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Terminator, The Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 November 2006

Image It’s been 22 years since “The Terminator” launched James Cameron’s directorial career in earnest. Cameron’s first effort, “Piranha II: the Spawning” showed little of the original vision that was to come, but it did indicate his preference for blue lighting, which was to become his hallmark. His work as a production designer/model maker and multi-tasking crew member on “Battle Beyond the Stars” and “Galaxy of Terror” for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures revealed a talent for dirty, futuristic industrial design and an ability to visualize ambitious ideas on the cheap.

In 1984 Cameron was provided a moderate to low budget and used every trick in the book to create “The Terminator,” which he wrote with William Wisher, Jr. It’s a great high-concept idea (somewhat similar to the Harlan Ellison teleplay, “Demon with a Glass Hand.” Ellison sued for credit on this film, which appears in the end titles), paced at an occasionally breathless clip. Its characters are cleanly delineated, the story is told with a degree of craft, and occasionally includes playful references to the future collision of man and machine.

While superficially the film has dated elements (junky 80’s songs on the periphery, big hair and bad fashions), they put the film at an interesting remove. As an 80’s time capsule, it now works as a story about a rogue killing machine traveling from 2029 into 1984, instead of playing as a story of a futuristic robot pursuing a women in the present day. It’s a slight distinction, but an interesting one—it makes the time-travel element a little more concrete and validates the dated mise-en-scene. Brad Fiedel’s music can’t quite be put on the same level, though since it’s an element outside the story. The themes still work and its quieter, pulsing rhythms are perfectly matched to the Terminator itself, but some of the synthesizer chase music sounds cheap and simplistic. Many directors say that casting is 90% of the job, and the Cameron’s choices here were extremely apt. Schwarzenegger, coming off of the Conan films, was offered the role of the hero, but instead found the perfect role for his imposing physical presence and distracting accent as the time-traveling menace. While his expressions are occasionally a little too wry for a dispassionate robot, he’s completely believable as the rampaging, one-man (machine) slaughterhouse. It’s an iconic character and it essentially established Schwarzenegger’s on-screen persona—a cyclone of slaughter who drops dry asides or comic understatements. Its amazing how much of the dialogue in this film has become quotable.

Linda Hamilton plays Sarah Connor as a likeable girl-next-door type, and is believable as a normal woman put into an incredible situation. Michael Biehn is strong as the disoriented and determined Kyle Reese, and Paul Winfield is memorable in a small, likeable role. Future Cameron regulars Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen (with hair!) have brief, enjoyable roles, and Dick Miller has a fun, memorable cameo as an ill-fated gun-shop proprietor. All of the performances have their rough edges, which is understandable since the scope of the film is about twice as large as the budget should allow. Technical effects are occasionally uneven, but there are some impressive visuals (a futuristic tank rolling over a field of human skulls, a soldier being blasted into tiny chunks) and the pre-CGI optical effects are kind of charming. The Terminator design itself is still impressive after 22 years—a chrome skeleton with design flourishes and red camera-iris eyes. It’s a creepy and unsettling foe and the perfect way to ratchet up the tension for the final reel.

The pacing is near-perfect. 22 years later, the film still moves at a very fast clip and manages to balance the suspense, flashbacks and drama without ever falling into tedium or exhausting the audience.

The Blu-ray disc transfer is an excellent replication of the original film. The imagery matches the source materials and photography. Many sequences have a gritty look to them, but this is a low-budget film (low lighting, night photography and film stock pushed in the lab to improve exposure) and its all part of the original production. In contrast, sequences in bright sunlight (such as Reese walking in downtown Los Angeles, or the Terminator on the street in the daytime) look much better, with a pleasing sharpness and a cleaner image with reduced and acceptable grain. Optical composite effects show the grain of its analog multi-generation compositing. Compared to the murky mess that was the VHS and the slight bump in quality that the laserdisc provided, the Blu-ray disc looks quite nice indeed, revelatory even. The extra detail, stability and sharpness are pleasing and give it a feeling more akin to the theatrical experience than it had on home video heretofore. Given the limitations of the production itself, this is probably the sleekest this film can look on home video.

Originally released monaurally, the Blu-ray utilizes a 5.1 remix presented on uncompressed PCM. It’s a terrific, highly active remix. A few lines of dialogue still have the peak distortion of their original recording (they should probably have been relooped back in 1984), but the presence of the sound effects and music are impressive. The rear channels are used almost as intensely as the front channels—the Terminator frequently shoots off screen, and the resultant death screams and mayhem play in the back channels. It’s very involving and modern for a remix, and probably has some re-recorded sound effects. Unfortunately, the original mono track is not included.

The extras that are included are worthwhile but thin. The retrospective is a conversation with Cameron and Schwarzenegger circa 1992, most likely assembled for the video release of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” The visual effects and music featurette includes some revealing behind-the-scenes work at the model shop and some interesting comments from composer Brad Fiedel. The deleted material is notable for a long scene that strongly prefigures Sarah Connor’s crusade in the sequel and another that sets up Cyberdyne’s role in that film as well.

Sony has bungled the Blu-ray release by omitting extras that were included on the current standard edition DVD. Missing from this disc are the original mono audio track, the documentary “Other Voices,” an optional commentary for the deleted scenes, a still and conceptual artwork gallery, screenplays and story treatments. The scripts were presented on DVD-ROM on the standard DVD, so they it might not have been possible to port them over here, but there’s no excuse for the other materials’ omission here. No trailers are included, which is another disappointment.

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