In the role he was born to play, Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't just inhabit the Terminator, he became him. A cyborg sent from the future to kill the coming savior of mankind, the character was the perfect fit for Schwarzenegger's decidedly unique persona: big, intimidating, limited to monosyllables and -- befitting a future governor -- a person who knew how to get the job done. It is impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, so synonymous is Schwarzenegger with the character. Overnight, the Austrian-born bodybuilder went from onetime Mr. Olympia to blockbuster action superstar.
'The Terminator' began life as an orphan. The name Schwarzenegger had no box office clout, director James Cameron was coming off the forgettable flop 'Piranha II: The Spawning,' and the story teetered on the brink of B-movie pulp -- a "Tech noir" melding of sci-fi, action, love story and horror, a scrappy little heavy-metal comic book with no stars and little sequel potential. But Cameron was the best kind of guerilla filmmaker: dedicated, ambitious, exacting and relentless. Convincing Orion Pictures to front the meager $1.8 million budget, Cameron, Schwarzenegger, producer Gale Anne Hurd and a cast of unknowns-about-to-become knowns, including Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn and Lance Henriksen, pulled from every last reservoir of strength they had to create a modern sci-fi pop masterpiece. Literate, inventive, directed with great inventiveness by Cameron and with one of the most formidable villains ever seen on screen, 'The Terminator' became the cult phenomenon of 1984, eventually grossing over $40 million (back when movie tickets still cost less than $5 a pop).
In making 'The Terminator,' Cameron had to rely on classic, time-worn techniques of the pre-CGI era -- models, matte paintings, miniatures and animatronics. Certainly, the film is dated; many of the robotic effects are obviously fake, and the fashions are woefully of the 1980s. But the Terminator himself is a classic creation -- effects guru Stan Winston's juggernaut is a masterpiece of metallic malevolence. And Cameron never sacrifices heart for mechanics; 'The Terminator' has endured as a classic of the sci-fi genre as much for its love story as its action. Biehn's Kyle Reese is the most vulnerable of action heroes; his confrontations with the hulking Schwarzenegger are undeniably nerve-racking. And Hamilton ably pulls of an even more difficult task, plausibly convincing us that this one-time waitress could become the savior of the world. 'The Terminator' transcends mere science fiction; it is a true cinematic original, the rare film that goes above and beyond the strictures of its genre to become a great piece of pop moviemaking.
Well now, this really is a surprise. The anamorphic widescreen transfer on the previous DVD release of 'The Terminator' was quite good, especially considering the low-budget origins of the film. Yet it was still limited by the technologies of its time, with a somewhat dated appearance, plenty of film grain and many inconsistencies due to the film's antiquated effects techniques. Now we have this new Blu-ray release, and boy, was I not expecting how improved the video quality was going to look.
I'm not sure if Sony has made a new high-def master for 'The Terminator' or what, but the film looks more stable, sharper and smoother than I've ever seen it. Again presented in 1.85:1 and encoded at 1080p, the most noticeable improvement with this new transfer is how clean it looks. Sony must have used some extensive noise reduction technology on this one, because scenes that were marred by excessive film grain on the previous DVD (such as the Tech-Noir attack sequence) are now much cleaner. Apparent visible detail and image depth are also subsequently improved, giving the film a near-three-dimensional quality at times that I just never thought was possible with a film of this vintage.
Nevertheless, there is only so much even high-def can do with certain deficiencies in the source material. Blacks, while very good, still waver on occasion. This is largely due to the matte techniques required in the pre-CGI era; any shot involving miniatures or blue screen tends to look slightly washed out and flat. Conversely, the improved resolution of high-definition renders some of the film's mechanical effects painfully obvious. The scene where The Terminator repairs its damaged eye is now even more phony looking, and it is hard not to laugh at how outdated these Ponce effects now seem. Regardless, it is hard to complain when 'The Terminator' looks this good.
