Tech-Noir: How One Scene in ‘The Terminator’ Changed Science Fiction

Exhibit / March 9, 2018

Object Name: Tech-Noir scene from The Terminator
Maker and Year: James Cameron, et al., 1984
Object Type: Film scene
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

The Tech-Noir club scene in The Terminator is a masterpiece of action film-making, arguably the most important sequence of the movie, and the club itself—its decor and atmosphere, its customers, its soundtrack, its very name—has had an extraordinary influence on the development of sci-fi and subsequent reimaginings of the 1980s aesthetic. Director James Cameron would employ many of the same techniques on a larger scale, and with even greater success, in his next film, 1986’s Aliens.

The club was designed specifically for the film, and Cameron coined “tech noir” as a winking description of his creative project: a blending of visionary sci-fi and film noir, an aesthetic used to brilliant effect by Ridley Scott in 1982’s Blade Runner. Both Scott’s magnum opus and The Terminator visually describe the sleek perfection—or seeming perfection—of future tech, and both feature antagonists who are bioengineered androids deprived of emotion and gifted with superior strength and intelligence. These scientific advancements are offset by diffusive social fragmentation and decay, a dystopian forecasting of the capitalist endgame. From far off and up high, Blade Runner‘s 2019 Los Angeles is a glittering megalopolis of ziggurat-shaped high rises, massive industrial fire plumes, and gorgeous flying cars; on the streets, however, the majority of citizens pool in divisional underclasses and subsist in bleak deprivation, much like the hapless denizens of Charles Dickens’ Victorian London.

Cameron’s 2029 Los Angeles, meanwhile, is a post-nuke hellscape where massive tanks and “Hunter-Killer” units attempt to exterminate the remaining human survivors of a robot-engineered apocalypse. His version of 1984 Los Angeles isn’t much better: like the Manhattan of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), which Cameron worked on as a visual effects artist, the city is a seedy labyrinth of depraved miscreants and lurking evil. In these stories, the machines have advanced exponentially, to such an extent that their powerful and arrogant makers can no longer control them: the Tyrell Corporation and Skynet commit the same Promethean sin as Victor Frankenstein in science fiction’s genesis novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Rule number one: don’t fuck with mother nature.

By the time Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) ducks in to the Tech-Noir club to escape the pursuing Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), who she suspects is the serial killer murdering women sharing her name, we know that the Terminator (Arnold Schwartzenegger) is the assassin. Sarah doesn’t. Inside the club, she calls the cops, who tell her to sit tight and stay in public view. The club, suffused in a red and pink neon glow, has a distinctly new wave vibe. The customers are wearing the pastels of the era, leopard prints, sleeveless shirts, leather gloves, and big hair. “TECH-NOIR” is spelled out in white marquee lights above the bar, each word flashing in succession; a neon “Coke is It!” sign hangs on the wall, as do rows of spinning blue sirens. We watch the Terminator enter the club, crushing the hand of the bouncer who tries to collect the cover charge. Sarah drops her bottle of seltzer water (she’s a good girl) and, as she bends down to pick it up, the Terminator crosses the dance floor in slow motion, his eyes passing over Sarah’s seemingly empty table. When she comes up again—we’re still in slow motion—she sees Reese sitting at the bar. Their eyes connect, and panic spreads across Sarah’s face. At the same time, the Terminator makes another pass though the club, pushing through the dancers, and we see Sarah from a high angle, from his perspective. Reese pulls a shotgun out of his trench coat while the Terminator pulls out his laser-sighted .45 Longslide, cocks it, and slowly raises it, placing the red bead on Sarah’s forehead. (A cyborg has no need for a laser sight, but it’s incredibly evocative cinematically, and a powerful metaphor: too much of our science and technology is in the service of violence.) Normal film speed resumes as Reese pumps rounds into the Terminator and the gunfight begins.

Up until the shots are fired, the club is an oasis of innocence and security, not only for fearful Sarah, but for all the energetic young people who came to have a good time in a safe place. The club reflects Sarah, the quintessential innocent, who is juxtaposed with her extroverted and sexually experienced roommate. (The Terminator is not unlike a slasher film, and is similar in formula to John Carpenter’s Halloween.) “Burnin’ in the Third Degree” by Tahnee Cain And Tryanglz plays throughout the scene, reinforcing the carefree, colorful, slightly obnoxious, but ultimately endearing pop culture and youth culture mores of the ’80s. But violence, of course, intrudes. Years before terrorists both domestic and foreign started targeting nightclubs and discotheques, Cameron understood the particularly disgusting offense of perpetrating violence against those who are most alive.

During the shootout, we see probably the most indelible image in the sequence: the Terminator in a long shot, spraying the celebrants, illuminated by the flashing TECH-NOIR sign above the bar. And later, as Reese and Sarah flee the scene, and we realize the Terminator is most definitely not human, the music shifts: Brad Fiedel’s driving, industrial synth score takes over, and we know we’re not in Kansas anymore; we know we’ll never find safety or innocence again. This irony between the naiveté and blithe optimism of the Reagan era, and the palpable Reagan-era threat of mutually assured destruction—everyone who survived the Tech-Noir shooting would be incinerated by a nuclear attack in a few short years, remember—is implicit in that one five-minute scene, and it’s a big reason the film has become such a monumental touchstone, not only in the rapid development of the cyperpunk (William Gibson’s Neuromancer came out a mere three months before The Terminator) and tech noir genres, but in video games, fashion, and contemporary music scenes like vaporwave and synthwave. Watch the film again and you’ll notice that the lovely neon glow of Tech-Noir is made of the same substance as the deadly laser-fire of the Hunter-Killer drones.

6 thoughts on “Tech-Noir: How One Scene in ‘The Terminator’ Changed Science Fiction

  1. Pingback: Link: Tech-Noir: How One Scene in ‘The Terminator’ Changed Science Fiction – The Brain of Parky

  2. I’ve always felt that Hong Kong action filmmakers of the late 1980s, early 1990s studied this scene frame-by-frame – the lighting, the poses, the guns look straight out of a heroic bloodshed film. About the only thing that seems old-fashioned nowadays is the relatively static action choreography, but the pacy editing makes up for that.

    Also, a lot of The Terminator looks and feels a bit late-70s, turn-of-the-80s. The policemen with revolvers, the Ford Pinto, the mono sound – but the neon lighting in this scene is utterly mid-80s in a way that must have felt totally contemporary at the time.

  3. Pingback: Surviving the Cursed Earth: The Mutants Recap 2018

  4. The Provisional IRA had been targeting pubs and clubs in the United Kingdom throughout the 1970s, notably the dreadful Birmingham pub bombings of 1974. The other anxiety we had in the early 1980s was the constant threat of nuclear MAD happening once WWIII started in 1985. I saw both films in our local 3 screen cinema (sticky carpets & scarlet seats): they are still the best two SF films ever made, for me, anyway.

  5. Pingback: Talking Movies [Judgment Day]: The Terminator – Dr. K's Waiting Room

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