Director: James Cameron
Screenplay: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield
Runtime: 107 Minutes
Original UK Release: 1985
After a botched attempt at his first feature with Piranha 2: The Spawning, James Cameron finally got his dues with 1984’s franchise launcher The Terminator. Though the story stems from B-Movie roots and the fractured imagery of 50’s science fiction, what elevates the film is its incredible sense of scale and ambition in its storytelling, direction and the construction of an inner universe. This is a blunt, bloody, but expertly well written and structured action film with one of the most tightly contained time travel narratives in cinema history.
A cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from a post-apocalyptic future is sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the leader of the future human resistance. But the resistance has also sent back their own soldier, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), to protect her.
The performances from the trio are all spectacular in career-defining roles. Although cast predominantly for his large and imposing physique, Schwarzenegger is exceptional as the emotionless machine restraining charisma in favour of a stoic determinism and terrifying inhumanity. He allows his eyes to guide his actions as he prowls the dark and dingy Los Angeles streets for his prey, unstopping and never batting an eyelid unless he’s repairing or disguising his slowly crumbling human form in gruesome detail.
Hamilton and Biehn share tremendous chemistry as the rogue and the waitress flung together by their interwoven fates. They carry a sturdy levity in their panicked and under-resourced positions, and even when the exposition and explanations for events come the film doesn’t stop to breathe. Instead, it expels them through spectacular nightmare visions or frantic word vomit as the chase continues. Biehn is compelling without coming across as a traditional hero type; rugged, dressed down and basically trying his best to get the job done with limited resources, but his heart is in the right place and Biehn brings a lot of humanity to him as he regularly slumps to the ground in exhaustion.
Sarah Connor is an icon that grows perfectly throughout the narrative, from an innocent virginal figure into a world-weary heroine bathed in blood and forged in conflict as her agency is returned to her in a time of crisis and panic, in a notable contrast to the ‘final girl’ slasher victims of the horror genre.
The action comes in hard and bloody bursts, shot by action veteran Adam Greenberg with tactile ease and an urgent veracity. It is a fitting product of the times and an entire era is encapsulated on screen – a handsome coupling of the 80’s landscape presenting the fears of technological advancement, while also embracing the vibrancy of the culture, and the double standards of a society obsessed with futuristic prospects. But it’s intense climax is made possible by the wonders of Stan Winston and his instantly iconic and terrifying mechanical creation as it stalks them to the end.
The Terminator holds up better than most of its kind, and unlike its kin such as Robocop and the heightened violence of high concept horror and thriller pictures on ultra-low budgets, plays everything straight with an effective precision to its beats and execution.