The Terminator blasted onto the scene in 1984, and action films- specifically science fiction stories- were never the same since. Now we’re poised for the fourth entry in the series, Terminator: Salvation to appear, so let’s look back at the one that started it all. It’s still one hell of an action film.
A simple title card with vague computer type reads Los Angeles 2029 A.D., and we are thrust into a post-apocalyptic nightmare where hulking machines roll over battlegrounds paved with human skulls. The smoke-blackened sky of nuclear night is only light by the rapid fire of machine lasers peppering the ruins to blot out whatever human life remains.
The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire.
Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future.
It would be fought here, in our present.
And then a perfect cut to machine crushing down on us from above- but it’s only a garbage truck. But the point is made, we are surrounded by machines, and our cities barely resemble the Earth they are built upon. An electrical disturbance interrupts the garbage man, and when the smoke clears, a hulking man appears. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mister Universe. Mister Olympia. The pinnacle of physical human achievement, we saw him a few years back in a fantasy film called Conan the Barbarian that was sure a lot better than those Hercules movies bodybuilders usually did, dubbed from Italian. We figured he might make a few more of those and retire. He had bigger plans. He is naked, and approaches three street punks.
His first words are “Nice night for a walk.” The punks are reduced to dogmeat in seconds; the violence is shocking and early as he tears the heart out of a knife wielding thug. The message is instant- humans are weak. We’re little more than fleshy bags full of blood and organs, as any car accident photo will tell. And seconds afterward, another man appears from the same kind of light Arnold did. A lean, scarred fellow with animal eyes, who “rabbits” down an alleyway as police see him, and deftly disarms them as they foolishly come close. But instead of knocking the cop out as our anti-heroes are expected, he points the gun at him and demands to know what day it is. And then, more puzzlingly, what year.
We’re given little time to think as the chase goes on through a department store, where he picks up a trench coat and a pair of now-sought after Nike Vandals, snags a shotgun from the cops’ prowler and disappears into the grimy city like one of its own rats. His first stop: a phone booth, with a phone book- a relic nowadays, but an icon when the film came out, before cellular phones, telemarketers and do-not-call lists; he pulls out a page with the “Connor, Sarahs” on it and dashes away.
Who’s Sarah Connor? Cut-, she’s riding past us on her Honda scooter. Feathered hair, big sunglasses, a smile for the morning sun. She’s the all-American girl, off to work waitressing at a diner. See her punch card? Yup, that’s her. Cut back to the big guy, he’s breaking into a car nonchalantly, driving off with it; to a gun shop, going on a shopping spree worthy of an NRA member who just won the lottery. The 12 gauge autoloader. The .45 longslide with the laser sight. The Uzi 9 millimeter. The phased plasma rifle in the 40 watt range. Hey, just what you see pal. Howya gonna pay for this? BLAM, with lead, buddy. (Actually, he loads the shotgun with one round, and when the gun store guy says “You can’t do that!” Arnie practices the best line from his future film Commando, and says “Wrong!”)
Meanwhile Sarah’s having a bad day at work. She has no idea how much worse it’s going to get. As these two unsavory characters- a musclebound monster toting an arsenal and an attitude of kill whatever gets in my way, and lean and hungry street rat with a shotgun and pants he stole off a hobo- converge on this every-gal’s happy little life, cinematic history was made. Two enormous careers, those of Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, met for the first time. They’d reunite twice more to make films that broke box office records and set the bar for action entertainment- the next would be a sequel to The Terminator, and the last would be True Lies, the only film that managed to make Arnold seem like a real guy, and make us really laugh. Though that thumb war scene was still pretty creepy.
But before that, Arnold had to deconstruct himself, and play the bad guy. He’d already become a star with Conan, and could easily have skated along taking roles in similar, but lesser films; he would, in fact with Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja. We needed to take the muscleman out of the fantasy world of swords and loincloths and turn him into an action hero; but first, he’d have to play the ultimate villain. An unstoppable killing machine. The Terminator.
