The Terminator (1984): Action thriller classic dashed with sci-fi and horror

The Terminator is one of my favorite movies, ranking up there with Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan and Secondhand Lions. I actually like and enjoy the first movie over the (perhaps) wider known and appreciated Terminator 2: Judgement Day sequel released in 1991. While a shorter and certainly less epic movie than T2, The Terminator still holds its own due to its brisk pacing, excellent writing, and atmosphere.

So, the plot of The Terminator is pretty simple and straightforward. A defense computer called Skynet is on the losing end of a war between its machines and the human resistance fighters led by John Connor. In a desperate bid to win the war, Skynet sends a cyborg called a Terminator (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) to kill John’s mother, Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) to end his existence and ensure Skynet’s victory over humanity. After defeating Skynet and capturing the time machine, John Connor sends back a soldier named Kyle Reese (Micheal Biehn) to protect Sarah. As the movie progresses, Kyle and Sarah find themselves out running and out witting the Terminator in an ever escalating game of cat-and-mouse. The movie ultimately ends in the Terminator’s destruction, Kyle’s death, and Sarah surviving after becoming pregnant with John after an adrenaline fueled night with Kyle. The movie is nearly 40 years old, so suck up the spoilers and watch it for yourselves for free here. (For those not in the fold of good movies, you’re welcome.)

Alright! Plot’s out of the way. Relatively simple. Has something of a Grandfather Paradox in there, but what makes The Terminator so good? EVERYTHING!!! The imagery. The acting. The sets. The shoot outs. From the opening scene where the Terminator arrives to the closing credits, the movie is tense. It grabs the audience by the shirt collar, stares them down with its glowing red eyes, and doesn’t let go. It’s R-rated hyper violent scenes deliver a good shake, jarring the audience into believing the stone faced Arnold Schwarzenegger is a stone cold killing machine. Hamilton’s confused and struck facial expressions tell us she’s out of her element, but her evolution into a hardened survivor with Kyle’s help and guidance convince us that she can beat the odds after she accepts her circumstances. Eventually, Hamilton brings out Sarah’s inner tough girl, ordering Reese around to save his life during the movie’s climatic final chase. Beihn delivers a strong performance, and is probably the strongest in the movie. His explanations are frantically delivered but clear and concise (take notes would be script writers; that’s how to write engaging exposition), and he relies more on smart and scrappy survivalist skills than direct brute force, a stark contrast to Arnold’s titular character in this movie and Terminator 2.

These performances help with the pacing. The actors slow down during quieter moments to let the tension build and help the audience relax, prepping them for the next chase or shoot out. For example, the first twenty minutes introduces the main characters and tells us pretty much everything we need to know about them in their opening scenes. The Terminator is a killer; ruthless, direct, and impatient. Kyle is a survivalist, outwitting police officers and tracking Sarah to her apartment thanks his knowledge about her that Skynet lacks. And Sarah is a bit hapless, but feisty and has good sense enough to try avoiding bad situations (except for when she calls her mom, but how was she supposed to know the Terminator stole her address book and axed her off shot gun style?) and she has a real sense of agency. When a date stands her up, she decides to make the best of a crummy night and hit the town, inadvertently saving her life. When Kyle saves her, she bites his hand thinking he’s some crazy kidnapper. She won’t take anything laying down. Said strokes of dumb luck play a pivotal part in the movie, such as when the Terminator finds Sarah’s address book and ID and uses them as intel to set up the climax of the movie. Much of the middle of the movie builds on the first act, revealing key details to the audience and answering all of their relevant questions. Who is the Terminator? What is he, and why does he want to kill Sarah Connor? Where does Sarah fit into all of this, and why is Kyle protecting her? Kyle answers them all to Sarah and the audience in a few minutes. Lesser movies would spend a good 15 minutes laying it out and breaking the tension. But not The Terminator. Things are explained during a car chase and right before a shootout at the police station. Like the character, there’s things to do; the pacing can’t stop because of some exposition! There are guns to shoot! Cars to wreck! Lives to lay waste to!

Car chases! WITH GUNS!!!

The Terminator is an eye catching, attention keeping film thanks in part to its sound design and visual effects, which while dated and obsolete, look great today. I actually prefer the stop motion, puppetry, and animatronics over CGI that would be used in a similar movie made today, but that’s because I like seeing something that is actually there. And the practical effects in this movie are so superb (according to me at least) that it took me four viewings to realize the scene where the Terminator cuts its eye out isn’t make-up, but is actually an animatronic. Looking back on it in retrospect, I should have caught it way earlier, but I was so wrapped up in the experience and the story, I didn’t actively process what my eyes were seeing. Rather, the animatronic helps sell that there really is an endoskeleton under Arnie’s skin and muscles, pulling willing audiences further and further into the Terminator’s pearly white maw.

The first time we got to see the machine under the flesh and one of Terminator’s most eye-conic pieces of imagery.
The Arnold animatronic is dated, but it’s jerky movements and some smart cuts really sell the scenes it is in and add to the eeriness.

The sound design is excellent. Rife with early 1980s synthesizers, the soundtrack is arguably the most dated and most time period aspect of this movie. But on a 6 million dollar budget, shooting at night without permits, and scrounging around, the synthesizer sound adds some charm to the movie and gives it a distinct feel. Additionally, whenever the Terminator is hit by gunfire, metal-on-metal sound effects help the audience feel every shotgun blast it takes. It’s little details that can help set great movies apart from mediocre ones.

The Terminator is one of those American cinema gems. It added to pop culture, giving us iconic lines such as the (in)famous “I’ll be back” and “Come with me if you want to live” made more famous by the sequel. Unlike the sequel, this movie feels a bit more intimate and rough. With it’s smaller budget, humbler special effects, and shorter runtime, this movie just feels better to me than the sequel, and I very much enjoy Terminator 2. But the original scratches an itch the second one just can’t. I think James Cameron’s passion comes through better with this movie than anything else I’ve seen written and directed by him, and that may be why I enjoy the movie so much. It is a passion project. And while Linda Hamilton gave a much better performance in the sequel, this is the movie that gave her some much needed notice. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s star was already rising, and this movie catapulted it into Orion’s bodybuilding championship belt. Unfortunately, I know less about Micheal Beihn, which is a real shame because I think he gave the strongest performance of the three main actors followed in the movie. Every line he said carried weight, every action felt authentic to the character he portrayed, and he really looks and sells the part of a scrappy survivor in a hellscape operated by machines bent on mankind’s extinction.

This movie may not be for everyone, but for sci-fi fanatics and action junkies, this movie is a must see. Grab some popcorn, a soda, and sit down for a couple hours on a slow weekend afternoon or night and soak in one of the best movies made in the 20th century.

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