The film that launched James Cameron’s career into overdrive and made Arnold Schwarzenegger a global action star, The Terminator (1984) encompasses the ultimate technological nightmare. An action movie about a cyborg sent from the future to kill the mother of the man who would ultimately stop the rise of the machines, the first film in the Terminator franchise is still as relevant and thrilling today as it was 29 years ago. Over the past decades we have become increasingly dependent on technology, so what if one day those machines became sentient and decide to wipe out their creators? It was science-fiction in the 1980s, but today unmanned drones can fly in just about any airspace and wipe out entire villages. Just how much artificial intelligence do these things need before they get tired of taking orders from a man sitting in front of a computer?
A megahit that would spawn three sequels (so far) and a TV show, The Terminator was part of popular culture in the 1990s. It came out before I was born, but the first sequel would come out five years later and a few years after that my brother would add it to his VHS collection, even though we had yet to see the first one. As a boy barely in his teens, the level of violence and the unbelievable stunts blew my mind, but I was definitely hooked into the franchise. When my brother and I finally caught up on the very first film when it played on TV, I thought it was scaled down in comparison to the second movie, but it is definitely worth watching just to see how it all began. Plus, most of the special effects are all practical creations by effects guru Stan Winston, which is refreshing with today’s movies awash with computer effects.
Before Linda Hamilton would play Sarah Connor, one of the most badass action heroines in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, she would play Connor as just an ordinary waitress in 1984 Los Angeles. While watching the news at work she becomes distressed when realizing someone out there is killing everyone that has her name. Feeling unsafe, she hides in a nightclub and calls the police, but it is too late. The emotionless killer (Schwarzenegger) has tracked her down and is about to send her to kingdom come when a young man called Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) intervenes and barely manages to save her life.
While escaping the killer and later at a police station, Kyle lays out the story. In the year 2029 sentient machines are trying to wipe out what is left of humanity after a nuclear holocaust they have caused. John Connor, Sarah’s unborn child, will rally the resistance and bring the machines to the brink of defeat. In a desperate move the machines sent a Terminator, an ultimate killing machine disguised as a human, back in time to kill John before he is even born. The human resistance somehow also has time travel technology so they sent Kyle to protect Sarah from the Terminator.
At the police station Lieutenant Traxler (Paul Winfield), detective Vukovich (Lance Henriksen) and doctor Silberman (franchise regular Earl Boen) are convinced Kyle is delusional and the so-called Terminator is nothing more than a psychopath wearing a very effective bulletproof vest. That is the most logical explanation until the Terminator comes crashing through the station killing everyone in his path after uttering his signature line: “I’ll be back.” Unfortunately he does come back, no matter how many times the cops shoot him or with what. Sarah realizes that if she wants to live she better come with Kyle.
The Terminator was made with a small budget and Schwarzenegger has no more than 18 lines in the entire movie, yet the film still holds up today and as a killer the Terminator is a thing of nightmares. It has no mercy or compassion, feels no pain, and is coldly calculated in his killing. When it kills women called Sarah Connor, it is because it does not know which is the one it is looking for. It is processing by order of elimination so to speak.
As it suffers more and more damage, Schwarzenegger puts on more makeup to give the impression there is a machine under his tall muscular frame. In the film’s final big fight there is no more fake skin left, only the machine’s metallic skeleton and its red glowing eyes, which is even scarier. Today this would be done with computer animation, but back in the 80s they had to make do with stop-motion animation, which in my mind is even more effective as it looks like an actual object is chasing Sarah and Kyle.
Under different hands The Terminator could have ended up being just an average cheesy science-fiction movie, but James Cameron’s eye for action, Schwarzenegger’s menacing presence, the acting by Hamilton and Biehn, and the iconic music by Brad Fiedel keeps the tension sky-high throughout. The special effects and the acting would increase ten-folds for the much better sequel, but this first entry stands the test of time as a classic of the genre.