It’s been 30 years this week since a naked Arnold Schwarzenegger first brought us the nearly wordless Cyberdyne Systems T-800 Model 101 in the James Cameron–directed The Terminator. Launching a multi-movie (four so far, with the tragically spelled Terminator: Genisys scheduled for release next summer) franchise, with a TV series and video-game spinoffs as well, The Terminator had everything you’d expect from an action movie of its time — nudity, gratuitous violence, a synthesizer-heavy score that chills the blood, and early-'80s fashions that verge on parody. Honestly, it’s unclear why Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) needed future-freedom-fighter Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) for protection, as her hair probably contained enough product to deflect bullets better than Kevlar.
We dug deep into the Vulture DVD cabinet to rewatch the films and their commentary tracks (we listened to McG compare Terminator: Salvation characters to 9/11 first responders — and parts of his film to Schindler’s List — so you don’t have to; you can thank us later), reviewed archival interviews, and reconsidered the whole franchise for its 30th anniversary. And we learned that some things hold up (“Hasta la vista, baby”) while others don’t (Edward Furlong’s delivery of “Hasta la vista, baby”).
The Terminator (1984)
• While in Rome for the release of Piranha II: The Spawning (arguably his directorial debut), James Cameron fell ill and had a fever-dream in his hotel room, featuring “this metal death figure coming out of a fire … the implication was that it had been stripped of its skin by the fire and exposed for what it really was.” The dream attached to a long-germinating sci-fi idea of his: “I had always wanted to do some sort of really definitive robot story … it had really never been done.”
• After the film’s release, science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison argued that the movie was based largely on an episode of The Outer Limits Ellison had written, titled “Soldier.” Though details of a settlement were never disclosed, later releases of The Terminator include a credit acknowledging Ellison’s influence.
• While Cameron and fellow writer/producer Gale Anne Hurd (later Cameron’s wife) had both envisioned keeping budgets low by casting relative unknown Lance Henriksen as the Terminator, studio chief Mike Medavoy had a different plan: then-commercial-pitchman and former football star O.J. Simpson as the Terminator; and, as Kyle Reese, Conan the Barbarian star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
• Though Arnold thought the T-800 was the more interesting part (even with fewer than 20 lines of dialogue), it was also a villain role at a point in his career where he wanted to be a leading man. Cameron assured him that he would shoot the film in a way that made audiences cheer for the killing machine.
• After the studio decided that OJ’s nice-guy image would make his casting as a killer targeting a Los Angeles woman something of a stretch, Cameron and Hurd cast little-known TV actress (who would become Cameron’s fourth wife more than a decade later) Linda Hamilton as struggling waitress Sarah Connor, and Michael Biehn — who had played an obsessed stalker in 1981’s The Fan — as Kyle Reese, the soldier from the future who would father Sarah’s son, resistance leader John Connor.
• Cameron’s decades-long relationship with makeup and special-effects wizard Stan Winston began with The Terminator and lasted until Winston’s death in 2008. (Winston would win three of his four Oscars for Cameron-directed films: two for Terminator 2, and one for Aliens.)
• Most of the effects were done “in-camera” — that is, with no post-production tricks or (then-nonexistent) digital manipulation — along with some stop-motion photography to animate a limping T-800.
• The film relied heavily on the use of miniatures. The shot of skulls being crushed by a tank tread in the opening sequence? The skulls were about the size of marbles. The famous tanker truck explosion? Forty-two separate explosions in a model truck that was a foot and a half high and eight feet long.
• Using techniques he learned working for Roger Corman, Cameron did most of the filming at night to keep productions costs down, favoring streets with mercury-vapor lamps to reduce the need to bring in expensive lighting equipment they couldn’t afford.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
• The ending of The Terminator had closed off its time-travel story loop pretty well — Sarah Connor, pregnant with her son by dead lover Kyle Reese, heads off to raise the child that will one day lead the rebellion against Skynet and its machine rule of humanity. But Cameron had always had a possible sequel in mind, as indicated by two deleted scenes.
