Robots killing humans just doesn't come much better than this.
Directed by James Cameron
Written by Gale Anne Hurd, William Wisher, and James Cameron
With Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor), Michael Biehn (Kyle Reese), and Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator)
Spoiler alert: severe, like it matters
In 1984, James Cameron, the replacement director of Piranha 2, emerged from the shadows of low-budget horror into the slightly brighter and presently tealer light of mid-budget horror, crafting a violence-soaked thriller that felt and sometimes even looked like an extravagant action film. Thanks to brain-melting concepts and shockingly strong central performances, it became one of cinema's all-time surprise hits, sending its writer-director on a trajectory to becoming the King of the World, and birthing a franchise that keeps coming back to this day, no matter how many times we've tried to kill it—in fact, no matter how many times its constituent films seemingly foreclose any possibility of a sequel at all, a tradition which begins right here.
Anyway, if we've learned anything, it's that there's no use blaming the future on the past. No matter what it eventually led to, The Terminator is unimpeachable. Which is not to say, "it is perfect." But it's so much better than it has any right to be, that superlatives are hard to avoid.
As I doubt you could help knowing even if you'd spent the last 31 years trying your best not to know, in 2029, the world, or at least North America, will have been blasted into a chalky radioactive graveyard; wherever there once were cities, now lie gigantic piles of charred bones. It was made this way decades earlier, but not by any human agency. Skynet, the learning computer put in command of American strategic defense, achieved self-awareness, and the first free thought it ever had was this: people have to go. It triggered a Third World War in a bid to exterminate us, and—in a matter of minutes—half its job was already done. In the years that followed, the human race was whittled down to the brutalized survivors, their every waking moment dedicated to fighting the vast army of chromed super-weapons mobilized by Skynet to finish what it had started. In 2029, the existential war between man and machine reached its decision—we won.
But in one last desperate attempt to survive, Skynet tore open time, sending back an agent, a terminator, a cybernetic organism designed for infiltration and assassination, to kill the man it had identified as its worst enemy, John Connor, before he had the chance to be born—indeed, before he was ever conceived. The resistance sent back one of its warriors, too, Kyle Reese. Now, the final battle for the future begins, as the Terminator and Reese converge in the past upon a 20-something diner waitress who doesn't know—yet—that she is the most important person in the whole world.
It's deep into The Terminator before we learn most of that. We begin in 2029, even getting an opening text block, but it's not until much later that we understand the destiny laid out for Sarah Connor's womb—indeed, it's not until the final scene that we grasp the shape of the ouroboros Cameron has created. But though it requires whole heaps of vomited exposition, Cameron is extremely patient and hopes the intrinsic tension of the basic situation—two antagonists racing toward a collision with an unaware innocent—will carry the audience to the point that The Terminator can stop, catch its breath, and finally explain itself. Those hopes were totally borne out. Meanwhile, those expository heaps are actually a lot of fun on their own merits. It's all delivered naturally, because one character really does need the information. And it lays out some genuinely trippy sci-fi concepts. The Terminator mythology is awfully compelling to learn about, even without the murderous suspense that makes it so urgent to learn about it right now. The ideas—ideas that Harlan Ellison eventually convinced enough lawyers Cameron stole—are amongst the best in time-travel fiction. Why, many them even make sense. (Then there's the one that absolutely doesn't, cooked up solely to give a reason why time-travelers must rely on contemporary weapons. Yet accidentally, it lends the franchise its most unique iconography—namely, naked men appearing suddenly in alleyways.)
By some stroke of luck, it's never in a kindergarten.
Cameron does overplay his tension-building—he treats as a mystery what he's already made plain. Not only is it immediately clear which of the time travelers is the man and which the machine, but also which is the hero and which is the villain—and not just because the saga of John Connor is probably as familiar to most people by now as the story of that other JC.
Consider: the Terminator, expertly cast and rather expertly played by a then-inexperienced lump of muscle named Arnold Schwarzenneger, is a juggernaut with minimal facial expression, obvious superhuman attributes, and lethal lack of concern for human life; Kyle Reese, played with addled fervor by Michael Biehn, is an animal of our own species, frightened and full of adrenaline, covered in scars, and not as eager to kill in pursuit of his mission. The former immediately achieves dominance; the latter is persecuted and comes close to failing before he even really starts.
As if Cameron were under the impression his foreshadowing was actually subtle, a half hour goes by while the director bats around the notion that it might still be the bug-eyed fellow who means Sarah harm. It's never quite counterproductive, since it's never terribly insisted upon, but it's present throughout the first act, even though the opening has already made these good guy/bad guy questions academic.
This is one of the things I mean when I say Terminator isn't perfect. For every moment where the young James Cameron seems to be completely in command, there's another where he obviously isn't. For every perfect use of slow motion, there's some extra cluttering the frame, leaning against the wall the way no person ever has or would, sort of suggesting the idea of leering at Sarah Connor rather than actually doing it. For every brilliant evocation of Reese 's traumatic triggers, there's a cop awkwardly hitting his mark so he can get shot. For every time-defying "You're terminated, fucker!" insert shot that Cameron earns, even if it is a little silly, there is an eye-rolling headphones-make-you-deaf gag that he absolutely does not. And for every pretty swell (albeit noticeably cheap) scene of future war, there is an infinitely misguided close-up on Stan Winston's model of the Terminator's damaged face.
