Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry highlights a number of movies to watch if you like The Terminator.
Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of The Terminator, a movie that we could say almost didn’t happen. But isn’t that the case with most movies from the 1980s, a decade when there wound up being companies like Orion and New Line rising outside the major studio territory for the very reason of distributing now-classic and cult-classic genre films like this one? The sci-fi action/horror flick is famous for launching and breaking the careers of many involved, bumping up the fame of writer-director James Cameron, star Arnold Schwarzenegger and make-up effects artist Stan Winston. It’s influenced numerous movies since and reached a certified level of prestige in recent years by being added to the National Film Registry. It’s hard to imagine what the world would be like if The Terminator hadn’t happened.
Not that we want to go back and kill it before it could be born in order to find out.
In selecting The Terminator for my latest list of recommended viewing, I’m admittedly a little late to the game. Two years ago, a book came out called “If You Like The Terminator…: Here Are Over 200 Movies, TV Shows, and Other Oddities That You Will Love.” While I haven’t read the whole thing, I have to acknowledge it for either reminding me of or understandably overlapping with the titles I’ve chosen. Obviously my picks are a lot fewer, and some are thanks in part more to Sean French’s book on the movie for the British Film Institute as far as citing Cameron’s confessed influences. As usual, though, this isn’t all about great or inspiring precursors, just ones that are relevant and worth seeing for reference, including at least one obligatory previous work by a the then-relatively unknown cast member.
The Mechanical Man (1921)
Sadly you can’t see all of this Italian silent film, as most of it has been lost. In fact, all of it was thought to be lost until a few years ago when 26 minutes of footage was found in Brazil. It is still fascinating to watch a movie 63 years ahead of The Terminator involving an unstoppable killing machine, albeit a robot without the bare disguise of being dressed in the skin and frame of an Austrian bodybuilder. There are a few things about the film that connect better with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. For instance, rather than sending a human to defeat this machine, they send another robot. Also, a scene in which this “terminator” chases a car reminds me of the T-1000 running after John Connor. Other times, you’ve got men trying to shoot at the clunky beast as it slowly advances, unfazed, and it’s a definite forebear to Schwarzenegger’s slightly more human performance.
Eventually, I’m going to have to just let James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley be a given on any list of movies to see after you watch a modern sci-fi movie. I feel like I include it too much (maybe I should have gone with Metropolis in this slot instead), but it really is – and this goes as much for the novel – one of the most important, most influential works of sci-fi and horror. Frankenstein’s Monster is the original Terminator, a sort of cyborg creature originating from man’s own invention who goes out of control – pretty much Skynet is a “Modern Prometheus” itself, right? And the Monster has a very limited vocabulary, like that of Schwarzenegger’s T-800. We begin to empathize with the Monster much quicker than we do with the T-800 – or a T-800, as in the case of the good Terminator in T2.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Two beings arrive in the present day, one of them a robot and one of them at least seemingly human, and there is warning from the latter of a future where humans are eliminated. But unlike the T-800 and Kyle Reese, the visitors here, Gort and Klaatu, are partners, though one is more deadly than the other. In a way, Klaatu is both Reese and the good T-800 of T2 in his connection with an Earth woman (this movie’s own Sarah Connor), albeit not a romantic one, and his buddying up with her son (the John Connor equivalent). As far as I know, Cameron has never mentioned this classic as an influence, though he was inspired by 1950s sci-fi in general, and he’s sure to have seen it as a kid. Also, its message-based sci-fi is too close to that of Cameron to ignore. I know I’m not the only one who sees a connection between this and not only The Terminator but especially The Abyss.
The Creation of the Humanoids (1962)
In this low-budget sci-fi movie, robots increase in population in the time following the nuclear destruction of much of the planet. Sound familiar? At first, the machines here are notably non-human, but there is progress in their manufacture so that they are more and more humanoid in appearance, indistinguishable from real people. There’s a group out to stop these robots from taking over the world, too. The make-up effects, which include some neat tricks for metallic eyes and independently operating severed arms, were done by Jack P. Pierce, the Stan Winston of his era, who also designed the look of Frankenstein’s monster.
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Cameron has cited this as one of the “mind-blowing” movies that has been a huge influence on his career. Of course, Ray Harryhausen’s effects work influenced most sci-fi and fantasy filmmakers of Cameron’s generation. But he has a great point about the context of this movie’s famous mobile skeletons and how they made this sort of the Avatar of its time. He doesn’t say this, but I think the skeletons have an even better link to the stop-motion robo-skeleton effects at the end of The Terminator. Winston has to have mentioned the influence of Harryhausen and this movie specifically at some point, too, but I’m unable to find such proof of the connection.
