The Terminator is a massive, ambitious blockbuster, stuck in the body of a low-budget B movie. With his first major film, James Cameron (who co-writes with future wife Gale Ann Hurd) delivers the first modern action spectacle: For all of its 107 minutes, The Terminator is propulsive, visceral, and daring. A thousand movies would try to capture this same magic, and most of them would hilariously fail. The reason for that is simple: Cameron and Hurd adhere to sturdy screenwriting principles. Beyond its innovative visual design and star-making performances, The Terminator is just a well-told sci-fi tale.
And Cameron doesn’t waste a second in telling it: The story opens late at night, somewhere on the smoggy streets of L.A. A writhing electrical current forms out of nowhere, hissing and scorching the ground. At its center, a portal opens and a figure emerges. The T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a cyborg, with the build of a muscular, monolithic man. He is naked, but quickly uses his power and ruthlessness to procure clothes, weapons, and a car. The T-800 stalks into the night, to points unknown.
Across town, another portal opens. The man who plunges from this vortex in time couldn’t be more different: Kyle Reece (Michael Biehn) is lean, scarred, and shivering. As with the machine, Reece desperately cobbles together what he can, and races away.
As I rewatched this film (probably for the 20th time), I found Cameron and Hurd’s storytelling finesse to be remarkable. We don’t know anything about these characters. They don’t say much, and their interactions with other characters are minimal. Still, we feel their urgency. A sense of dread infects us, as well. These early scenes are a master class in how to make gripping entertainment.
Cameron intersperses these action beats with the character who forms their opposing missions: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is a mousy, blue-collar waitress at a greasy spoon. She leads the life of a single young woman. She parties, dates, and works thankless hours. These salad days get interrupted with breaking news: Multiple Sarah Connors in Los Angeles have turned up dead, and she‘s the next one in the phonebook.
Sarah dutifully calls the cops and heads to a crowded nightclub. It’s here that both stalkers converge: Reese becomes her fierce protector, while the T-800 arrives to, you know, terminate her. A gun battle ensues, and the rest of the film essentially becomes an extended chase scene.
In the midst of all the action, Cameron expertly laces in meticulous exposition. We learn about the ugly future in which machines attempt to conquer the world, and the human resistance that springs up from the rubble. Reese also spills about Sarah’s importance: Jon, her unborn son, will someday unite humanity into a motivated and coherent army. With the machines cornered and defeated, they send back a terminator to ensure Jon will never be born. At the same time, Jon dispatches Reese to preserve history.
Cameron also draws exceptional performances from a largely unknown cast. Sure, Arnie was somewhat known, but this film made him a superstar. He only has 17 lines in the script, but every one is filled with flat, mechanical terror. You know an actor is phenomenal when they can be so memorable with such sparse material. Hamilton plays Sarah as intelligent and adaptable, but also naive and deeply vulnerable. Biehn gives Reese a heart of gold under the scowly super-soldier. It’s no wonder he went on to play likable jarheads in a number of Cameron productions.
This Terminator hearkens to a time when the special effects had to be practical. Cameron leans on miniatures and stop motion to show us the Dystopian future, replete with wrecked skyscrapers and giant mechanical murder-drones. Do these effects show their age? Sure, but it can’t be overstated just how incredible this trendsetting film looked in 1984.
It’s well known that Cameron later took a deep dive into pushing the boundaries for movie effects. This film only hints at the man who would give us The Abyss, T2, and Titanic. Still, any overview of Cameron’s career will include this original Terminator as one of his finest accomplishments. And that has less to do with the production and everything to do with the energy and imagination of its story. It goes to prove something many filmmakers would do well to learn: In the end, there’s just no substitute for good writing.
107 min. R. Hulu.