Thank God for Roger Corman. If it weren’t for that saintly man, Vincent Price would never have been a horror icon, the world may not have discovered the thespian pleasures of Jack Nicholson, and James Cameron perhaps would not have become a filmmaker. The king of low-budget filmmaking trained young Cameron to make every dollar of a budget stretch to look like at least seventeen on screen. The result of this philosophy, along with a fever-induced story and dynamic acting, is The Terminator. We must also thank the home theater gods for MGM, for they have put forth the effort to release an amazing special edition of James Cameron’s seminal sci-fi masterpiece. Come with me if you want to live…
Three billion human lives ended on August 29th, 1997. The survivors of the nuclear fire called the war Judgment Day. They lived only to face a new nightmare: the war against the machines. The computer which controlled the machines, Skynet, sent two Terminators back through time. Their mission: to destroy the leader of the human resistance, John Connor, my son.
The preceding paragraph is part of the introduction to Terminator 2, but it succinctly gives the background for this tale. In the apocalyptic future, the machines send a terminator cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who will give birth to John Connor, destined to be the leader of the human resistance against the machines. The humans also manage to send back a lone warrior, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), ordered to protect Sarah from the Terminator.
I imagine many of you are already familiar with this film. Believe it or not, this was the first time I saw it. No, not really. I saw it after seeing its sequel, but only in edited form on basic cable. This DVD was the first time to see it in its unedited glory.
And oh my god, what a way to see it! MGM has produced an impressive lineup recently, with excellent special editions of Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Carrie, among others. With The Terminator, they use an unusual disc configuration, the DVD-14, which is dual-layered on one side and single-layered on the other. The dual-layered side presents the film in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with audio in both remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and its original mono. The video shows signs of age — film grain, some dust speckles — but it has never looked better. Color balance is superb, with the stark blue and black palette rendered as beautifully as it could ever look. The black level is appropriately dark without losing detail. The 8.75MB/sec average video bitrate allows for no digital artifacts of any kind. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio…wow. Wow, wow, wow. Widescreen Review says it “is a new, all-out remastering effort from a team at Skywalker Sound including Gary Rizzo as re-recording mixer, Tom Bellfort as supervising sound editor, Stephen Kearney as sound editor and Gary Rydstrom as sound design consultant.” The remix utilizes the original mono sound elements, as well as newly recorded effects and some stuff culled from the remastering of Terminator 2. Like the T2 audio, this is enough to rock the house. It takes full advantage of your surrounds, with sounds that pan from front to rear, frequent low frequency rumbles from all channels, and it certainly gives the LFE a workout. Only the dialogue occasionally betrays the low-fi roots, but only if you’re listening very carefully…and if you’re listening that closely, you should be paying more attention to the movie!
I’ll get to the extras in a minute, because I’d like to have a chance to discuss the film before I lose your attention.
In 1984, James Cameron was a nobody. He had studied physics in college and worked as a truck driver before quitting his job to work in films. First, he worked in the art department at Roger Corman’s film studio. His first major production for Corman was Battle Beyond The Stars, for which he built models and painted matte paintings, and eventually rose to art director. His first directorial effort was Piranha 2: The Spawning (the original was directed by another Corman apprentice, Joe Dante). However, he was fired from that production (several times, in fact) over creative differences. He wrote the original treatment for The Terminator while bedridden in Rome, and also did many preliminary paintings and drawings to illustrate the concept. His producer, Gale Anne Hurd, also came from the Corman fold; she’s also one of the four ex-Mrs. Camerons (the two were married between 1985 and 1989).
The Terminator‘s budget was only $6.5 million, though you’d hardly guess by the detail and believability of the effects, many of which exhibit the frugality Cameron learned working under Roger Corman. Orion, the film’s original distributor, did not give it a large marketing push because they anticipated that it would be a small, niche market action “exploitation” film. How wrong they were. It was the number one film at the box office for four straight weeks, going head-to-head with big-budget heavy hitters in its own genre like 2010 and David Lynch’s Dune. Its $36.9 million box office may not have made it one of the top grossers of the year, but to be fair movies like Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom dominated that year. It was enough to make Cameron a bankable director. Two years later he would helm Aliens, the sequel to the über-popular 1979 sci-fi/horror Alien. It would go on to gross $20 million more than its predecessor, and would lead to more hits for Cameron. It all led to 1997’s Titanic, the all-time box office champ, grossing nearly $2 billion worldwide.
You also cannot forget that this was the film that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star. Today he may not be the draw that he once was (thank you, Batman and Robin), but he dominated the box office in the ’80s and ’90s. Pumping Iron and Conan the Barbarian may have been his welcome to Hollywood, but playing the bad guy in The Terminator made him wildly popular. He had a string of hits with Commando, Raw Deal, Predator, The Running Man, and Red Heat. A couple comedies — Twins and Kindergarten Cop — were a temporary derailment before he returned with a vengeance with Total Recall (probably still my favorite Schwarzenegger film) and T2. Unfortunately, with the exception of 1994’s True Lies (his third teaming with Cameron), his career has been downhill from there. He has the charisma to continue to be a star (even if at his age he’s not believable in action flicks) if only he would pick suitable scripts and roles. A third Terminator film is stuck in development hell. Schwarzenegger is attached to reprise the role again (as a good guy, one would assume), despite that Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown, U-571) has replaced Cameron as the director. Various names have been bandied around as the bad guy — everyone from Famke Janssen to Vin Diesel. There has been talk that John Milius (director of Conan the Barbarian) and the Wachowski Brothers (directors of The Matrix) are working on a third Conan film, but nothing is confirmed at this point. The script reviews I’ve read seem to indicate that this is the film Arnold needs to transition from action hero to dramatist. I hope that it — or some other similar role — comes along for him.