The guy who would go on to write Jurassic Park first conceived of an amusement park involving deadly Western-themed (and knight-themed and ancient Rome-themed) robots. Michael Crichton’s soon-to-be-remade (as a TV series) thriller stars Yul Brynner as an android in the title section of the park, which begins to malfunction due to a computer virus likely intentionally begun by the machines themselves. When Brynner’s Gunslinger starts actually killing people in his programmed gunfights, he takes on a stiff, slow-walking killer type of antagonist we’re now accustomed to with slasher flicks and definitely The Terminator. Regarding the latter, The Gunslinger is also similar in his computerized POV, which we get to see with both movies, and the way he pops up suddenly at the end, badly burned and damaged to the point of looking more robot than human – the latter aspect of which Cameron admitted in an interview to being disappointed with how that look was executed.
With The Terminator, Cameron wanted to make a kind of slasher movie, inspired by a nightmare he had about a metal man while making Piranha II: The Spawning. Michael Myers is the most important slasher of the era, with his lack of personality and slow movement hardly a handicap against his homicidal urge and strength. Cameron was very much influenced by John Carpenter, as Scott Von Doviak notes in his “If You Like The Terminator” book. He references the connections with Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, and Escape From New York, the last of which Cameron worked on, but he rightly credits this one as the most significant with its “nearly unstoppable killer” and “first-person camera from the villain’s point of view.”
The Driver (1978)
Another influential figure for Cameron was Walter Hill, with whom he would work on Aliens. In an interview just prior to his making that sequel, he told David Chute for Film Comment (also cited by Von Doviak): “I had The Driver in mind when I was writing certain scenes in The Terminator. Not that I was cribbing; I had only seen the picture once and just had a dim memory of the kinetic forward energy.” Hill’s movie is about a nameless car thief and bank robber being pursued by an also nameless detective, so obviously he wasn’t cribbing the plot from this one. And I don’t think anyone ever accuses anyone of plagiarizing a general look or tone or energy of a film. Maybe he was already trying to be careful about admitting he’d “ripped off” other properties (the Film Comment interview is from around the same time as the infamous Starlog interview that edited out his confession about Harlan Ellison’s stories – see below).
Somewhere in Time (1980)
If you think the bootstrap paradox of The Terminator (man sends his friend back in time to protect his mother and winds up the guy’s dad – how did it all begin?), then here’s a real doozy. Christopher Reeve plays a guy who, like Kyle Reese, falls for a woman in an old photograph. And he ends up going back in time to be with her. Not only does he wind up influencing the smile in the picture that he’d initially been drawn to, but he also gives her a pocket watch that she had given him as an old woman at the start of the movie. Where did the watch come from? At least it’s not as frustrating a time-travel issue for Reeve as the one in Superman.
The Fan (1981)
I’m not sure what’s worse, the songs as written for this movie or Lauren Bacall’s performance of them. The combination, though, only adds to the believability of the title character’s insane obsession with the singer/actress. Here, before playing Kyle Reese, Michael Biehn is more like the Terminator, creepily stalking a woman and injuring or killing anyone who gets in his way. It’s a bad movie for sure, but one that is at times so bad it’s good. And the climax, when we get to watch Bacall kill Biehn is just all good.
Das Boot (1981)
We all know now how much Cameron loves submarines, and according to Sean French this German World War II sub film is one that the director admired. In the BFI book, French recognizes the way that The Terminator’s future was part of a trend at the time, which connected to that of period production design found in something like Das Boot: “not gleamingly solid but rattling, ricketty, leaking, dirty.” Also according to French, Cameron’s first choice to play the Terminator was Das Boot lead Jurgen Prochnow.
The Road Warrior, a.k.a. Mad Max 2 (1981)
While Cameron acknowledges that the present day (or night, mostly) of The Terminator was influenced by The Driver, the future was somewhat modeled on this Mad Max sequel. He saw the movie while writing The Terminator and believed it to be “the next step.” More than just the dystopian stuff, though, there’s the chase sequence in Cameron’s movie that is very reminiscent of the famous one in George Miller’s action flick. First you’ve got the T-800 on a motorcycle with him and Reese firing at each other, and then the Terminator ends up driving a tanker truck. If only he had also gotten into a gyrocopter at some point, we would be sure of Cameron’s influences bleeding through the pages of his own script.
Bonus: The Outer Limits: “Soldier” and “Demon With a Glass Hand” (1964)
These non-movies are the two episodes of The Outer Limits written by Harlan Ellison that Cameron was to have plagiarized. “Soldier” is about a soldier from the future who travels back to the present, while “Demon” is about an amnesiac robot from the future who travels back to the present. These are definite influences, but did they deserve to be credited let alone paid for? If it weren’t for Cameron apparently telling Starlog during an interview (in a bit not published) that he “ripped off” the show, maybe there was no grounds for Ellison’s lawsuit, but anyway a settlement was made and now The Terminator acknowledges this influence yet none of the others above.