The Terminator (1984)

terminator_1Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, Rick Rossovich, Bess Motta, Earl Boen

Directed by James Cameron

Expectations: Super high. Can’t wait to see it again.


Everyone already knows that James Cameron’s second feature The Terminator is an incredible, groundbreaking film. Even if you don’t like it (for shame!), you still have to give it credit for the undying fan support it has garnered over the years; as Elvis would say, “50,000,000 fans can’t be wrong.” I’ve seen this film and its sequel more times than I could possibly count, yet it remains a perennial favorite.

This time around I noticed a few things I never had before. The most notable thing is that the film is almost purely visual during its first half. Hell, even a good portion of the second half is largely driven by pure action and carnage too, but its the first half that I want to focus on. The film begins with a quick scene of the future war. These scenes have always had a deep effect on me; I remember being absolutely riveted to them as a child. This ultimate manifestation of the post-apocalyptic, war-ravaged city ignites the fires of imagination, and even though we have little context for what’s happening on-screen, we cannot deny the power of the imagery being used. I mean, who saw this as a kid and didn’t remember the tank treads crushing human skulls?

terminator_2This future scene ends with a bit of quick, world-building text, but it does more to set the tone than it does inform us of the film’s specifics. As the film progresses into the present of 1984, we’re still not really told anything. Arnold drops in next to a hulking beast of a garbage truck, with a fanfare of incredible ’80s lightning as his herald. He arrives in a perfect crouch, the ultimate specimen of the future. Our hero drops in less gracefully, appearing with all the same sound and fury of Arnold’s arrival, but he drops in and lands hard in a crumpled mess on the asphalt below. Without a word, we know that these two men will clash, and when they do, this smaller-framed man is going to have a heck of a fight on his hands if he wants to best Arnold.

This kind of pure visual storytelling continues all the way until about 40 minutes into the movie. It is only at this point that we get some concrete information on who and what these men are, and what exactly is going on. Up until that point, we’ve been kept in the dark; their motives are a mystery. A lot of films frontload exposition, but The Terminator allows us to wonder, to ponder, to revel in the simple action of the moment. So when the exposition does come, we’re drooling for it. Why is this gigantic Germanic man hunting and killing every Sarah Conner in the phone book? It might be hard to forget this kind of knowledge after having it seep into the very fabric of our culture, but by trying to examine the movie as a first-timer might, it reveals just how genius of a movie it really is. Sure, it’s got Arnold, great FX and a lot of good action, but it’s really the story that holds all those elements together.

terminator_3And it’s James Cameron’s direction that takes a story that could have easily been nothing more than just another dumb B-Movie and instead makes it one of the greatest genre films of all time. His ability to show and not tell the story is incredibly honed, and it feels wrong that this is only Cameron’s second feature. He clearly learned a lot from his days with Roger Corman, creating special FX for such films as Battle Beyond the Stars and Galaxy of Terror, and directing the sequel to Joe Dante’s Piranha, Piranha II: The Spawning.

Like Conan the Barbarian, the Terminator character is one that relies more on physical acting than dialogue chops. Arnold melts into the character, becoming the unstoppable Terminator so perfectly that even I have a hard time thinking of this movie as an Arnold film. His personality is completely drained away. He only has a few bits of short dialogue. Arnold doesn’t just play the Terminator, he is the Terminator. I have a suspicion that if this had come out prior to Conan the Barbarian, the world might not have latched onto Arnold in the same way. But after Conan had already brightened his star from the Pumping Iron days, The Terminator offered audiences a chance to see him act in a completely different manner. While scant few will ever be as bold as to call Arnold a great actor, it is exactly that ability that made The Terminator succeed as well as it does. If even a shred of the man inside that cyborg flesh was visible, the illusion would be shattered. But Arnold locked it down and delivered an incredible performance.

