Yes, it’s true. There was a point in my life when I was one of those insufferable film snobs.
I had grown up loving movies—all kinds of movies—but then two things happened that changed that:
I became a film studies major in college and my mother started working for New Yorker Films, which distributed foreign and independent films.
It was wonderful to get exposure to the kinds of films I had never seen, and to be told that certain Westerns and film noirs that I loved growing up were masterpieces of cinema! What amazing taste I had, even as a child! I saw movies from every corner of the globe, including avant-garde fare. It was amazing.
Soon I got a job in one of the theaters owned by New Yorker Films, which showed many foreign and “art house” films. Later, I worked in the office itself. It was a crappy, low-paying job, but I was surrounded by people who knew and loved film as much as I did. I got to meet cutting-edge directors and attend movie premieres, including at the New York Film Festival.
I was in heaven.
Until one day one of my co-workers asked me, “Have you seen The Terminator yet? It’s really great.”
It’s remarkable I didn’t melt his face off with the look I gave him. Because I thought he couldn’t be serious, recommending—even SEEING in the first place—this kind of mainstream Hollywood film.
Not that we didn’t see mainstream and/or action films. We loved Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark because we could talk for hours about the classic and foreign movie influences on Lucas and Spielberg. Mad Max was acceptable because it was 1) from Australia and 2) down-and-dirty filmmaking.
It’s easy for forget this, but The Terminator wasn’t actually that big of a hit in its initial theatrical run, which perhaps was the reason my co-worker felt safe speaking its name aloud in the office. That didn’t stop me from assuming it was junk.
As time went on and the film was released on VHS (ah, those were the days) it became more and more popular. I noticed people talked about it a lot, and quoted lines from it all the time. (I had a co-worker who loved to say “I’ll be back” in a fairly good imitation of Schwarzenegger’s voice.) I no longer worked for a film company, and thought, again, my co-workers had common tastes. (I SAID I was insufferable back then.)
One weekend I was at Blockbuster (more nostalgia). The thing about Blockbuster, some of you may remember, is that every time a new movie came out on video, the copies were usually snatched up pretty fast for weekend viewing. I don’t recall what I was looking for, but was really annoyed I couldn’t get my first choice. Then I saw a copy of The Terminator on the counter with other videos that had just been checked back in.
“What the hell,” I thought. “I’ll probably have fun laughing at it.”
I didn’t laugh once. I was caught up in the film from the very first moment.
Here are the three things that struck me about the movie that I never thought could be true of an action film:
- It can have interesting characters that
- I could be totally invested in and still
- Keep up the thrilling pace through almost the entire film.
Sure, I’d seen movies with big chase scenes in them before—my parents took me to see The French Connection on my 12th birthday. The problem with that movie for me (beyond it being slightly over my head for my age) was that I didn’t give a damn what happened to any of the characters. So the chase scenes were not that exciting to me.
Before this, the chase scenes I most enjoyed were in comedies (i.e. Seven Chances and What’s Up, Doc?) because I cared whether something bad happened to the characters.
Nowadays we’re so used to fast-paced action films that we’ve become almost blasé about them, but there was something about The Terminator that felt very new. Not only because of the emotional investment in the two heroes Sarah (Linda Hamilton) and Reese (Michael Biehn) but because it felt as though something important was at stake. While Sarah was not the first female action hero of modern film—arguably, that would be Ripley from the first Alien movie—she felt relatable in a way that Ripley did not in her first appearance, at least to me.
It wasn’t until the second Alien movie, Aliens, that I felt I could relate to Ripley. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the director of The Terminator, James Cameron, also directed Aliens.
By the time I finished my first viewing of The Terminator, I sat there simply stunned by how much I had loved it. That movie really made me divest myself of the snobbery that had kept me from seeing some amazing films.