The Terminator (1984)

DIRECTOR: James Cameron


Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, Bess Motta, Rick Rossovich, Earl Boen


The stars were aligned for the cast and crew that came together to make the original Terminator. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Mr. Universe, had made his break into the movie business with 1982’s Conan the Barbarian. Together with this and 1986’s Aliens and 1989’s The Abyss (both also directed by James Cameron), Michael Biehn seemed set to become a major star, but never again reached his nearly A-list heights after the 1980s. Linda Hamilton was a relative newcomer (and future, now ex Mrs. James Cameron), and like Biehn, Terminator and its sequel would be the high point of her career. And bringing it all together was a then-unknown filmmaker named James Cameron, who was previously art director for zero-budget B-movie legend Roger Corman, and his previous directorial effort had been the inauspicious Piranha 2: The Spawning. Inspired by a Twilight Zone episode, “Demon with a Glass Hand”, by Harlan Ellison (who later sued for and received official credit), and his own nightmare about a killer robot sent from the future to murder him, Cameron wrote the original story for what became The Terminator while sick and bedridden in Rome. Working alongside him to bring it to fruition was producer (and another ex-wife-to-be) and fellow Corman alum, Gale Anne Hurd. In the hands of this cast and crew, The Terminator exploded from the cult film it was expected to be into a sci-fi/action classic that revolutionized the genre.

The Terminator may be considered first and foremost an action thriller, but it has a strong and thought-provoking underlying narrative. Decades into the future, a supercomputer known as Skynet built for defense purposes will seize control and launch a nuclear attack against its human creators. The survivors will struggle to survive and organize a war against the machines in the nuked ruins . Skynet sends a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), its most advanced killing machine, an almost indestructible cyborg built to be indistinguishable from a human, back in time to 1984 Los Angeles to eliminate Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of yet-unborn John Connor, who is destined to lead the human resistance to victory over the machines. The resistance also manages to send its own warrior, a soldier named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to safeguard the mother of mankind’s future. And the race is on…

Conan the Barbarian might have first made people notice Arnold Schwarzenegger (and probably paved the way for his casting here), but it is The Terminator, more than any other movie, that made them sit up and pay attention to him in a big way. The almost superhumanly buff, thickly-accented ‘Austrian Oak’ was- and is- easy to parody, but in spite of all of his acting limitations and seeming barriers in the way of movie success, his achievement with The Terminator was to find a role that was perfectly-suited to all of his strengths and highlighted none of his weaknesses. Schwarzenegger is not an accomplished actor, but he has an imposing screen presence, and his steely stare and monotone delivery of his spare sixteen lines of dialogue made him a thoroughly intimidating adversary. He’s not someone you’d want coming after you. The attention Schwarzenegger received for the role jumpstarted his rise to action superstar, but he has never found a role he fits better than in The Terminator and its two sequels (in which, as his star rose, he switched to playing the ‘good’ robot, making this the only Schwarzenegger film in which he appears as the villain). The supporting cast have more emotional range required of them. It’s a little bit of a mystery exactly why Michael Biehn never became a big star. Between this and other high-profile roles like Aliens and The Abyss, he seemed poised to, and then never again came as close after the 1980s. Biehn is a capable actor who effectively balances both the hardened, world-weary side of Reese from growing up in an existence where every day is a struggle for survival among devastated ruins and man-hunting machines, and the more sensitive, vulnerable side eventually drawn out by Sarah. Speaking of Sarah, Linda Hamilton gives the least polished significant performance, but she has enough innocence and likeability to make “the mother of the future” a sympathetic heroine. Schwarzenegger and Biehn may be first-billed, but more than anyone else, Hamilton’s Sarah turns out to truly be the central figure, and Cameron’s decision to fashion an apocalyptic action thriller with an underlying love story with touches of sensitivity and tenderness lends a touch of emotional depth and poignancy that raises The Terminator above much of the rest of the genre, lending it impact in more ways than one. Respected character actor Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen (who also co-starred along with Biehn in Cameron’s Aliens) round out the cast as the police detectives who get dragged into the middle of a situation they have no way of understanding. They’re not idiots or incompetent; they understandably do not put much faith in the mental stability of a man who is arrested screaming about killer robots from the future, and try to do their jobs as best they can, but become side casualties in a battle they have no awareness of. In smaller roles are Bess Motta as Sarah’s roommate, Rick Rossovich as her boyfriend, and Earl Boen as a psychiatrist who offers the professional opinion that Reese is “a loon” (his character, Dr. Silberman, would have a slightly larger role in the second installment). There’s a brief opening appearance for a young Bill Paxton, another Cameron regular (he was the third cast member, along with Biehn and Henriksen, to appear in Aliens, reunited with Schwarzenegger in True Lies, and later appeared in Cameron's Titanic).

Considering the second and third installments’ liberal doses of humor, it’s worth noting that the original Terminator has virtually nothing in the way of comic relief. The mood is dark and almost bleak, with an ominous tone of impending, unstoppable destruction embodied by Schwarzenegger’s hulking presence and Brad Fiedel’s steadily pounding theme that picks up whenever the Terminator is near, like the drums of doom. The only thing that gives a flicker of hope at the end of the tunnel is the underlying tentative romance between Sarah and Reese, but their budding relationship is on a collision course with The Terminator, and facing a future which is uncertain at best.

The Terminator was filmed on a budget of only $6.5 million, but Cameron was used to working with less on Roger Corman films, and looking back the movie is impressively technically accomplished. Certainly nothing about it screams low-budget. Some of the special effects, particularly the models of flying “hunter killer” units in the flashbacks (or skips ahead, depending on how you look at it) to Reese’s world, and the model head which stands in for Schwarzenegger’s for part of a cringe-inducing scene in which he nonchalantly removes a damaged eyeball, are dated by today’s standards, but at the time they were certainly sufficiently convincing (and are still convincing enough). Orion, the film’s distributor, did not significantly market it because it believed it would be a small, “niche” film with at most a cult following. Shattering all expectations, The Terminator held the number one spot at the box office for four straight weeks and made $36.9 million, not touching the reigning box office kings of the year such as Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom , but easily making back the $6.5 million it cost to make many times over, and deserving much of the credit for demonstrating that sci-fi and action thriller could mesh well and prove a major box office draw.

The Terminator is a little more than just an action movie, but when it comes to action, it’s not lacking. First is a shootout at a disco where Reese, Sarah, and the Terminator all collide for the first time, which leads into a foot chase, which leads into a lengthy car chase. Then there is the movie’s most unforgettable action sequence, kicked off by Schwarzenegger uttering the now-iconic line “I’ll be back” shortly before going on a rampage through the police station searching for Sarah Connor, mowing down dozens of hopelessly outmatched policemen and leaving chaos and destruction in his wake. Lastly is a car chase with the increasingly battle-scarred Terminator commandeering a motorcycle and then a semi, and just when it seems the relentless cyborg has finally blown up into fiery oblivion, he rears his unmasked head as a steel, red-eyed robot for the final cat-and-mouse pursuit through a computer factory. Cameron already shows a deftness for helming action sequences, and each generates as much adrenaline and tension as any examples in the genre. In between there are effective character-building moments, a few touches of depth and poignancy, and a bittersweet conclusion.

The Terminator is one of the defining entries in the sci-fi/action thriller genre, an impressive second film for James Cameron, a launchpad for the hugely successful career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and decades later it remains a true action/sci-fi classic.


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