Video Review

The Terminator (1991)

MPAA Rating: R
EW's GRADE
A

Details Movie Rated: R; Genres: Action/Adventure, Mystery and Thriller, Sci-fi and Fantasy; With: Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger; Distributor: Orion Pictures

He never knew his father. His mother is doing hard time in a mental institution. His foster parents don't understand him. No wonder John Connor is turning into a juvenile deliquent. But he's a bright, spunky kid; all he needs is a little firm but sympathetic parental guidance to set him on the right path. This he begins to receive from a mysterious surrogate dad, a resourceful, but in some respects curiously unworldly, stranger. Sure enough, over the course of a long, colorfully realized adventure tale, the big guy and the little guy bond in ways that are both emotionally edifying and sentimentally satisfying.

That nice little movie story, the sort that critics always seem to find moving and heartwarming, and for which a small, genteel audience expresses a frustrated longing, actually exists inside the hurly-burly of Terminator 2: Judgment Day . Indeed, I realize that it forms the emotional core of the movie, its best reason for being, now that I've seen the film on video. If at first glance, on the big screens of the big theaters last summer, T2 seemed to be all car chases and fire fights, mighty explosions and state-of-the-art special effects, on second glance, on the TV screen now and forever, it seems to have more to say about states of the heart than one initially discerned. In its small-screen reincarnation it also appears to be much truer to the spirit of 1984's The Terminator, which was one of the most original movies of the 1980s and seems likely to remain one of the best sci-fi films ever made.

What we're talking about here are issues of scale and perspective. The film's stunts and effects were staged so as to fill a huge 70 mm frame (and to justify a $90 million budget). They had to wow us, and they did. But electronically recropped in order to fit the proportions of the small home screen, they lose their capacity to bully us. Those marvels are still entirely readable on video, and they're still enjoyable, but they no longer dominate the movie. At the same time, video recropping tends to emphasize close-ups, because it eliminates much of their background. Therefore, it emphasizes what usually goes on in close-ups: the exchange of emotions and ideas. In other words, the new medium rebalances this film — and by no means to its disadvantage.

Indeed, when you play T2 back-to-back with a tape of the first Terminator, which was in comparison a much more frugal enterprise, an epic in concept rather than in budget, you find a surprising seamlessness. The spirit of that first film was insinuating. Director James Cameron understood that its only hope was to lure us rather than to bludgeon us out of a state of disbelief in these propositions: that the next world war would be fought between humans and superhuman machines; that both sides would have a capacity to travel backward in time in order to intervene in the historical process; and that a messiah named John Connor (check out his initials) would, if he were allowed to do so, grow up to redeem beleaguered humankind. In that film the machines assigned a Terminator to kill his mother, Sarah, before she could give birth to the savior, a fate she just barely avoided.

In the sequel, the mother (Linda Hamilton) has been driven round the bend largely because no one will believe her story, her issue (Edward Furlong) is a messed-up preadolescent, and the future party of humanity has gotten hold of the old Terminator blueprints and sent a model (Arnold Schwarzenegger again, but this time in a benign mood) back to our time to protect John. Trouble is, the cyborgs have come up with a new, improved hit man, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), who is T2's chief source of optical-effects entertainment. He can transform himself into any object or person he touches, he has a capacity for instant regeneration no matter how terrible the wounds inflicted upon him, and when evil requires a cutting edge he sprouts swords and hooks.

Poor Arnold. He's a game Terminator — nerves of steel, guts of iron, and all that — but technologically he's no T-1000. Except for one thing: He's programmed to learn, and to everyone's surprise one of the things he can learn is how to love. And that, of course, gives him the strength to be a T-1000 — and to embrace another human concept, martyrdom.

Startlingly, what originally seemed a somewhat inflated, if generous and energetic, big picture, now seems quite a good little film — smart, often funny, and considering the amount of machinery running around in it, surprisingly humane. A

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Originally posted Dec 13, 1991 Published in issue #96 Dec 13, 1991 Order article reprints
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