Like all of Sony's initial Blu-ray offerings, 'The Terminator' is presented in uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround. And like the transfer, it is quite impressive, reminding me how good a twenty-odd year-old film can sound, especially one produced on such a low budget. Though elements of the original soundtrack have been extensively tweaked, and some sounds even re-recorded (which is sure to infuriate the purists), this is nevertheless an outstanding audio restoration.
Originally presented in mono theatrically (hard to believe with a James Cameron film, but true), 'The Terminator' never sounded very good until it was remastered for DVD, and now Blu-ray gives it an extra boost. Once very dated in sound quality, with very limited dynamic range and absolutely no envelopment, this remaster really does bring the film alive in a brand new way. Immediately, the improved fidelity is apparent. Midrange is now more spacious, and the high-end no longer brittle and shrill. Low end, too, is far punchier, with some solid deep bass present. I was also startled by how aggressive the directional sounds are placed in the mix. The rear channels are used quite frequently for all manner of effects, and of course the action sequences benefit the most. Even imaging is strong, with pans between speakers not nearly as gimmicky as I expected. Granted, compared to a modern, big budget soundtrack, it still pales. Some sounds remain tinny and obvious, and Brad Fiedel's music score, while more pronounced in the mix, occasionally suffers from a slightly cramped, compressed feel. But these are minor quibbles for a remaster as well-constructed as this.
However, despite the high quality of this restoration, I still lament the exclusion of the film's original mono mix. It really should have been included here, even if only for comparison's sake. Since so much of the remastered soundtrack has been artificially processed or replaced, it is even more important that the film's original theatrical presentation be retained in as accurate a form as possible. And it is certainly hard to imagine that the original mono track would have take up very much disc space.
Alright, now I'm really starting to get discouraged. Finally, a Blu-ray release that has a transfer and soundtrack I can get excited about, and Sony once again disappoints with the extras.
Previously released as a special edition DVD by MGM back in 2001, that release had a very strong batch of supplements. The heart of the set was the 60-minute documentary "Other Voices," directed by longtime James Cameron special edition producer Van Ling. It remains a very good doc, featuring recent interviews with just about every member of the core creative team behind 'The Terminator.' The obvious move for Sony would have been, of course, to simply port over the doc for this Blu-ray release. But no -- and here it is where it gets weird. For the international "Ultimate Edition" DVD release of 'The Terminator,' the "Other Voices" doc was split up into four smaller featurettes. Why, I don't know. Still, all the content was still there, however weird a decision it was. Alas, Sony has now decided to include only one of those splinter featurettes on the disc, the 12-minute "Creating the Terminator: Visual Effects and Music." This vignette gives us a peek at the work of Gene Warren Jr.'s Fantasy II Film Effects, which created many of the film's now-antiquated special effects, and Brad Fiedel's music score. It is a perfectly fine piece, but why include only this segment, and not the whole doc? Aargh!
That major, major gripe aside, also included on this truncated special edition is the vintage 1984 featurette "Terminator: A Retrospective." An 18-minute, one-on-one interview with James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger, it is hilarious for Cameron's bad fashion sense and Schwarzenegger's raging egotism, Still, it's fun to see these two in their more innocent days, and their enthusiasm for the project is really quite endearing. Worth a watch, if only for historical interest.
Rounding out the extras are the same seven deleted scenes that appeared on the previous DVD release. Most are character-building moments for the Linda Hamilton character, and also add a bit more to the romance between her and Michael Biehn. Nothing new for diehard 'Terminator' fans, but nice to see them included.
Unfortunately, as impressed as I was by the upgrade this new transfer provides versus the previous DVD release, the weird decision to truncate the great "Other Voices" documentary makes this one tough to recommend. More than just improved video and audio quality, Blu-ray early adopters deserve at least the same extras as the standard DVD release. So unless you care little about supplements, I'd say banish yet another Blu-ray release to your Netflix rental queue. At least until Sony decides to commit to a consistent strategy when it comes to Blu-ray extras.