• In the first, Sarah unsuccessfully tries to convince Kyle that they could change the future and prevent the rise of the machines, but he insists on following through in the mission given to him by John Connor (Sarah and Kyle’s son in the future) to protect Sarah from the T-800 that has been sent to 1984 to kill her. In the second, an alternate ending to the film shows a technician finding the damaged CPU of the destroyed Terminator and being directed to send it to the lab for testing, while an exterior shot of Sarah being taken to an ambulance reveals that the scene of the final battle with the Terminator was Cyberdyne Systems, the future inventors of the Terminators and Skynet. Cameron explains that the first scene was cut to better serve character needs for Reese, and that it also mainly existed to set up the second deleted scene, which was, as he later explained, “really poorly acted.”
• Cameron’s original vision for the Terminator had been that of a cyborg that would appear as a nondescript figure that could blend into a crowd, a notion that went out the window with the casting of Schwarzenegger. As he said in a 2009 interview, “The guy is supposed to be an infiltration unit, and there's no way you wouldn't spot a Terminator in a crowd instantly if they all looked like Arnold. It made no sense whatsoever.” Casting the smaller, more slender Robert Patrick as the shape-shifting T-1000 let Cameron get back to that original idea.
• The effect of the T-1000 breaking apart after being frozen in a cloud of liquid nitrogen was accomplished by a process that included using prosthetic devices attached to an amputee as well as having Patrick put his feet through holes hidden in the floor beneath him.
• While developing T2, Cameron and co-writer William Wisher Jr. considered having the liquid-metal T-1000 also be played by Arnold. (Schwarzenegger would play a double role in 1993’s disastrous Last Action Hero.)
• To save money on optical effects, identical twin actors Dan and Don Stanton were cast in the role of a guard who is killed and replaced by the T-1000, enabling one twin to play the guard and the other his killer
• Linda Hamilton’s twin sister Leslie doubled for her sister in the final fight sequence in the steel mill, and also in a complicated deleted scene in which Hamilton removes the CPU from deep inside the T-800’s head.
• Edward Furlong was an unknown with no acting experience when he was cast as young John Connor after being discovered hanging out at a YMCA. The 13-year-old Furlong’s voice changed halfway through the five-and-a-half-month-long shoot, so he had to rerecord a substantial amount of his dialogue, which still had to be tweaked in post-production in order to make his voice consistent.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
• The same year he was elected governor of California, Schwarzenegger raved about the idea of a female Terminator (and Kristanna Loken’s casting): “Using a female terminator, I said to myself, ‘oh, this is great … they don't just have to see my naked body arriving every time when I come back from the future to the present … let’s have a sexy girl for a change ... with a sexy body and just a knockout-10 figure and great physical appearance and beautiful face,’ and luckily, we found just such a woman.”
• Arnold worried about his own appearance nude in the film as well, going to great pains to make sure his weight and muscle measurements were identical to what they were more than a decade earlier during the filming of T2.
• Claire Danes, who plays John Connor’s future wife, was cast in Rise only a day before shooting began. She spends a great deal of the first half of the film locked in the back of a truck.
• Host of @Midnight Chris Hardwick appears as a somewhat schlubby lab technician.
• Arnold plays an additional role in a deleted scene from Rise, William Candy, a soldier whose face and body are to be used as the template for the T-800.
Terminator Salvation (2009)
• Arnold Schwarzenegger’s availability to make a cameo in Salvation was uncertain until very late in the filming. Actor Roland Kickinger, who had played Arnold in a 2005 TV movie, was cast as the star’s body double, and when permission was finally granted for Arnold’s face to be used on a T-800 prototype, ILM was able to put a photorealistic Schwarzenegger head on Kickinger’s body.
• Had permission not been granted in time, the scene with the T-800 prototype would have had the cyborg’s face shot off before it turned to the camera.
• Salvation was the movie that featured Christian Bale’s notorious on-set blowup with director of photography Shane Hurlbut for walking into his line of sight during a scene. While Bale’s profanity-laced tirade included a threat to leave the film if Hurlbut wasn’t fired, everyone kissed and made up, with Bale offering a public apology.
• The ending of Salvation [spoilers] was a fairly by-the-numbers affair, with a good-guy cyborg played by Sam Worthington overcoming Skynet programming and ultimately sacrificing himself by allowing his human heart to be transplanted into a critically wounded John Connor. But on the Blu-ray release, McG described a never-shot “gutsy choice” alternate ending where John Connor dies (!) and his face is transplanted onto the Sam Worthington character, who would then turn out to still be following Skynet programming, killing everyone in the room, including Kyle Reese. Ever the populist, McG rationalizes the decision to not go in that direction: “It would have been a huge bummer.”