James Cameron’s lean script careens along at a relentless pace, something he’d repeat with Aliens and the sequel. In the first fifteen minutes we’ve met the Terminator, the hero, and the damsel in distress- though she’s anything but- and the characters are sculpted before our eyes with very few words. Linda Hamilton gets the least credit but her Sarah Connor is as naturalistic as can be, and sets the foundation for the outer-limits characters of Kyle Reese- the apocalypse warrior who volunteers to go back in time to save her- and Arnold’s stone-faced cyborg, who still manages to crack wise without a single emotional inflection. Without a good Sarah Connor, it would all fall apart. She has to believe it, so we will. The wrong actress could not take it seriously, and laugh at it- or worse yet, take it too seriously. You can’t expect us to believe two warriors from the future coming back to present L.A. because a waitress will decide the fate of humanity right away. It takes just the right amount of skepticism from the target, and she handles it beautifully. She’d only been in Children of the Corn, a few episodes of “Hill Street Blues” and Tag: The Assassination Game before this and her best role would be in the sequel. Not to say I didn’t love watching her on TV’s “Beauty and the Beast.”
The cops are brought in early, part of the brilliance of the script. In most monster films, and that’s what this is, at its core, the authorities are malicious, stupid, or apathetic. In this one, they know Sarah’s in danger before she does, and believe her immediately. It’s not their fault that they can’t protect her from the most efficient war machine yet devised! Lance Henriksen (Aliens, Millennium)plays one of the most human of the second tier characters, Detective Vukovich. He spots the two Sarah Connors in the daily reports and talks Lt. Traxler (the excellent Paul Winfield, White Dog) to protect the last one in the phone book. This once again solidifies the realism; Keystone cops would not work with this storyline, as our suspension of disbelief is already strained.
It takes 35 minutes for the battle between Reese and the Terminator to begin; we don’t even know their names yet, and we are riveted. We know who the bad guy is- we’ve seen Arnie mow down a housewife and Sarah’s roommate already- but she doesn’t know. She only sees a creepy guy in a trench coat stalking her at the Tech Noir danceclub (perhaps the perfect term for the early ’80s grimy tech shown here and in Blade Runner). And she doesn’t see the Terminator until the laser dot is right between her eyes. While the previous killings mimicked the gruesome exploiters of the ’70s, where the victims were so much lamb for the slaughter, this one is a slow-motion ballet of modern gunslingers facing off on a strobe-light painted dance floor. Everything freezes like our memories of trauma in recollection, for a few seconds, before the thunder of the shotgun breaks the spell and sends the hulking menace to the floor.
But it’s just to trick us; the Terminator is as surprised as we are, and picks itself up off the floor with a frown of disdain for its maker; I thought I was supposed to be tough? We chuckle a bit, but then the real chase begins, and it’s something we’ve never seen before. An indestructible walking arsenal trying to kill two people on the other side of a crowded nightclub, firing through the fleeing bystanders indiscriminately. As I’ve said before in my review of Junior, Arnold is a physical actor of some prowess, who rarely gets a chance to utilize it. He’s waiting for a slapstick script if someone had the balls to write it and the brains to make him take it. Here he looks nothing like Conan, the warrior proud of his genetic gifts; here he walks smoothly, with a mechanical grace and economy of movement, glancing only at his targets and looking through everything else. Look as he crushes the hand of a bouncer, without even glancing back at him. Or my favorite, when he’s firing the Uzi, and suddenly sinks half back into a crouch, tilting right to fire, so he doesn’t have to take a step. Surely there were steps taped on the floor, and perhaps he was coached, but his control over his body from decades of sculpting it made him anything but clumsy.
“Come with me if you want to live.” Kyle’s immortal first words to Sarah exhibit the same economy as Arnold’s movements, as the chase continues down back alleys, gives us our first tease of “Terminator vision” with its red tinge and gun sights, and the first hints of just how tough he will be to kill as Kyle shoots a car’s gas tank and the cyborg leaps through the flames, punches through the windshield of their escape vehicle and tries to strangle Sarah to death. And its other skills, like imitating the voice of a police officer whose car it steals, come clear. Sure, a few blasts with a 12 gauge might buy you some time, but this cybernetic organism absolutely will not stop until you are dead.