So, Kyle, the 600 series was less believable?
And then through no fault of its own, there's the vintage. Terminator is Core 1980s—so full of bad haircuts and bad jeans and pitiful clubbing experiences that it sometimes seems more like a parody of the 1980s, so unappealing that it's not altogether clear how attractive Linda Hamilton actually is, until she rids herself of those hideous clothes. But it's absolutely the real thing, a time capsule from 1984, identifiable by its formal elements, like the sub-Carpenter electronica of its score. (Something I nonetheless love very much, mind you, especially in the moment when the dance club's cheesy music fades into the score's thriller dirge. Let us also distinguish the bulk of the score from its unforgettable signature theme.) Likewise, Terminator's hyper-80s filmstock and cinematography couldn't be faked if you tried.
(With that, I've obliged myself to weigh in on the Teal Controversy, alluded to above. Well, unfortunately, I have to disappoint: I have no opinion. To the best of my knowledge, the only version of Terminator I've ever seen is the blu-ray with the director-approved restoration, and its accompanying color timing shift. I will say that I like it; it feels like Mann's Thief, albeit not as generally pretty or well-composed.)
But before you think I've run out of mean things to say, know that I saved my favorite least-favorite thing for last: a quiet catastrophe of a shot, wrenchingly bad if you notice it, where our killing machine, with a neural net processor and cyber-eyes, reads the phonebook with his fucking finger. Like your grandma.
So, what you have no doubt noticed about my list of complaints is that they are outrageously petty. Most of Terminator's issues are simply budget-driven; hell, some of them are barely problems. In their number they really do ever-so-slightly mar the experience, but the greatness of Terminator is such that it's never impacted for more than a fleeting moment.
Structured simply as a constant headlong flight away from its titular cyborg killer, Terminator still winds up crossing four or five separate genres, sometimes all at once, elevating each: it is the heart-stopping thriller; the rollicking actioner; the thoughtful SF film with a twist that, sadly, will probably never take anyone by surprise again; and it is only not part of the slasher film canon because that subgenre couldn't easily absorb so much raw quality. But Terminator trafficks heavily in supernatural slasher tropes, and winds up inverting one of them in a very canny way.
Sarah Connor, if we permit the comparison, is the ultimate Final Girl: beginning as a waifish object of pity, by the end she's the battle-hardened protagonist of her own story, while her savior is dead for the sin of losing his virginity. (For her part, Sarah, now pregnant with John, is made positively holy by dint of her promiscuity.) Kyle's a mayfly man, sent here by his own offspring to mate and to die, pausing only to awaken the potential within Sarah, granting her the twin gifts of motherhood and action heroism, as fits into Cameron's strange early-career idiom. In his next film, a woman would fight to defend her newly-claimed surrogate daughter while an expendable man-bot was torn apart in midair, exploding with gallons of white fluid. My point is, James Cameron is very weird.
Which I imagine is how Mr. Strong Female Character has wound up with like twenty ex-wives.
Anyway, cheap freudianism is hard to resist: the other mode Terminator operates in, fittingly briefly, is romance.
The fated copulation of Sarah and Kyle shouldn't even seem reasonable. At best, it should blend in with the all the rest of the perfunctory humping endemic to its era and MPAA rating—an excuse to see tits and, if it must have a narrative connection, to raise the stakes, along with our erections. Instead, it doesn't just work; it's so beautiful that someone might even conceivably tear up over it, although personally you will never get me to actually admit I did so over Terminator. Biehn's utter vulnerability is what sells it, and, curved for difficulty, it's easily his best acting in the film. Then Hamilton's own combination of mercy and need compels you to take it completely seriously—even when it becomes, as it certainly must, the most overblown sex scene you'll ever see in your life, complete with an ejaculation implied in a slow motion clasping of hands. All that's missing is a saxophonist noodling in the corner of their room. But we are witnessing the salvation of the human species; if any movie ever earned the right to indulge in artful fucking, Terminator is the one.
When Cameron veers fully into supernatural horror, it too is gorgeously effective. I must redeem myself for criticizing Stan Winston's effects before I could praise them. Yes, opinions differ on how well the stop-motion/puppeted endoskeleton to which the Terminator is eventually reduced still holds up. Some opinions are wrong; it's absolutely fantastic. Terminator is the only film in its franchise that dips more than a toe into horror, but in its climax, it dives in with its whole soul: the thing seems like something out of another dimension, in the best way. Schwarzenneger's exercise in implacability has been impressive, but Winston's Terminator is an outright movie monster, one of the very last of the canonical greats—by my count, only the Predator and Pinhead, and perhaps one more from this very franchise, still wait in the future. And the Terminator is the first since Kong to not be just a man in a suit. The robot form, unlike Schwarzenegger, can afford to be desperate and hungry; no longer weighed down by the flesh, it moves with skin-crawling inhumanity. It is maybe the first and last time time an animate skeleton has ever been scary.
William Castle and Ray Harryhausen are so jealous.
So: that's the little movie that started it all, with a big heart, a big brain, and a big man now made a very big star—not to mention a medium-sized effects budget that strained and stretched and ultimately triumphed. It is a super-classic that shall be cherished forever—and which was bested, without so much as a struggle, the very instant its sequel arrived in 1991.
Other reviews in this series:
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
Terminator Salvation (2009)
Terminator Genisys (2015)