When I read my Variety colleague Owen Gleiberman’s review of “Terminator: Dark Fate,” in which he astutely described 1984’s “The Terminator,” the film that spawned the franchise, as “a ruthlessly efficient post-apocalyptic B-movie” that represented “low-down genre-thriller classicism,” I could only smile and nod in agreement. Truth to tell, back in the day, the Orion Pictures release was a major surprise primarily because not much was expected of James Cameron’s original killer-cyborg melodrama — the director’s first step toward semi-respectability after grabbing attention with “Piranha II: The Spawning” (1981).
Indeed, the movie was on my radar only because, several months before it opened, I fortuitously was in the right place at the right time while it was filming on location in a dodgy section of downtown L.A. How dodgy? Consider: I was in town to cover the Oscars, among other attractions, for the long-gone Houston Post when I was contacted by an industrious unit publicist. Would I be interested, he asked, in coming on the set to watch the star of “Conan the Barbarian” shooting a new science-fiction movie? “Sure,” I replied, “I’ll drive down there tonight.”
Long pause at the end of the line.
“Uh, Joe,” the publicist finally said, “maybe it would be better if I drive you there myself.”
Once we arrived at the site, I could understand why the publicist was averse to my flying solo. Once we were inside the nondescript building, however, I had a marvelous time talking with an extremely animated Arnold Schwarzenegger — who was unabashedly excited about the prospect of joining Joan Collins to announce Academy Awards for technical achievement at the Oscarcast a few days later — and an intense but eager (and, considering the pressure he must have been under, amazingly gracious) James Cameron.
More important, though, I was absolutely gobsmacked while witnessing the filming of the violent Tech Noir Bar sequence. I had expected little more than a long evening of low-budget movie fakery. The next morning, however, after I awoke from a vivid nightmare of Arnold the Terminator spraying bullets in my general direction, I was forced to concede that maybe, just maybe, I had stumbled into something that might amount to something big.
As a result, for over three decades, I have taken a special interest in the “Terminator” franchise. So when I was asked to rank the six (so far) films in the series, I jumped at the chance at looking back — and gazing forward.