The urban, nighttime Los Angeles landscape of the 1980s is captured here in such a way that it also evokes the city’s future prescribed in the introductory scene, with an endlessly dark night sky and glowing, brilliant lights shining down on and around our protagonists. The two future travelers bring the intensity of the future war to 1984 LA, and when the two worlds collide it is violent and messy. When Reese and Sarah first speak to each other, it’s all yelling and high intensity. In this moment, Sarah is not only a character in the scene, but a representation of the innocence and arrogance of the ’80s. Sarah’s transformation over the course of the film, into a character ready for the coming storm is something great to keep an eye on. It’s subtle, but it’s distinct and it’s especially interesting already knowing where the character ends up in T2.

The Terminator is a fantastic piece of independent filmmaking. This is how you do low-budget sci-fi, modern-day filmmakers. Stop it already with the pseudo-sci-fi indie dramas and get crackin’!

Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger is Arnold’s as-of-yet final turn as Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja! See ya then!

19 comments to The Terminator (1984)

  • Still rocks and rules after all of these years, even if it is a tad bit corny. However, it’s the 80’s, what do ya expect?!?!? Good review boss.

  • Stephen

    “I mean, who saw this as a kid and didn’t remember the tank treads crushing human skulls?”

    Probably me. My childhood memories aren’t worth crap.

    No fault of the film’s though, it’s always been one of my favorites. How could it not be? Like Alien, it’s hard to imagine what this must have felt like before it became so ingrained into our cultural consciousness. I’m gonna have to see this again. It’s been far to long.

    • Hahahaha, oh man. That image didn’t sear its way into your brain? That shit drilled its way into my soul immediately and I’ve never been able to shake it. I guess I incorrectly assumed that it also had a similar effect on other kids who saw it.

      Yeah, watch it again! It was even better than I remembered it being this time. It’s definitely hard to imagine the impact before movies like this or Alien existed. Amazing stuff. I love genre movies that can transcend their B-Movie roots and capture the culture’s attention. Recently, District 9 did that rather successfully, although as much as I love that movie I don’t know that it’s quite on the same level as Terminator or Alien.

      • Stephen

        Well, like I said, my childhood memories are crap. Most of my other childhood favorites are real blurry, too. I’d forgotten a good 99% of old films like Robocop, Predator, Last Starfighter, and Neverending Story until I saw them again as an adult. (Seriously, I’d completely forgotten ED-209. That was rand new to me when I rewatched Robocop.) The only reason I remember Alien/Aliens, Transformers, and Star Wars so well was because I watched them dozens of times over. I bet I’ll get around to rewatching the Indiana Jones and Back to the Future movies some day and be shocked at all the things I don’t remember from those either.

        Just thought of a tangent while looking at your tease for Red Sonja. Wouldn’t that be great if Arnold did make a new Conan movie as the old king. Perhaps a movie based on that first Conan story Phoenix on the Sword. Who wouldn’t want to see Arnold get in a fight with a demon monkey? Pure awesome right there.

        • Yeah, I’m like that too with a lot of big movies that I didn’t see a whole bunch back then. I remembered ED-209, for instance, but I thought it was in part 2. But a lot of the movies I re-watch to review here I haven’t seen since I was a teenager and I usually remember very little. That kind of stuff just fades over time. But those tank tread rolling over human skulls always remains vivid for some reason.

          Well, if it stays on track, Arnold is signed on to play the old King Conan in a new movie! I hope it gets made, I think it has a lot of potential. No idea if they’re basing it on actual stories, though. Also, I just realized that Arnold does not play Conan in Red Sonja.

  • Excellent film. Call it an action movie and it’s great. Call it a horror movie, it’s still great.

  • I agree – this film is definitive. As Stephen mentions above, it’s hard to imagine what the world was like before Arnie’s performance became pop-culture iconic. Such a great film that truly does transcend genres, it strikes me that, Piranah II aside, Cameron’s running at almost 100% for successful films, which is remarkable for any modern director to accomplish. Hell, ANY director. Even his lesser films (Abyss?) have still been terrific.

    • I haven’t seen Piranha II so I can’t comment (although I hope to change the shortly), but yeah Cameron is definitely a director with one of the best track records out there. I never saw The Abyss as a minor film, that seemed like such a big movie at the time. But I’d cautiously agree that he’s around 100% good, even though I think Avatar isn’t that great.