The technical details are monologued in some deftly written scenes as they hide from the Terminator and the cops in a parking garage. Michael Biehn, who’d played a few previous roles in The Lords of Discipline and as the demented stalker of Lauren Bacall in The Fan, gets to play hero in perhaps his most iconic role but for Cameron’s next blockbuster, as Corporal Hicks in Aliens. His intensity makes his tale of a future holocaust where humans are herded for slaughter, and his mission to protect Sarah’s future son easy to swallow. Sadly he’d get few roles of any caliber since, except for Johnny Ringo in Tombstone. Here he channels a sort of likable madness, required to make us want him to defeat this awesome new movie star. For as cold as the Terminator is, the audience certainly gleans a certain enjoyment from watching him wield his awesome power. And without any emotions to allow for scenery chewing, we just might root for him.
Sarah Connor quickly shows her mettle as Reese and the Terminator duel with shotguns from moving cars down a dead end. Reese is too busy blowing big holes in the bad guy to notice the wall they’re hurtling toward, so she throws the gearshift into first and slams the brakes. And when the cops surround them, she saves his life by informing him that they’ll kill him- in our time, all humans aren’t fighting together against the machines. So before he can try to finish off the machine, he has to surrender.
Back at the police station house, Reese is interviewed by psychiatrist Dr. Silberman, who gleans even more details from him. Of course they don’t believe him, and they try to convince Sarah the same. He could be wearing body armor, and be on PCP. But even when they crack jokes, Cameron keeps them on the macabre side. The tone is never allowed to be jocular. Even earlier, when Sarah is waitressing and spills a drink, only to have a kid put a scoop of ice cream in her apron- the humor is all downers. Lance Henriken’s Detective gets some laughs at his own expense- he’s a jaded blabbermouth who the Lieutenant has to cut off a lot- but every joke is at someone’s expense. The bleakness of the future permeates the entire film, and we are kept on edge throughout.
Even the biggest gag- three words that would be synonymous with Arnold for over two decades since- is the darkest humor imaginable. The Terminator, after repairing itself with some of the best latex special effects yet seen at the time- shows up at the police station, now in its famous black leather motorcycle jacket and sunglasses to hide the bullet holes and gleaming red eye. When the desk cop blows him off, he quietly surveys the lobby and says, “I’ll be back.” Seconds later, he’s back, driving a car through the building and flattening the rude authority figure in a an unforgettable scene of wish fulfillment for anyone in the audience who’s run into a wall of bureaucracy. Not that I condone such behavior, but in 1984 you could film this sort of thing. Now, he’d have to be seen diving clear of the wreckage.
But this movie isn’t squeamish about the Terminator mowing down cops. For the cherry on top of the second act consists of him walking through the entire police station and killing everyone in his path, with a shotgun on one arm and an assault rifle on the other. The sheer amount of violence in this film caused quite a stir at the time, so much that in the sequel, most of it is between two cyborgs to keep the blood spill and body count low. It’s almost more effective now, when most action films eschew it. The special effects were groundbreaking for the time, and Stan Winston made his bones … by making the Terminator and his metal skeleton. Before this, he’d done make-up for The Bat People and an Italian production entitled Dracula’s Dog, so it was amazing how he and Cameron leapt from the B movie pit into creating one of the most stunning spectacles of the decade.
Cameron has some favorite shots- he loves filming someone getting killed with a beverage in their hand. He loves things getting stepped on or run over. Before this, he’d only directed Piranha 2: The Spawning and a short film called Xenogenesis, though he was a unit director on Roger Corman’s Galaxy of Terror. After writing the script, he managed to get his soon to be wife, Gale Ann Hurd, to get her production company to buy it for $1 with the condition that he direct, and history was made. They would collaborate through the ’80s.
