The Terminator (1984) – A Review

Arnold Schwarzenegger The Terminator 1984
The Terminator

A bleak future is awaiting the world. Machines are destined to gain artificial intelligence and will unleash a nuclear war killing billions of humans and then set out to eliminate the rest. Looking like the human race will face extinction hope is found in rebellion leader John Conner who in 2029 rallies humans behind him and is soon on the verge of finally defeating the machines. But the machines have a tricky way to insure that doesn’t happen

A robotic cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) programmed to kill a programmed target is sent back into the past to 1984 Los Angeles on a mission to terminate the life of Conner’s mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton). With her premature death John Conner will never have existed and the machines will have an easy win against humanity.

However, John Conner himself manages to send back in time his friend and fellow resistance fighter Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to protect his mother and stop ‘the Terminator’ from completing his mission. Now Reese has to convince Sarah of her important role in future events, try to convince her he’s not crazy and try to defeat this unstoppable killing machine who will not let anything slow it down from its primary function – to kill Sarah Conner.

James Cameron director The Terminator Linda Hamilton Sarah Conner

The Terminator has become a sci-fi, action, horror classic. Most people know The Terminator series and if you’re reading this you’re most likely more than familiar with the film and probably have watched it a bunch of times.

Rewatching it today it continues to hold up as this hybrid genre movie. It succeeds in all the bases it hits. It’s a terrific story, great performances, it has suspenseful and exciting action scenes, that ‘boom-boom-boom-boom’ pounding score and the Terminator is one of the most terrifying villains ever to put on a pair of shades.

I often forget just what a low-budget production The Terminator once was compared to what the series has evolved into.

Writer/director James Cameron made the most of his limited budget, crafted a compelling story that was aided by Stan Winston’s creative effects (that robot design continues to hold up and look cool as ever). The miniatures, rear-screen projection, practical make-up, the stop-motion, they are all effective. It elevated what could have been a real schlocky B-movie into something very special. I always did think of The Terminator as a B-movie, but it’s the best of its kind.

The entire cast give terrific performances. We like Hamilton and sympathize with her. She’s a regular working-class girl who is having a tough time of things. From getting her Friday night date canceled at the last minute, to a snotty kid dropping a scoopful of ice cream in her pocket, she’s not having the best of days.

When things really start to get nightmarish and she finds herself running down dark alleys from this unstoppable threat we’re rooting for her to find a way to survive.

Michael Biehn The Terminator Kyle Reese

Biehn I think gets overlooked over Arnold and the story, but he’s really solid in this. Reese isn’t a typical flat leading man, but has plenty of emotions rolling around in his head throughout the story. Not only must he protect Sarah to ensure human survival, but he has fallen in love with her from a future photograph.

He also gets his ass really kicked – quite the opposite to Arnold. From the first shot of him falling onto the hard pavement, he’s scarred, gets shot, is dirty, he’s really struggling to make it out of this alive. I always felt bad for him having to wear pants he swiped from a bum! I often thought Biehn should have had a bigger career after The Terminator.

Arnold has of course become the face of The Terminator franchise and why wouldn’t he be? The part might have seemed quite literally robotic and he may not be one of the greatest actors, but he’s perfectly cast in the role. Cameron composes such iconic looming shots of this guy that it’s impossible for him not to make a memorable impression on you while watching this.

There’s a terrific buildup introducing the characters, everyone and everything gets firmly established when the trio finally all meet up at Tech Noir.

From there the story moves very quickly and doesn’t slow down. Even expository dialogue takes place during chases or suspenseful hiding out scenes. The action scenes are extremely well put together and things progressively escalate with the Terminator always on the hunt.

Arnold Schwarzenegger The Terminator police scene I'll Be Back

I won’t go over individual scenes, since I could talk about practically every scene in the movie. But suffice to say that it’s no surprise that the movie has become a favorite of so many people. What I find ironic is how dark and gritty the movie is. There’s barely a laugh to be found anywhere. Maybe a chuckle or two, but for the most part it’s a hard hitting serious horrific, sci-fi acioner.

It’s an element that would gradually get more and more lost as the sequels progressed and as Arnold became a bigger star and his role as the Terminator grew into this film icon. We wouldn’t see him violently gun down a police station full of cops again.

I also like how the whole time travel element is handled. It’s not overly complicated and is pretty much self-contained. It doesn’t bring up questions of alternate timelines or head-scratchers as to ‘well, they changed that so now won’t that affect this?’.  Time travel is a device used to tell this story, it closes the loop and the ending fits snugly into what the future will bring.

I remember when I first watched The Terminator. My friends and I had wanted to see it when it was first released, but alas because of its R-rating we were unable to get into a theater showing. Finally after some waiting it was set to premiere on HBO. Me and my best friend sat there on a Saturday night riveted and thought it was one of the coolest, scariest movies ever.

The Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger 1984 original horror sci-fi action movie

One moment I always recalled was the scene after the Terminator viciously kills Sarah’s roommate Ginger. While hiding out at the hippest night club you ever saw, Sarah calls her for help and gets the answering machine.

As the Terminator is standing over the dead Ginger he hears Sarah identify herself through the machine, he quickly turns his head towards the phone forgetting all about the dead girl at his feet. I remember in that instant me and my friend both yelling “Holy crap!” in unison.

Kind of ironic the Terminator is able to track down Sarah through such an unknowing mistake she makes through a machine. A real classic.


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2 Responses

  1. spaceodds says:

    The Terminator is the very definition of a genre classic. The film bridges sci-fi, neon-noir and horror, and it does it brilliantly, with style and fluidity. What could easily have been an uninspired mess, the film morphs into an engaging and rollercoaster ride that takes the audience on a very satisfying ride. The film was a low budget autumn/fall filler that its distributors and financiars thought that it was destined for the genre bin, instead it became a cultural phenomenon due to it being embraced by all types of audience; it didn't matter if you were an art film afficionado after a challange, or a film fan after a bit of mind escapism for a Friday night, The Terminator became an unpretentious and engaging film that surprised all.

    Watching it today, of course it has dated, but it has held up extremely well, and its all down to James Cameron. I am not much of a fan of his, and I'm in minority who prefers this film than its enjoyable, ambitious, but pretentious, sequel. Cameron really went for broke and created a mix up of genre aesthetics, and produced something fresh and liberating. Schwarznegger was only known for Conan, and even though some people he had no faith in this film, he didn't budge when Cameron cast him as the villian, and not the hero. The man knew his limitations and he embraced them, thus the rest was history.

    Biehn is a good actor, his performance in the Abyss was brilliant, but here he is terrible. The scenes of trauma he has seems so over the top, just look at the scene in the car park garage, when he says the word 'powerful'. That line always seems so laughable.

    Hamilton is perfectly cast as Sarah Conner, she goes from being a naive humble Californian dreamer to a bruised and scared woman. Her performance in T2 was very good and even though you dislike her in the sequel, you only have to look at her character in this film to see how much this woman has gone through.

    Despite its strengths, I always think of what would have happened if Cameron's initial casting and ideas came to fruition; Lance Henrikson as The Terminator, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sarah Conner. Or German actor Jürgen Prochnow as The Terminator… The film would have been completely different, and even though Arnie made the film and character his own and irreplaceable, I always wonder what would have happened to The Terminators legacy had Prochnow played the role as a psychological menancing and covert assassin, rather then the mean machine that Arnie's character was? Something are best left unresolved.

    • Capt. Nemo says:

      Speaking of casting choces, what would have happened if Arnold had taken the Kyle Reese character as was previously intended?

      "Comb vit me if view vant to live"

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