The Terminator is one of the most important motion pictures of the 1980s – it launched the career of director James Cameron, and catapulted star Arnold Schwarzenegger to stardom. Cameron went on to helm a number of groundbreaking blockbusters in later years (Aliens, Terminator 2, Titanic, Avatar, and so on), while Arnie developed into a legendary big-name action star (with such movies as Commando, Predator, Total Recall and The Running Man). 1984’s The Terminator begat these two Hollywood legends for good reason – this is one of the most remarkable, original science fiction/action films in history. While produced on a comparatively low budget, the film is suffused with a myriad of positive attributes and several justifiably legendary images and sequences. Benefitting from a number of still-impressive special effects, fine acting, lots of excitement and a mesmerising pace, The Terminator is one of the finest motion pictures of all time.
In the year 2029, future Earth is at war: man against the machines. Prior to this war, humans set up a defence system known as SkyNet that’s based around a neural net of learning computers. The problem, though, is that the computers grew too smart and struck against humankind with disastrous consequences. In 1997, on a day known as Judgment Day, 3 billion human lives were killed in a nuclear holocaust brought on by SkyNet, and only small pockets of human resistance still remain. The leader of the resistance is a human named John Connor. SkyNet has practically lost the war, however, and is on the brink of extermination. To reverse this outcome, SkyNet sends a humanlike cyborg – a Terminator (played by Schwarzenegger) – back in time. His mission is to exterminate John Connor before his birth and thus entirely remove him from history. The Terminator is sent back to 1984, and his target is John’s mother Sarah Connor (Hamilton). However, the Terminator is not the only one to utilise the time portal. In order to protect his mother from the ruthless cyborg assassin, John sends solider Kyle Reese (Biehn) back to 1984 to somehow destroy the indestructible Terminator.
James Cameron and co-writer Gale Anne Hurd structured The Terminator as an extended chase, with the vulnerable Sarah and Reese perpetually on the run from the relentless Terminator. Of course, Sarah initially distrusts Reese, but a bond gradually forms which develops into a romance. Yet, the film is as lean, economical and relentless as its antagonist; allowing limited opportunities for downtime or sweet conversations. Nevertheless, Cameron and Hurd infused the script with enough material to allow us to get to know Sarah and Reese, and come to care about them and their relationship. Lots of expository dialogue is doled out, but it’s usually provided during hectic chase sequences, and thus critical information is conveyed without boring us to death. Thanks to these aforementioned characteristics, a question will be constantly evoked in your mind: can the Terminator be stopped? This generates the hard-to-nail asset of tension; keeping your eyes glued to the screen, and keeping you thoroughly engaged in the proceedings.
The primary strength of The Terminator is that it combines action with ideas. By no means is this a run-of-the-mill, turn-off-your-brain collection of fights, shootouts and car chases. The plot of the film involves time travel and the paradoxes inherent therein, which requires viewers to pay attention or risk being lost. Additionally, the philosophy surrounding the future war is especially thought-provoking. As demonstrated in several of his movies, Cameron is a filmmaker with a palpable ability to incorporate provocative sociocultural themes into movies which blow you out of your seat; thrilling both your heart and your mind. The Terminator is no different. However, noted science fiction author Harlan Ellison sued Cameron in the years following the film’s release; claiming that The Terminator bore more than a passing resemblance to an Outer Limits teleplay of his. While the similarities are arguably insignificant, the settlement resulted in Ellison gaining an undisclosed amount of money as well as an acknowledgement to his works in the end credits.
The Terminator was produced for a paltry sum of $6.5 million, yet the believability of the sets and effects (for the most part) belie the low-budget nature. For the film, Cameron constructed a stunning, chilling vision of the future, and the movie is extremely atmospheric throughout. Late great special effects guru Stan Winston was responsible for the Terminator effects, and, while dated to an extent, there are still a number of impressive effects sequences throughout. Admittedly, the Terminator endoskeleton movement during the climax looks rather phoney, but the film’s other attributes are solid enough to overcome such shortcomings. The soundtrack is largely impressive as well, with booming sound effects and Brad Fiedel’s effective synth score. Upon release in 1984, the film’s distributor – Orion – did not give The Terminator a large marketing push as they perceived it as a small, niche-market action film. As it turns out, they were wrong – the film was #1 at the box office for two weeks, and earned in excess of ten times its production budget.
In 1984, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a star of limited acting experience, but he provided precisely what Cameron required: an implacable countenance and an imposing physique. Schwarzenegger’s Achilles heel was delivering dialogue convincingly, but this was no impediment in the case of The Terminator. After all, the role called for him to be an emotionless cyborg that kills without compunction – his actions and attitudes are governed by binary code rather than human morals. Arnie’s deadpan voice affords an unnerving edge to the few lines of dialogue he was required to deliver. Additionally, Schwarzenegger’s ability to effectively immerse himself into the role is what allows his performance to be so memorable. The Terminator is also the movie which introduced Arnie’s catchphrase: “I’ll be back“. Meanwhile, the film’s other two leads – Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton (as Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor, respectively) – are highly impressive. Neither star has tremendous range, but both of them managed to be charismatic, physically adept, and suitably intense throughout this film. The love story between Kyle and Sarah is believable thanks to the excellent leads, and this romance makes the film both raw and emotional.
Like its primary antagonist, The Terminator is relentless in tension and action. These days, some of the effects look dated, but the top-notch efforts in every other department ensure that this is a movie for the ages. With its thought-provoking premise, it engendered a new era of sci-fi/action films, and it has never been surpassed. The Terminator stands as a profound reminder that action movies can provoke an on-screen adrenaline rush without short-circuiting the brain. The success of the film eventually led to a number of sequels, beginning with Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991.