Photographed by Adam Greenberg, ASC and directed by James Cameron, “The Terminator” is a film that employs a bare minimum of exposition and lets the visual storytelling do the heavy lifting in orienting the audience to where the movie is going. It’s a masterpiece of plant and payoff, in terms of both story points and visual design. From the first shot and moving forward, the images are constantly referencing each other by contrast and affinity, making us understand a great deal without literal exposition. The photography in the opening scenes of “The Terminator” is especially effective: the images immediately establish the theme of the film as well as several key character and story points, all without any dialogue or direct explanation. The sequence of images in these scenes show the oppressive power of the machines over anything that stands in their way. The use of visual affinity also immediately identifies Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character as one of these machines, although the audience hasn’t even been introduced to the concept of a Terminator yet.
You can watch the sequence below (password is ‘cinevenger’):
The opening shot establishes a key visual motif that carries through the rest of the film (really, this film and the rest of the “Terminator” films that come after it): the contrast of sleek mechanical lines to softer organic shapes. The epoch of this motif comes later in the film when we see the cold metal of the Terminator’s metal skeleton underneath the tattered flesh that has been ripped off part of his face. However, here we see this motif introduced in a much more subtle way: the contrast of the sleek shapes of the swiftly moving airship with the stationary, twisted organic shapes of the ruins give us a sense of the death of anything biological, and the vitality of the machines.
Throughout the entire scene, the monochromatic blue tones and low values reinforce this idea of biological death: by creating a world that contrasts in every way with the images that we associate most strongly with nature. We associate the vibrant, saturated spectrum of greens and browns with natural growth, so this world is steely blue and monochromatic. We associate sunlight with nature, so this world is shrouded in darkness. From the first image of this film, we understand that the future is a place where nature and humanity have been oppressed.
In the second shot of the sequence, the tank treads advance towards the camera, filling the frame, and compositionally obstructing out all of the other elements. This again reinforces the idea of the domination of the mechanical over the biological.
To state the obvious: the intellectual understanding we gain from seeing skulls crushed under a giant mechanical tread is crucial in the storytelling as well. However, it’s the compositional touch involved in this shot that elevates it from being “good” to “great”: it’s not merely a shot skulls being crushed by a machine, it’s a shot of skulls being crushed by a machine that advances towards the camera and asserts itself to become the lone compositional element.
In a medium shot of a tank, the bright searchlight engulfing the image give us a sense of the machines overwhelming power. An important aspect of this shot (and this scene as a whole) is that the shots are taken strictly from ground level. The camera is always looking up in helplessness at the machines, firmly placing the storytelling from the perspective of the human resistance who are fighting the machines from the ground. It also gives the sense of the ineffectiveness of this resistance.
The visual storytelling doesn’t stop for the title sequence… we immedately associate the sleek metallic lettering with the machines we have just seen in the first scene. By being close on the letters and not being able to see their borders, we are being shown that the power of the machines is so expansive that it is unable to be constricted or bound into the frame. The cross-motion of the hard geometric shapes is reminiscent of of slicing or cutting, which gives a sense of the precision and deadliness of the machines. Finally, the smooth, regular motion of the moving words shows the consistency and persistence of the machines (an idea which pays off most fully in the final scene of the film, as the machine will not stop advancing on Sarah Connor despite its almost complete destruction).
A low angle shot on the advancing mechanical spikes of the garbage truck draws an immediate comparison to the low angle shots of the machines that we saw in the previous scene. By showing this otherwise banal, harmless machine in such an intimidating low angle, with its utility spikes aggressively advancing towards us, we get a sense that machines will not only be dangerous in the future, but also in the present. This is an important visual clue for the audience, as the depiction of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character as a dangerous killing machine is something that we understand immediately from the visuals, far before we are given the official exposition later in the film from Kyle Reese. The bight, glaring reflections off the utility spikes as they violently impale the dumpster are a nice touch, as they are reminiscent of both the searchlight penetrating the lens in the previous scene, as well as the harsh reflections off the lettering in the title sequence. This motif of bright specular reflections off metallic surfaces that penetrate the lens with their glare is something that carries through all the “Terminator” films, and is particularly effective in giving the audience a sense of the deadly pervasion of the machines.
In a medium shot of the truck driver, the machinery casts an alternating shadow pattern over his face that is reminiscent of the patterns left by the searchlights in the previous scene. It again supports the idea that the machines are a source of oppressive power in the present as well as the future.
In a wide shot of the just-arrived Terminator*, he is set in silhouette with a bright edge-light, creating a sleek edge around him that looks almost metallic, effectively drawing an affinity between him and the machines seen in the first scene (as well as the metallic lettering of the title sequence).
*I refer to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character as “the Terminator” starting here, but it’s important to again remember that from an audience perspective, we are still being drawn into this world, and haven’t yet been introduced to the concept of a Terminator… the visual storytelling is doing all the work in giving the audience the necessary clues that this guy is a murderous cyborg and a villain, but at this point, it’s still just an intriguing trail of crumbs that don’t completely play out and reveal themselves until the end of the first act.
A low angle medium shot combined with a slow, smooth push-in, gives us a sense of the power and control of the Terminator, which in turn lets us know that he knows why he is here and has a plan. The towering machinery in the background of the Terminator draws another affinity between him and the machines, and also reinforces the sense of his power. (side-note: I’m not going to get too deep into this particular aspect right now, but there is a particularly effective contrast between the photography of the arrival of the Terminator and the subsequent arrival of Kyle Reese).
Finally, a crane shot that rises to end with a wide composition depicts the Terminator in the foreground juxtaposed against the city. This reinforces the sense that he is a force working in opposition to humanity. The city is literally laid out in front of him, and camera rises in anticipation, as if he is about to dive in. This solidifies the idea that he has arrived for a very specific purpose and is about to plunge into the city to accomplish it.
If there’s one through-line to the opening five minutes of “The Terminator,” it’s consistency. Every frame works to draw an affinity between the oppressive machines of the future and the Terminator, undermining his superficially human appearance. There are a few shots (such as the wide of the truck engulfed in lightning and the close-up on the Terminators face) that hammer home the exact same visual contrasts and affinities already made in previous shots, so I chose to omit my commentary about them to maintain a semblance of brevity.
More on “The Terminator” to come. If you enjoyed this analysis or want to add to the commentary, please leave a comment and/or Tweet / FB / Digg it! (There are buttons at the bottom).