present, it displaces any present moment of father-son recognition, producing an emergent cyborg gender that is temporarily assuaged by the second film, but peaks again later in the franchise. In the last scene at the robot factory, Sarah herself seems to be becoming-machine, crawling into ever more intimate recesses of the building while plucking out shards of the Terminator that have been embedded in her legs. Her last standoff with the Terminator, and the phallus-eye, feels like the prototype for Ripley’s standoff with the xenomorph in Alien 3 – the hint of a cyborg-butch aesthetic that the franchise only embraces later on, when Arnie’s action clout begins to wane.