Film Nerd 2.0: An important line is crossed with James Cameron’s ‘The Terminator’

When I was 14, “The Terminator” quietly arrived in theaters, a low-budget SF/action film starring a guy many people had dismissed already as an onscreen presence, released without much hype or much of a media presence.

One of my friends had an older brother who was an usher at a local movie theater, and he would let us walk into anything we wanted to see, pretty much as many times as we wanted. It's where we spent most Friday and Saturday nights for most of '84 and '85, and I tried to see everything that played there.

With “The Terminator,” though, it was special. Every weekend, no matter what else was out, we'd also see “The Terminator” at least once. The entire time it played, we kept going back. It was so obviously something special, something better than it had to be, and I found the whole thing so thrillingly made. I lost count of how many times we ended up seeing it, but without exaggeration, I know it was over 30. No matter what else Cameron does for the rest of his career, I don't think I will ever feel that same sheer overwhelming adoration that I did for “The Terminator,” but that's mainly because it came out of nowhere and seemed like such a perfect example of how to take no money and make it work for you. That film works because, before anything, that script works, and that script is a perfect example of what you can do with very limited resources if you're smart. It is emotional, it is clever, and it is a beautiful example of how to structure an action film.

For the last few months, maybe even as long as a year now, Toshi's been circling the “Terminator” Blu-rays that are on my shelf. It started when his mother took him to Universal Studios and they went on the “Terminator 3D” ride there. He became obsessed with the film and with the characters. There is a section of one of the shelves that makes me laugh every time I look at it, because it's where Toshi has put all of the films that are R-rated that he already knows he wants to see. It's like he put all the most tempting forbidden fruit in the same place, right where he can keep an eye on it. The “Matrix” box set is there. So is “The Road Warrior.” He's put “American Werewolf In London” on the shelf, then taken it off, then put it back, then taken it off. He wants to see it, but he's scared to see it, but he wants to see it. I watch him do all of this, and he doesn't really talk to me about it. I'm not sure he knows how aware I am of what he's doing.

After all, I remember clearly when I was on the wrong side of the rating divide. As soon as I got bitten by the movie-loving bug, I started to chafe against the idea that letters on a poster made the difference between whether I could or couldn't go see something. I considered the ratings to be a promise, not a warning. “This film is rated R, which means it's chock full of all the good stuff that adults keep secret from kids. You really should check it out.”

Long before my parents were okay with the idea of me watching an R-rated movie, I was exposed to them by other people. There was a babysitter once who took me and my then-four-year-old sister to see “The Jerk” in the theater, and it was mind-blowing to me to hear the casual and hilarious use of profanity. When he named his dog “Shithead,” I decided that the R rating was amazing. I was also exposed to several horror films at the wrong moment, too young to appreciate them as craft. They hit me really hard and left me scared of certain things on an almost subconscious level, but I think they also attracted me because I was so amazed by the way they could work on me. I wanted to figure out the magic trick.

I eventually became adept at bargaining with my parents about individual R-rated titles, making the case for why I needed to see “Conan The Barbarian” or “Excalibur” or “Blade Runner.” One tactic I learned early was to wait until I knew my parents were interested in a film, and then simply ask to go along with them. I knew that Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood were pretty much a sure thing with my dad, so I knew I had a pretty good shot at seeing it if I pitched “Sharkey's Machine” as a day out with him. I would make deals months before the film actually came out, tying performance on a report card to whether or not I got to see a certain film. The better the case I made, the more likely it was my parents would go along with it.

By 14, I was already well past that, though. Once I started going to theaters with my friends and with no parents around, the last real barrier fell, and I managed to see everything I wanted to see. So when I see Toshi bristling at the restrictions on what he can and can't see, I get it completely. One of the things that happens when you really engage with your child about the media they're ingesting is that you learn what is really going on inside them. They may think they're telling you about the movie, but what they're really telling you is how they reacted to it. I ask the boys questions about the films we watch together that are all designed to help them process any big ideas or difficult emotions or challenging material, and because of the way they answer those questions, I know that these films don't just bounce off of them. My kids are not passive viewers, and that's the point. Because they actually think about what we watch together, and because they are able to talk to me about what they take from these films, I have confidence in my ability to show them films that are appropriate, only pushing the envelope when it feels like they're ready.

This weekend, I was unable to spend Halloween night with the boys, something that I took really hard. Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays, and with the exception of one year when they were out of the country, I've been there for every single evening of trick or treating so far. It wasn't until Saturday morning that I was able to pick them up, and when we talked about what we were going to do that night, it was clear that they were up for something scary. I called a friend of mine who lives very close to my apartment, and who also has two young boys named Dash and Beckett. They've only recently started hanging out with Toshi and Allen, but it's clear already that they all get along and come from similar places in terms of what they like and what they're excited about. The first time we put them together, they bonded immediately over a shared love of movies about giant monsters, which I would argue is one of the most important things anybody can bond over. Since then, we've had several opportunities to put them together, and it's an easy friendship.

