The Terminator (1984)

We live in a time where many of our science fiction classics were supposed to take place.  That is always the danger of being specific about the setting for a film or story.  At one point the year 2000 was some mythical turning point where we would all have flying cars and take weekend trips to the moon.  

By the 1980s that optimism was starting to fade.  There was a serious concern that, rather than flying cars, we would be fighting biker gangs over the last few remaining cockroaches that were safe enough to eat.  Merge that with a fear that has been around ever since computers first started using vacuum tubes - that AI would try to replace humanity - and one gets The Terminator. 

A military robot from 2029 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) transports back to 1984.  On its heels comes a soldier named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn).  The world they come from was devastated by a nuclear war in the 1990s initiated not by Cold War animosities but by an intelligence called Skynet, originally developed to run the defense grid of the United States.  The Terminator has traveled back in time to find Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the man who will eventually lead a successful rebellion against the machines.

In 1984 she is a waitress who grows concerned when the news starts reporting that women with her same name have been brutally murdered.  Detectives Vukovich (Lance Henriksen) and Traxler (Paul Winfield) believe that Reese is the one involved, as does Sarah originally.  He eventually reveals his mission and the two work together to find a way to stop the future from being rewritten. 

Despite being influenced by quite a bit of previous science fiction this came about because of a dream James Cameron had of a metal exoskeleton coming for him.  With Stan Winston's help the Terminator design was created, and Cameron spent time figuring out the story behind it, eventually coming up with a grandiose story.  Much of it ended up not being filmed for budget reasons, and those turned out to be many of the better, more exciting parts and the real meat of the tale.  Cameron just had the good luck of The Terminator becoming a big enough hit, followed by the success of Aliens, to be able to include all of that in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  

That doesn't mean the first movie isn't any good.  Many of the effects hold up, although the budget does show a bit, especially on newer restored versions where prosthetics are a too evident on Arnold's face and where the miniature work is recognizable as such in the beginning scenes.  Despite that the shots of the large Hunter-Killers with treads crunching over fields of human skulls is still quite effective and unique.  Once things get going it doesn't slow down, with a number of great chase sequences and flashbacks that help with the worldbuilding.  There is, of course, the whole scene when the Terminator takes on an entire Los Angeles police station. 

What does drag it down a bit is the romance between Sarah Conner and Kyle Reese.  The scenes where this awkwardly develops don't quite work and, while the chemistry is there, the love scene seems a bit out of place.  The character of Ginger (Bess Motta), Sarah's roommate, is overplayed, dancing and bopping around to whatever she's listening to on her Walkman.  She is as annoying as any teenager from a slasher film, and the fact that this was conceived as horror prior to working in the science fiction elements still pops through in places.  

The movie still has a great score, decent effects for being made on a small budget and, at least until the extra sequels started piling on after the second, a decent grip on its rules for time travel.  Much of that was secondary to just making a good movie.  Although he would rarely do villain roles after this it also helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger one of the biggest stars in Hollywood despite the fact that, between this and Conan the Barbarian, he had barely spoken 50 words.  Just understand that most of the praise that Linda Hamilton gets for her strong female performance - in this she is more of a final girl - comes from the second movie.  She still gets an awesome last line before the coda. 

The Terminator (1984)
Time: 107 minutes
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn
Director: James Cameron 



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