The Terminator; Film Noir or Just a Killer Robot?
Written by Marcus Ogden
Raymond Durgnat’s “The Family Tree of Film Noir” serves as contrary to other understandings of noir. He wrote that noir is more a descriptor of a films gathered motifs and tones, disregarding the assumed geological and historical attachments to Classical Hollywood. While it may seem counterproductive to muddy our understanding of film noir in this way, this broadening of the term serves to help us understand how a certain noir sensibility can be traced in films that follow and precede the commonly accepted cycle. Emily Auger wrote that tech-noir is a genre that broaches the topic of technology with a noir sensibility rather than the celebration typical of sci-fi, The go-to example being Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, USA, 1982). Although the coining of the term tech-noir is credited to The Terminator (James Cameron, USA, 1984), it is a neglected example as it is often coloured in contemporary consciousness by the reputation of its more overtly action-oriented sequels. This essay will take up Durgnat’s task of finding noir whilst peering past the common consensus and argue that The Terminator is doing something distinctly noir and deserves a nuanced investigation of its style and themes in this context. This essay will look into how the film emulates a noir formalism, the noir themes the film takes up, and if the overall tone matches that of a noir film.
J. A. Place and L. S. Peterson wrote that film noir adopted an ‘anti-traditional’ formal approach to lighting that utilized low-key lighting and night-for-night shooting to achieve a stylistic interplay of light and shadow that would distort the faces of actors and the settings around them. This noir sensibility is taken on by The Terminator to stylize and unground the film in a similar fashion. An example is the scene where the viewer is introduced to the titular Terminator as he appears in the night from a burst of electricity. The smoke clears and, lit from a spotlight, his striking silhouette is displayed as he rises to his feet. There is a cut to a low-angle medium-close shot where the light and shadow contour his angular face and sculpted muscular structure, conveying to the viewer not just his imposing figure but giving him the look of a marble statue of a perfected human form. A cut to a close-up follows, the Terminator turns his head side-to-side as the light and shadow first silhouette his face and then unevenly light it, highlighting his pronounced facial structure and expressionless gaze in a way that brings to mind a mask without a soul behind it. This stylistic use of light and darkness is present repeatedly throughout the film and can aptly be compared to examples Place and Peterson point to in their survey of noir style. Foster Hirsch wrote that this expressionist use of lighting in film noir achieved a distancing from reality. There is a notable contrast between scenes where the approach to lighting is more naturalistic and scenes with clearer expressionist lighting. The former is used to convey a mundanity that the latter disrupts. This dichotomy is directly addressed in the scene where the Terminator raids the police station. The naturalistic lighting that marks this setting as grounded is almost immediately destroyed upon the Terminator’s explosive entrance where it is replaced by a more exaggerated lighting that removes the police station from its grounding in the real world and transports it into a dystopian world marked by ruin, fire, and violence. Thus, The Terminator emulates a noir approach to lighting that both stylizes the image and disconnects it from the real to create a world not of criminals but of killer machines.
Paul Schrader wrote that film noir possess “a passion for the past and present, but also a fear of the future” as he noted the cycle’s tendency towards a romanticized past and disordered chronology. This theme is picked up rather literally by The Terminator. As Kyle Reese evades the police, he dons a trench coat and a pair of Nike shoes, visually marking his disjuncture in time. Evident in his flashbacks and dialogue, there is no event in his life for him to retreat to. Yet, through the picture of Sarah and the stories he is told about her, he is still able to retreat into some kind of past. Furthermore, his preoccupation with surviving his present has robbed him of an interpersonal depth as he describes his best friend as “about my height” and the women of his time as “good fighters.” When Kyle is asked how he is going to return to the future he explains that there is no way for him to return, he is literally trapped in the past (relative to him) and the present (relative to the film). The fear of the future is most directly characterized by The Terminator. In the films climactic final chase, the Terminator is knocked off of a moving motorcycle, hit by a truck, set on fire, blown up, and crushed by a hydraulic press before his pursuit is halted. This sequence is symbolic of a retreat from a future that will not rest and cannot be stopped. Thus, the thematic figure that is stuck in the present or that escapes to the past that Schrader describes as the noir hero is still embodied in The Terminator. James Naremore noted that Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, USA, 1944) is rich with a thematic industrialization of American life as symbols of industry and modernity pervade the film even as the instrument of Neff’s demise. This same theme is extended in The Terminator as many settings in the film mirror industrial settings even if not themselves industrial. The treads of construction vehicles are likened to mechanized tanks and the Tech-Noir nightclub resembles the bunker seen in Kyle’s flashback. Technology inhabits the film as a detractor to human life as pagers and televisions interrupt dialogue, Walkman devices deafen people to danger, and phones serve to confuse communication rather than facilitate it. Returning to the climactic chase, the sequence is marked by the increasingly industrialized backdrops: from street chase, to a tanker truck, into a factory, and finally into the factory’s machinery. Although taken up more bluntly, the treatment of modernity and industry Naremore sees as thematically central to the works of noir writers Raymond Chandler and Herman Cain is also present in The Terminator.