All right, back to the disc, sort of. The best feature by far on the second side of the disc is the collection of deleted scenes. I wish Cameron had done a director’s cut, at least as an option, because I would have loved to see these added back to the film. Why? Because they demonstrate the ideas that Cameron had all along for the complete story. You know how it was hinted at in T2 that Sarah had tried to destroy Cyberdyne Systems once before? The genesis for that idea was filmed in the first movie! There’s a conversation between Sarah and Kyle where she explains the reasoning that she finally puts to use in the second film — blow up Cyberdyne, and there will be no computer to take over in the future. You know how we always figured that Cyberdyne got ahold of that chip and the arm somehow from the plant where T1’s climax takes place? That’s because — conveniently enough — the plant was Cyberdyne. There’s a terrific scene with a couple guys hiding the evidence from the cops, ended with a great shot that slowly pans up to show the name on the building. The other deleted scenes further fleshed out Paul Winfield’s detective character and were unnecessary to the plot, but it would have been pretty groovy to see the scenes that establish the sequel re-edited into the film.
On Side One, the DVD-ROM features (enabled through the very unfriendly PC Friendly software) allow you to read three versions of The Terminator‘s script: the original treatment (available on Side Two for use on your TV), a fourth draft from 1983, and the shooting draft. On Side Two, the menu lists: Trailers/TV Spots, Documentaries, Terminated Scenes, Still Galleries, and Original Treatment. The Trailers section contains three trailers (teaser, theatrical, and foreign) and two TV spots. The trailers are all in anamorphic widescreen, and are an interesting study in how this film was marketed. The teaser trailer simply calls the film “Terminator,” and shows Orion’s notion that this was just another exploitation film along the lines of Death Wish, without stressing the sci-fi aspects of the story or even showing any of its complex special effects (which probably had not been completed when the trailer was cut together). Keep an eye out for the paintings of “Terminator” — they’re James Cameron’s. The theatrical trailer shows more of the sci-fi background for the story, and leaves you with the question, “Just why is this machine so interested in Sarah Connor?” The foreign trailer is somewhere in between the domestic teaser and full trailers. It is notable that it shows violence and gore from the film, something that is taboo with green-band US trailers.
In the Documentaries section, you get “The Terminator: A Retrospective” and “Other Voices.” “The Terminator: A Retrospective” is an 18-minute look at the making of the movie. It consists of an interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron filmed in 1991, along with scenes from the film and behind-the-scenes footage. I love listening to Schwarzenegger talk about his films — he has to be the most shameless self-promoter I have ever heard, but in a positive, likeable way. Both have interesting anecdotes to share, and it’s a fun look back from two guys who know the place that The Terminator had in their careers. “Other Voices” is a new one-hour documentary directed by Van Ling, and is a thorough look at the film from initial concept to release. The “other voices” are recent interviews with many people involved in the making of the film, including producer Gale Anne Hurd, co-writer William Wisher, special effects guru Stan Winston, and actor Michael Biehn. It makes a nice companion to the Schwarzenegger/Cameron interviews in the other documentary, for it opens up the anecdotal look at the making of the film to include other collaborators. It is one of the greatest looks at the making of a film that I have seen. Especially fantastic is Stan Winston explaining exactly how they got the final shot of the hydraulic press crushing the Terminator’s head; you’ll never look at that scene the same way.
As discussed earlier, the Terminated Scenes section is a collection of seven deleted scenes, many of which are vital pieces of information in the story later used in T2. The scenes range in length from a few seconds to close to ten minutes, and are presented in anamorphic widescreen. You can opt to watch all the scenes in sequence, or you can watch them individually. New for James Cameron, he provides optional commentary on each scene, explaining why they were cut.
Still Galleries contains five galleries: James Cameron Artwork, Production Photos, Stan Winston Effects, Fantasy II Visual Effects, and Publicity Materials.
The Original Treatment is James Cameron’s first crack at the story of The Terminator. Treatments typically are written prior to the actual screenplay, and are often like a running description of what you’d see on-screen without all the details (like dialogue) that you would get once it is fleshed into the screenplay.
I have zero complaints about the film or the disc, so I’ll reserve this space to complain about the PC Friendly software used for the DVD-ROM features. Upon installation, it asks a screenful of personal information, and is enabled by default to report back to HQ a bevy of information about your computer system. Since I can be somewhat paranoid about these things, I opted out of the “registration.” Later, when the DVD-ROM menu came up, it attempted to connect to the Internet. Strange, considering there are no web-enabled features on the DVD-ROM menu. My ZoneAlarm firewall software intercepted the attempt, which I denied. Considering that their System Info applet looks at everything on your system, from your Windows networking computer name to the make and model of your motherboard, I don’t want Interact Software knowing all that information. Shame on them!
It was a little more than one year ago that we witnessed Fox’s transformation from reviled DVD studio to the powerhouse that they are today. The Most Reviled DVD Studio mantle seemed to pass to MGM. I think we are now seeing their renaissance. While they still release many budget discs, their special editions are rapidly catching up with those of other studios, and they know how to appeal to budget-conscious consumers. The Terminator: Special Edition has a retail price of $26.98US, and the disc is worth every penny. You get a superlative audio and video presentation, and an excellent collection of bonus material. It’s every Terminator fan’s greatest wish for this film.
A side note to MGM: since you have done such a great job with special edition DVDs of Orion Pictures’s The Terminator and Silence of the Lambs, could you please make one of your next projects a special edition of Dances With Wolves? Or perhaps Akira Kurosawa’s Ran?