  • For an independent film, this is certainly a great one. My personal preference has always been for the sequel, T2. Very interesting review. You’re right that Cameron’s direction is probably what elevates an otherwise straightforward sci-fi action script.

    • Yeah, I always preferred the sequel too, but I’ve really come around to this one. It seems to get better every time I watch it. I’m highly looking forward to making my way to T2, though. Haven’t seen it in years.

  • Phil

    Although I grew up with T2 and saw it before the first, I believe. I tend to prefer this one more so. T2 is great and all but this one is great as well and there is something about it. Maybe it is Michael Beihn’s character? Granted the climax with the endo screams low budget the rest of the movie is well done and executed perfectly.

    I’m also a huge fan of the film Cameron did after this one, Aliens. That is a higher budget then Terminator but on the topic of low budget Ridley Scott’s Alien and Predator are great low budget sci-fi/action favorites of mine as well.

    • My love of low-budget film also has me appreciating this one more than the big-budget sequel. It’s impressive how well-realized it is for the budget, even the ending in my opinion. Michael Biehn’s character definitely adds a lot to this one, but as a kid I always gravitated towards the sequel because of the age of the lead. It seemed more accessible to me as I was around the same age as John was supposed to be.

      Aliens is great too, although I am such a huge fan of Alien that I find Aliens to be a step down in a lot of the things that I love about the original, namely atmosphere. But Aliens is still a fantastic film, made for mere pennies in today’s mega-budget world. I’d love to see studios embrace lower budget action/sci-fi movies again, and I’m sure they’d do well enough to succeed. Although I suppose Dredd did that and it didn’t do so hot, but I imagine that was largely because people were thinking it’d be like the Stallone version.

      And Predator! One of my all-time favorites. That one can double as a jungle horror movie too.

      • Phil

        Ahh, Yes Predator is one of my favorites too. I liked Aliens better then Alien upon initial viewing but I enjoy Alien more each time I watch it.

        I also prefer the one intimidating/scary alien/monster vs a bunch of aliens easily killed. That said, I recognize Alien as the superior film but I still dont know which one I prefer. Aliens is definitely a fun/exciting watch.

        Side note: While not as good as their predecessors I think Alien3 and Predator 2 are better then their reputations.

        • I agree that Alien 3 and Predator 2 don’t get enough credit. Predator 2 especially. Alien 3 has a ton of problems, but the atmosphere is great and I’ve heard the longer version is better. I’ve only ever seen the theatrical cut. When I reviewed them all last year, I actually quite enjoyed Alien: Resurrection as well, if you take it as a total B-movie it’s remarkably fun.

          • Phil

            The extended version/cut of Alien 3 is much improved. Definitely worth tracking down. As it alters the film a lot.

            Agree with Predator 2. Its a fun action movie but Predator 2 was doomed from the start because re making/hashing ideas from the first Predator would of been boring but something different like they did rubbed people the wrong way because there was no Arnold.

            I like how the Predator in P2 isn’t the same exact Predator from the first one and they’ve added weapons to his arsenal. Then at the end I thought it was ambitious to show more different types of Predators when on the ship. Well done for the viewers to learn more about the predator species without getting too detailed/hokey.

            I actually plan to rewatch Resurrection soon. Saw it once, its definitely a different tone from the first 3 but I remember it being entertaining if not taken too serious.

            • I got the Anthology set real cheap during some Amazon sale, so I actually have the extended Alien 3 right here. Next time I watch it, I’ll definitely go for that version.

              When I was a kid, I just couldn’t understand why Arnold wasn’t in Predator 2, but I still enjoyed it a lot. He was actually supposed to be in it initially, but he decided to make T2 instead, so they re-wrote his part into the Gary Busey part. It diverges in a lot of interesting ways from the original, and I love how they differentiate the Predator in that one with new weapons. Those predators at the end were awesome as well. A good way to build the mythology of the Predator in just a single scene.

              Hope you enjoy Resurrection. I saw it on opening day and hated it, and hadn’t seen it again until last year when I reviewed it. I was very surprised to find that it was quite enjoyable if you go in looking for a fun time and don’t care too much about it.

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