The Terminator & RoboCop – Film Review

Went to the Astor Theatre for a double shot of 80s action classics. I haven’t watched The Terminator in forever and I’ve never seen RoboCop, and it’s to the latter’s credit that it kept me awake and engaged well past my normal bedtime. Also, I got to pet the Astor’s resident cat, a big fluffy sweetie, so that’s a nice bonus.

James Cameron’s lean, mean sci-fi/action masterpiece spawned one of the greatest sequels of all time (and my personal favourite Terminator film), and, eh, not much else of note, but that’s not something to hold against it. Though I remembered the basic story details about Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s cyborg assassin travelling in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the future resistance leader, I was surprised at how many small details I’ve completely forgotten. Like Sarah’s pet lizard. Whatever happened to that lizard? I was also startled by the reminder that Lance Henriksen and very young Bill Paxton both were in this movie.

The film’s iconic score was a lot more cheesy 80s synth than I remembered, and some of the practical effects are a tad hilarious. In particular, the scene where T-800 pulls out his own eyeball, with Schwarzenegger obviously replaced by stop-motion animation in some shots, drew a round of giggles. Overall though, the film holds up remarkably well and is a pure white-knuckled suspense ride. I loved how grimy it looked; not just the desolate post-apocalyptic future but also the present-day action which takes place in dark littered alleyways and dingy industrial spaces and urban scapes. Speaking of practical effects, when the Terminator’s flesh gets stripped away by fire and he’s reduced to the basic metal skeleton in the finale, there wasn’t a single snicker in the theatre; he may look blatantly fake but he’s still a bloody terrifying nightmare.

Whenever Sarah Connor is mentioned as one of the greatest onscreen female characters, people invariably refer to the buff and tough action heroine from Terminator 2, but that Sarah Connor wouldn’t have been near as compelling without the groundwork of the first film. Here Sarah is just an ordinary young girl whose toughest life challenges are her crappy job as a waitress, and a guy who stands her up. So after Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese drops a bombshell on Sarah about her future importance that makes her a target, she spends most of the film terrified like any average person would be, before rallying in the last ten minutes where you can see that future badass emerge. The tragically short-lived romance between her and Kyle is still very affecting.

More than anything else, Terminator made me wish that James Cameron would get off his ass and direct another kickass action film, instead of getting bogged down in the whole Avatar business for years and years.

Though I’ve never seen Paul Verhoeven’s original RoboCop, I was familiar with the series thanks to the video tape of RoboCop 3, which my siblings and I watched over and over while bored on a summer school break. In hindsight, that movie was pretty rubbish, but the original is a deserved classic that made me pine for the mad, bad, full-blooded fun of the 80s action movies in general.

The plot in some way is very close to your average superhero origin story about an ordinary person’s transformation into an uber-powerful being. Here’s it’s street cop and family man Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), whose body is used by Detroit’s Omni Consumer Products corporation to turn him into a crime-fighting cyborg, after they win a contract to privatise the police force. This plan goes pear-shaped when RoboCop recovers some of Murphy’s memories and begins to hunt down the crime gang who killed him.

The plot may not sound especially ground-breaking, but it’s the brash execution and exaggerated stylistic touches that make the movie stand out, as well as the cartoonishly extreme violence. There’s a strong satirical anti-capitalism streak running through RoboCop, made most obvious and biting through the random commercials and news breaks that take shots at modern consumerism and international politics. The most fun aspect of the film is its assortment of entertaining and memorable bad guys, including not one but two scheming 80s corporate assholes, while the more emotional threads, such as Murphy’s fate and his bond with fellow officer Lewis (Nancy Allen), are very effective. This movie also has one of the most hilarious and original resolutions to a fight when RoboCop’s monstrous predecessor, a giant enforcement droid, is defeated by… a flight of stairs he wasn’t designed to manage.

Interestingly, while the ending allows the hero his personal triumph, taking down the big bad corporation is not the objective and the larger status quo is never disrupted, which lends the movie a decidedly cynical edge.

P.S. Before the double feature, they played a random short made up of footage from Arnold’s old bodybuilding days, sweating at the gym and flexing his ridiculously oversized muscles. The guy had serious charisma to burn even then. After the short was over, some bloke in the audience said out loud, Why?? Which cracked up everyone in the theatre.

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