They came over for the first film in what became a double-feature. I never tell the boys ahead of time exactly what we're going to watch because I like the excitement that builds as they try to guess. Toshi in particular will act like he's a detective on the heels of a murderer as he tries to figure things out, sometimes going so far as to scan the shelves to see if he can figure out what's missing. That's what he did as we were waiting for Dash and Beckett to come over, and he noticed almost immediately that the “Terminator” box set wasn't on the Blu-ray shelf where it normally goes. He started asking me excited questions, but I played dumb, refusing to tell him if he was right or not.

When the boys arrived, we put on the first film of the evening, “Paranorman,” which I felt like the kids were just slightly too young to see when it opened. I think it's still my favorite of the Laika films so far, and watching it again, I was struck by just how funny much of the writing is. The film played like a proper horror film to all the kids in the room, and the actual big reveal, when Norman ends up speaking directly to the little girl who is behind the haunting in his town, was just on the edge of being too scary for the younger kids. They all made it through, though, and when the movie ended, they started playing together, running around like lunatics and hooting and hollering.

After about twenty minutes, though, Toshi was done playing and came back to the couch in the living room, waiting for whatever was next. My friend noticed, and he knew what was coming, so he asked Toshi to be honest. “Do you want us to leave?” Watching Toshi wrestle with the manners that we've programmed into him as well as the anticipation for what he was fairly sure was coming next was absolutely hilarious.

“No, it's fine,” he said, and my friend started laughing. He commended Toshi for being polite, but it was crystal-clear that Toshi was about to climb out of his skin, hoping against hope that he was going to get to finally cross the line and see the previously unseeable. My friend rounded up his boys, and I sent my kids to get ready for bed. Toshi seemed upset, but I told him I just wanted them to both be in their pajamas before we started the next film.

When they were ready and we all convened on the couch again, I hit play on the XBox. I could feel the tension radiating off of Toshi next to me, and when the menu screen came up for “The Terminator,” he practically levitated off of the couch. “OH MY GOD, DADDY, ARE WE REALLY GOING TO SEE THIS? ARE YOU SERIOUS?!”

I love that Toshi reads anything that comes up onscreen in a film to his little brother, and listening to him read the opening card, hearing how excited he was, I was deeply moved. I know that, in the grand scheme of things, “The Terminator” is a better-than-average exploitation movie and not much else, but to Toshi, it represented a real landmark, a rite of passage, and he could barely contain his excitement.

How did the film play with them? After all, we've talked before about how we're constantly trying to figure out where the line is between “fun scary” and “too scary,” and there's no denying that the first “Terminator” plays as much like a horror film as an action film. Both of the kids reacted in a big way when they saw the scene where the Terminator confronts Bill Paxton and the other punks, and when the Terminator rips out Paxton's heart, it was like they were both pinned to the back of the couch. Each new scene, each new beat, they were 100% engrossed in it.

There was one moment in the film that I found a little problematic, but it was solved with a hand placed over eyes at the appropriate time. I don't find nudity problematic, but we've only talked about sex in the broadest of terms so far, and I didn't want to have to explain the mechanics of it to them because of this particular film. In the middle of the love scene, though, Allen turned his head so that my hand wasn't completely over his eyes, and he practically crowed to his brother, sitting on the other side of me. “TOSHI! I SAW BOOBS!”

Once the film's final big action scene began, the boys seemed to both hold their breath the entire time. When the truck blows up and the Terminator is burned, seemingly to death, both of the boys assured me that the film wasn't over yet. “He's not dead! He keeps getting up!” The entire final scene in the factory, they were yelling at Sarah and Reese to keep moving. When Kyle died, they were horrified, upset that Cameron wouldn't give the characters an out. And when Sarah finally, conclusively destroyed the Terminator, they exploded, so happy, so satisfied.

What really got me, though, above anything else, was when the last scene plays and we see that the photo of Sarah, the one that Reese was always curious about, was actually a photo of her thinking about him. I looked over at Toshi, and he was wiping away a tear. He got it. He got the connection, he understood just how sad it was for both Reese and Sarah, and it moved him. We talked about the film afterwards, especially the next morning, and it was clear that the film landed on both of them really hard. Toshi had questions about how the film was made, and I was impressed to see that he had a real handle on what he was looking at technically. He knew that the future war was largely done with miniatures, and he was really impressed by the cuts from the Stan Winston puppet version of Arnold to the make-up appliance, and even the stop-motion at the end. He was excited by the various tricks used to make the film work, and he was excited by the implications of the story.

Watching “The Terminator” today, it's no stronger than most PG-13 movies except for a few more liberal uses of the word “fuck” and a wee bit of blood. I've always found the distinction between “wet” and “dry” violence to be one of the most remarkable hypocrisies on the part of the MPAA, and I would argue that “Terminator: Salvation” is far more violent overall than the first film is. This is not a frontier that is now wide open to the boys. It will be a long time before they see another R-rated film, and when they do, it will be equally carefully chosen and curated.

For now, though, the itch has been scratched and Toshi feels like he's taken a major step forward. That sense of accomplishment, that thrill that he felt, is something I can vividly remember, and being right there beside him as he took that first step over the line is something I hope we'll both remember forever.