In the near future, an artificial intelligence defense network known as Skynet has become self-aware and initiated a nuclear war bent on destroying the human race. Those who survived have formed a Resistance against Skynet’s army of machines led by John Connor.
In an effort to crush the Resistance, Skynet has sent back a humanoid cyborg assassin known as a Terminator T-800 Model 101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from 2029 to May 12, 1984, with one programmed directive: Kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), John’s mother who’s not yet conceived him. The Resistance retaliates by sending one of their own, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), back to the same time in order to protect Sarah from the killing machine.
Four sequels, a billion dollar franchise, an international action superstar and an Oscar-winning filmmaker later, it’s hard to believe that no one expected 1984’s The Terminator to be either a financial or critical success, let alone the action/sci-fi juggernaut it’d go on to become. Series creator James Cameron’s agent went as far as saying he hated the idea for The Terminator and strongly recommended he work on something else. While the film wasn’t a box office smash like Star Wars, Jaws or its successor Terminator 2: Judgment Day, it still went on to gross six times its budget of $6 million, and more importantly, successfully launched the careers of both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Cameron.
When you really think about it, knowing the number of cheap, crappy sci-fi flicks before it and Terminator copycats that came shortly after, it’s not far-fetched to say that so many things could’ve gone wrong with this film. Instead of the beginning of one of the most influential sci-fi franchises in film, we could’ve gotten another candidate for “What the Hell Were They Thinking?!” After all, this too was just another low-budget sci-fi flick that no one had any faith in. Thankfully, all the pieces, from the casting to Cameron’s execution, came together to create the sci-fi classic we know of today.
Of course, the first image that pops up in our head whenever anyone mentions The Terminator is Schwarzenegger for more than obvious reasons. But this film has two stars – one in front of the camera and one behind it. The second star is James Cameron. Those that have read prior reviews here know my thoughts on Avatar and Titanic, so there’s no reason to beat a dead horse. That said, regardless of those two movies, it’s not like Cameron just happened to have gotten lucky with The Terminator. This is still a man that gave us five consecutive great action films in the span of ten years, two of which I believe are two of the greatest sequels, overall and not just for sci-fi, of all-time (Aliens and Terminator 2).
This film pretty much boils down to a chase sequence; in fact, the entire series can be boiled down to a chase sequence. But it’s the thrill and the raising of tension Cameron gives to the chase and the big ideas he has surrounding it that makes it such a fun film, one that’s able to go beyond being just a “turn your brain off and enjoy” kind of action film. Some of the effects look “dated” (a term I hate using when you consider the tools movies may or may not have had for their time), in particular Stan Winston’s stop-motion endoskeleton that appears in the final showdown (still not too shabby of a creation giving Cameron’s budget constraints), but the story has us hooked enough to overlook a few technology quibbles.
One necessary component of time-travel movies is the paradoxes they bring to the story. When done right, they can enhance a film that seems straightforward at face value. The big ideas Cameron presents to us isn’t all that complex and are more involved with key revelations in the characters’ arcs that are revealed over the course of the film. With any film paradox, the risk of feeling too gimmicky is always there, but Cameron makes it work with plot turns that are able to be deep without being over-complicated, and most of all, by getting us to care for these characters.
The cast is mostly headed by those who, at the time, were up-and-comers, Linda Hamilton (who also starred in the cult horror classic Children of the Corn that same year) and Cameron regular Michael Biehn (another regular, Bill Paxton, makes a brief appearance as one of the punks who encounters the Terminator), with acting veterans Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen accompanying them. None of the roles require too much heavy lifting, save Michael Biehn whose performance as Kyle Reese unfortunately has gotten lost in the shuffle over the course of the franchise. Hamilton’s role isn’t as developed as what we’d see from her in Terminator 2, but she still turns in fine work. The more experienced actors Winfield and Henriksen bring a little extra something to their roles, the obligatory law enforcement officials who might as well have Terminator bullseyes plastered on themselves.
But this is obviously all about Schwarzenegger, and the funny thing is, Orion Pictures initially wanted him to play Kyle Reese, an idea Cameron was against since it’d mean him having to cast someone even bigger to play the villain. Upon meeting Schwarzenegger, Cameron was won over by him enough to tell Hemdale Pictures co-founder John Daly that he wouldn’t work as Reese, but “he’d make a hell of a Terminator”.
And the rest is history.
This wasn’t Arnold’s first movie; his previous two films were Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Conan the Destroyer (1984), another highly memorable role of his. But though his role as Conan very well may have helped land him the role of the T-800, it didn’t define his career like The Terminator did. You don’t get Predator, Total Recall, and of course, Terminator 2 Arnold without this film. I mean, there’s a reason he was nicknamed the “Governator” while governor of California. The intimidating physicality and the presence is there; Schwarzenegger has that in spades, but we all know his range as an actor has always been minimal. Cameron was smart, however, to focus solely on the strengths he does have. There’s limited dialogue and the fact that he’s a cyborg means any dialogue he does have doesn’t require expressive delivery.
Great performances don’t always have to be the most heavily dramatic or charismatic or intense. Sometimes you get great performances that are great just ’cause of how well an actor’s embodying of a certain character services the film, and attempting to add anything more than what’s needed detracts from it. As the silent but deadly robotic assassin, Schwarzenegger is undeniably great, giving us one of the best villains in film (a character that would, strangely enough, go on to become one of the best film heroes in the sequel).
For the record, Orion Pictures originally wanted O. J. Simpson to play the Terminator, but Cameron felt he wouldn’t make a believable killer.
Hindsight is always 20/20.
Like Mad Max before it, The Terminator is a strong example of smart, economical filmmaking due to James Cameron’s taut, fast-paced direction and a career-defining turn from Arnold Schwarzenegger. Though the first-rate action sequences will most definitely satisfy action junkies, and for good reason, it’s the high-concept story that raises this film above being just another throwaway form of dumb, action-only entertainment, and turns it into one of the most thrilling and influential action/sci-fi films of the ’80s.