Home > Reviews > THE TERMINATOR – Brad Fiedel


November 6, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Terminator is one of the most acclaimed and important science fiction action movies ever made. Written and directed by James Cameron – then a fresh-faced 29-year-old making his mainstream debut after spending his apprenticeship working with Roger Corman’s New World Pictures – it took inspiration from the classic genre writings of people like Harland Ellison, and told the story of a young woman named Sarah Connor, who when the film begins is living a mundane life in suburban America in 1984. Connor’s world is turned upside down when a Terminator, an unstoppable human/robot cyborg assassin, is sent back in time from the year 2029 to murder her. She is saved by Kyle Reese, who explains that he was also sent back in time on the orders of John Connor, the leader of a group of resistance fighters on the brink of victory against the machine army that took over the world following a nuclear holocaust, and who is Sarah’s future son. The Terminator’s mission is to kill Sarah before John is born; Kyle’s mission is to protect her. The film was a massive success at the box office, reaping in almost $80 million from its paltry $6.5 million budget, and made stars of its young cast, which included Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose career was subsequently launched into the cinematic stratosphere.

The score for The Terminator was by Brad Fiedel, a 33-year-old pioneering electronic composer and performer from New York who worked as a keyboardist for pop duo Hall & Oates before making the switch into composing for film in the late 1970s. The Terminator was Fiedel’s first significant motion picture assignment, and remains his most important and memorable contribution to film music history. Fiedel’s score is almost entirely electronic, and was extremely complicated and progressive for its time, making use of a vast array of different synthesizers, drum machines and sampled sounds to drive the narrative home. Such were the technical limitations in 1984, Fiedel had to mix-and-match is different electronic instruments and manually layer them during the post-recording mixing process to get the depth and counterpoint he desired, an incredibly laborious and time-intensive process, but which worked remarkably well in the final context of the film.

The film’s famous musical identity, “Theme from The Terminator,” is technically a march, a repeated six-note theme which plays against an oddly-metered incessant metallic percussion ostinato and a heartbeat-like pulse. The melodic theme represents Sarah and, eventually, her relationship with Kyle, the human element at the core of the film, and brings out the warmth and emotion that defines them. The metallic counterpoint represents The Terminator: merciless, cold, relentless, unyielding. Fiedel created the powerful “clank” sound by hitting a heavy cast iron frying pan with a hammer, and recording it with a simple microphone, an unsophisticated but incredibly effective device. Meanwhile, the heartbeat pulse which underpins it all is a secondary motif, also associated with the Terminator, which acknowledges the fact that there is flesh and organic material covering his alloy endoskeleton. The pulse often appears on its own during the fabric of the score, subliminally alerting the audience to the Terminator’s malevolent presence, and mimicking the rising sense of panic his appearance inevitably causes in others. It’s probably not a coincidence that, in its fullest form, the main Terminator ostinato is also six notes, another subliminal connection between Sarah and the Terminator, ruminating on their inextricably linked fates.

Fiedel restates his main thematic ideas in full in the “Main Title,” but then refrains from over-using Sarah’s theme afterwards, choosing only to feature it at moments of extreme emotional poignancy. Instead, for most of the score, Fiedel concentrates mainly on more abstract ideas. The Heartbeat motif is offset by odd, sort-of-choral textures and grinding metallic samples in “The Terminator’s Arrival,” possibly identifying him as an angel of death of sorts. Its performance in “Tech Noir” contrasts chillingly with the scene of young Los Angeles punks dancing to the latest hit, while the killing machine relentlessly stalks the dance floor scanning for his victim. Later, in “Arm & Eye Surgery,” it combines with eerie industrial scraping effects, further illustrating the Terminator’s inhumanity.

The action music tends to be frantic and chaotic; layer upon layer of bubbling, pulsing rhythms which blend together to create a sense of panic and confusion. Cues like “Reese Chased,” “Alley Chase,” and the “Garage Chase” sound unfocused and all-over-the-place, but in the context of the film are perfect: the Terminator’s presence is so inexplicable, so confusing to those who shoot him 30 times and see that he doesn’t die, and he is so unerringly deadly with his own weaponry, that the lack of focus and understanding from the human point of view is entirely appropriate.

A deconstructed version of the main melodic theme features in the brief “Sarah in the Bar,” but it doesn’t appear again until “Police Station/Escape from Police Station,” where watery, dream-like variations of all three central ideas, offset by electric guitar chords and the bubbling action sequence rhythm, accompany the scene where the Terminator, fulfilling his promise to ‘be back’, massacres an entire LAPD office while searching for his quarry. There are two brief moments of warmth and happiness: “Sarah on Her Motorbike,” a sunny, jazzy piece that represents one of the last moments of carefree calm in Sarah’s life; and “Conversations by the Window/Love Scene,” an introspective acoustic piano variation accompanying the moment of tenderness between Sarah and Kyle before their final battle for survival begins.