There is an issue of tone that makes The Terminator’s claim to a noir lineage rather precarious. While Blade Runner has an aura of brooding and dreariness that viewers easily connect to film noir, The Terminator has more trouble bridging that gap. Events in the film certainly are dark: innocent people are killed in the crossfire at the Tech-Noir and at the police station, Sarah’s roommate and mother are killed, Kyle is haunted by his past, and finally Kyle sacrifices himself trying to stop the Terminator. Perhaps the reason the film does not possess the same dreariness is because of its uncharacteristically hopeful ending. An extreme longshot pans across the dry foliage of the desert and rests on an incoming jeep as Sarah talks to her son via a tape recorder. Unlike Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, she has escaped the modern industrial world alive and stronger. There is a medium close-up that tracks towards her as she contemplates telling him that Kyle is his father. There is a close-up of her hand resting on her pregnant belly followed by a close-up of her face. These three shots are backgrounded by a soft piano that contrasts the electronic, brass, and percussion focused soundtrack of the film up until this point. There is a feeling of closeness in this sequence that runs counter to the distancing or discomfort found in the endings of The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, USA, 1950) or Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, USA, 1955). The film closes with an extreme long shot in which Sarah drives headstrong towards mountains and into a storm that dwarf the jeep, ready to confront the immense challenges that lay ahead of her. This ending lacks the tragedy or ambivalence attributed to noir films such as Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1947) or The Big Combo. Naremore wrote that film noir is an eclectic category where every supposed defining quality has a film that serves as an exception to said quality and where films are constantly being added and omitted by critics and historians. For example, if tragic or discomforting endings are characteristic of noir then an exception would be Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, USA, 1944) where the ending has a playful tone and resolves with an affectionate kiss. While The Terminator’s ending is tonally uncharacteristic of noir, it is not entirely disqualifying. Naremore also wrote that noir is not just an art cinema but rather a popular cinema with an artistic consciousness. The blockbuster makeup of the 80’s can rarely be described as particularly bleak as shown by films like Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, USA, 1984) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1984) which both released the same year as The Terminator. Thus, the tone of the ending of The Terminator can be reconciled as comparably dark when considered next to the tone of the film’s contemporaries and what was considered popular at the time.
In concluding an exploration of varied neo-noir works, Naremore wrote “…film noir, like any other style or genre, tends to evolve by repeating old ideas in new combinations.” This essay has argued that this is what is at work within The Terminator, a repetition of film noir motifs and tones within a new dynamic of 1980’s science fiction. A film noir inheritance can be noted within the films approach to lighting and the themes of modernity and fatalism. Even though the ending leaves an un-noir impression, it has been explained that both the dreariness of film noir and the lack of it in The Terminator are not universal associations. This essay has focused on only a handful of noir topics as well, inspections of cold war subtexts and complicated sexual relations in the film would be warranted by its allusions to nuclear destruction and by the unorthodox love story that plays out. Through these points, it is clear that The Terminator is consciously taking up a film noir sensibility and this essay has shown it is worthy to be considered a noir film. Through this broadening of the idea of film noir, a new possibility is explored in a way that can deepen an understanding of film noirs qualities and its lasting significance within films that proceed the classical cycle.
Auger, Emily E. Tech-noir Film a Theory of the Development of Popular Genres. Bristol: Intellect, 2011.
Durgnat, Raymond. “The Family Tree of Film Noir,” Film Comment 10.6 (1974): 6-7
Hirsch, Foster. Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen. San Diego: A. S. Barnes, 1981.
Naremore, James. More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts. 2nd ed. Revised. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
Place, J. A. and L. S. Peterson. “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir,” Film Comment 10.1 (1974): 30-35.
Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir,” Film Comment 8.1, (1972): 8-13.