The Terminator (1984)
Directed by James Cameron • Written by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd.
With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Lance Henricksen, Paul Winfield and Earl Boen.
The Terminator is one of the signature films of the 1980’s. Not only did it make a mega-star of ex-bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger, it also signalled the arrival of the future self-proclaimed “King of the World” in James Cameron. With all the sequels, reboots and prequels that have cluttered the landscape, it’s worth remembering how all of this started life as a gritty, low-budget ($6.4m) sci-fi-horror story.
Cameron is a mainstream director who understands the draw of any film should be the relationship the audience has with its central characters. That is why he connects so effectively with large audiences. Like Spielberg, he knows spectacle alone isn’t enough, so he creates characters and situations we care about and builds his events around them. Despite a relatively minuscule budget, The Terminator is early evidence of his big ambition shining through.
The story revolves around three central characters. In the future, there is a nuclear war between mankind and machines. A Terminator (Schwarzenegger) is sent back through time to 1984 to track down and assassinate Sarah Connor (Hamilton, before she can give birth to her son, John, who will grow up to become a great leader. The resistance sends back a human protector (Michael Biehn) to stop the Terminator. The rest is movie history.
The film begins with purpose, introducing us to the three characters. First up, Schwarzenegger as the menacing cyborg from the future. His watchful, steely gaze surveys the city as his mission in night time L.A. gets underway. Schwarzenegger was an impressive looking man in 1984. His powerful physical aura, coupled with Brad Fiedel’s technology-gone-mad keyboard synths describe the sincerity of the threat this man-machine poses. We then meet Kyle Reese (Biehn). By comparison, he looks desperately scrawny, but he’s battle-hardened, edgy and built for combat. Biehn is excellent as the strong, silent type. Linda Hamilton rounds out the trio as Sarah, a moped-riding waitress with man troubles – plus the small detail of a murderous Terminator on her trail.
Between the seedy, night-time locations (the Tech Noir nightclub is now retro 80’s cool) and the car chases through down-town L.A, the film has an unrelenting pace in-keeping with the mission of the Terminator. Narratively, it grabs hold and never lightens its grip – even an exposition-heavy scene led by Biehn is done with sure purpose, as Kyle Reese spells out to Sarah Connor the back-story of why, where and how – “Listen, and understand. That Terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with…” – all of this happens while the film drives forward with the characters on the run.
It is commonly forgotten or overlooked that The Terminator is, at its core, a very romantic film. We think of it in terms of “I’ll be back”, violence and special effects, but this is a film with a strong, beating heart. Biehn and Hamilton are its unsung heroes, building chemistry as their characters flee for their lives, taking solace in each other along the way. One intimate scene in a motel is beautifully played, adding a breath of humanity to the insanity.
With all the right elements gathered, Cameron and his writing partner, Gale Anne Hurd, created a legend with The Terminator. Despite some wobbly visual effects, the film remains potent and thrilling. Schwarzenegger is impressive and unstoppable, but outside the bubble of its signature moments, the movie belongs to its star-crossed lovers. 5/5