The extended finale, from “Tunnel Chase” through to “Reese’s Death/Terminator Sits Up/You’re Terminated!”, restates most of the main ideas of the score in extended form: the hyperactive action material, the incessant heartbeat pulse, the sinister metallic clanking, Sarah’s theme. “Death By Fire/Terminator Gets Up” contains the most ominous performance of the Terminator pulse, re-emerging into horrific life just when we think – and the music misdirects us into thinking – that Sarah and Kyle have won. By the time the conclusive “Sarah’s Destiny/The Coming Storm” kicks in, with its wistful piano performance of Sarah’s theme, the sense of relief in the face of the onslaught is palpable, while the end credits version of the main theme, subtitled the “August 29th, 1997, Judgement Day Remix”, brings the album to an appropriate close.

terminator-originalThe original release of the Terminator soundtrack on LP contained just six tracks of Fiedel’s score, alongside five songs featured in the movie by artists such as Trianglz, 16MM, and Linn Van Hek, many of which can be heard in the ‘Tech Hoir’ nightclub sequence. I did get a little chuckle out of the fact that Linn Van Hek’s “Intimacy” was co-written by Joe Dolce, who had a smash hit of his own in 1980 with the comedy pop song “Shaddap You Face”, although it’s likely that British people of my generation will be only ones who find this funny. An expanded ‘Definitive Edition’ of the score was released in 1994 by the German label Cinerama/Edel, and is the recommended version of the score for those who want to experience it in its fullest form.

Brad Fiedel went on to score many popular and successful films over the next decade or so, including Fright Night in 1985, the Oscar-winning The Accused in 1988, Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991, True Lies in 1994, and Johnny Mnemonic in 1995, before essentially disappearing from the film scoring world entirely around the turn of the millennium; still, whatever else he has done in his career, the score for The Terminator will likely remain his most significant cinematic achievement. For children of the 80s, The Terminator will have a great deal of popular and nostalgic appeal. The main theme is a classic, a watershed moment for synth soundtracks, but anyone who did not grow up with the film and/or has a dislike for heavily electronic scores may have trouble connecting with the more challenging, abstract passages of rhythmic tension that make up the bulk of the score’s midsection. For everyone else – get your clothes, your boots, and your motorcycle, and say “I’ll be back” to this classic sci-fi score.

Buy the Terminator soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Terminator Theme (4:18)
  • Terminator Arrival (2:28)
  • Tunnel Chase (2:45)
  • Love Scene (1:09)
  • Future Remembered (2:24)
  • Factory Chase (3:50)
  • You Can’t Do That (written by Ricky Phillips, performed by Trianglz) (3:23)
  • Burnin’ in the Third Degree (written by Tahnee Cain, Mugs Cain, Dave Amato, Brett Tuggle and Ricky Phillips, performed by Trianglz) (3:29)
  • Pictures of You (written by Jay Ferguson, performed by 16MM) (3:54)
  • Photoplay (written by Tahnee Cain, Pug Baker and Jonathan Cain, performed by Trianglz) (3:30)
  • Intimacy (written by Linn Van Hek and Joe Dolce, performed by Linn Van Hek) (3:34)
  • Theme from The Terminator (4:16)
  • The Terminator Main Title (2:17)
  • The Terminator’s Arrival (4:57)
  • Reese Chased (3:50)
  • Sarah on Her Motorbike (0:38)
  • Gun Shop/Reese in Alley (1:30)
  • Sarah in the Bar (1:52)
  • Tech Noir/Alley Chase (7:38)
  • Garage Chase (6:52)
  • Arm & Eye Surgery (3:19)
  • Police Station/Escape from Police Station (4:49)
  • Future Flashback/Terminator Infiltration (4:18)
  • Conversations by the Window/Love Scene (3:45)
  • Tunnel Chase (3:38)
  • Death By Fire/Terminator Gets Up (3:13)
  • Factory Chase (3:57)
  • Reese’s Death/Terminator Sits Up/You’re Terminated! (3:28)
  • Sarah’s Destiny/The Coming Storm (3:04)
  • Theme from The Terminator – August 29th, 1997, Judgement Day Remix (4:44)

Running Time: 36 minutes 16 seconds — Original Release
Running Time: 72 minutes 05 seconds — Definitive Edition

Enigma 72000-1 (1984) — Original Release
Cinerama/Edel 0022082CIN (1984/1994) — Definitive Edition

Music composed and performed by Brad Fiedel. Featured musical soloist Ross Levinson,. Recorded and mixed by Brad Fiedel and Robert Randles. Edited by Emilie Robertson. Album produced by Brad Fiedel.

  1. November 6, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    Have you ever read the discussion about exactly what time signature the Terminator theme is in? No one’s quite been able to quantify it!

    Also, not to nitpick, but the irascible sci-fi writer’s given name is Harlan, not Harland 🙂

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