Part of what makes The Terminator so engrossing is how he keeps cutting to scenes of the horrible future through Kyle’s dream sequences. They re-use the same models but manage to keep it fresh by showing something new each time. The resistance can take out some of the fearsome Hunter-Killer tanks and hoverjets through guerrilla tactics, but the fragility of human existence is always kept clear. Perhaps the most chilling scene is when Sarah is tending to Kyle’s wound and he remembers how he lost her photograph. It foreshadows their bonding, but also shows a Terminator (not an Arnold model, but his bodybuilding pal Franco Columbu) infiltrating their hideout and going on a killing spree. As it soullessly guns down their dogs and then stalks forward in shadow, we see it from Kyle’s prone position, its eyes afire with cold red light. It’s an image so effective, they reuse it throughout the franchise.
Cameron is also wise to not make the Terminator too superhuman; it has to repair itself, it rots and draws attention with the smell, and has to track them down. It can’t just show up outside their window like a boogeyman. My favorite is how it finds Sarah’s mother using her address book (remember those?) and then waits for her to call. The simple pan across her mother’s devastated cabin, and the slow reveal of Arnold talking to Sarah on the phone using her mother’s voice, is chilling and effective. Later, when we see him knocked off his motorcycle by a truck after dodging pipebombs, only to get plowed into by a tanker, and still get up- with a limp- we finally get a hint that he may be defeated, but he is one tough cookie.
The film is as relentless as the Terminator itself; the truck barely dented him, and the famous scene were he climbs in the cab, his face half metal and half flesh, and merely says “Get out!” was so good they used it again with the T-1000 in the sequel. The make-up is particularly impressive here; in some of the repair scenes it’s obviously a latex head, but this still looks real, before CG. When the tanker truck explodes through Kyle’s own unstoppable perseverance, we think it’s all over. Brad Fiedel’s amazing, dissonant score- something he’d been doing since ’71 with the “Cannon” TV series- even tricks us by taking on a mournful, triumphant tone. Talking about the movie without mentioning its unforgettable score is impossible, and Brad Fiedel would never make one this good again. He was the perfect choice.
From here to the end, the monster movie formula moniker is more apt, as the Terminator rises from the flames of the tanker without its Arnold shell, and instead is a metal endoskeleton created by Stan Winston. Looking at it now, many of his tricks of forced perspective and puppetry by keeping only so much of the robot on screen are more noticeable. The movements are sometimes jerky, showing the stop-motion animation work. But even 25 years later, the Terminator is real enough to be frightening as its severed torso hunts Sarah through machines on the factory floor. The score takes on a Psycho aspect and the scrapes of metal on metal and the howl of hydraulics and servos becomes horrific in itself. And Sarah’s triumph, with her infamous line of “You’re terminated, fucker!” is hard bought. By the end of the movie, we believe she can raise the son who will lead the resistance.
The fantastic script stood on the shoulders of giants, however. Science fiction writer (sorry, speculative fiction) Harlan Ellison would eventually sue Cameron and win, claiming that the movie was derivative of three of his works: an Outer Limits episode entitled “Soldier,” about a warrior from a desperate future accidentally sent back to our time; another episode “Demon with a Glass Hand,” where humanity’s savior travels back in time to save it; and his novella “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” one of the most important works of science fiction, about a defense computer who decides humanity is the enemy and wipes most of us out. There are many differences between The Terminator and those works, but the similarities are quite damning. Cameron never admitted consciously plagiarizing the ideas, but if you hunt down the Outer Limits episode called “Soldier,” the image of the postapocalyptic future looks a lot like this one. Ellison is now credited as an influence in the credits of the first film. Cameron would go on to make an even better sequel, and continue to break box office records by raising the bar on action films and epics, culminating in Titanic.
By playing what is possibly his most memorable role as The Terminator, Arnold took a huge gamble by going from Conan the Barbarian to science fiction films as the bad guy. He originally auditioned for the role of Kyle Reese, but after speaking with Cameron it was decided he would be better as the cyborg, and how true it was. It showed he had range, even if he only spoke a few lines. His powerful presence paired to a powerful and memorable character cemented his star status, and by the time they made the sequel together, Arnold and Cameron were two of the biggest names in Hollywood in their respective professions.
But the original vision was much different. The Terminator was supposed to be an average guy more capable of blending in, something they used in T2 with the T-1000 played by Robert Patrick. Lance Henriksen originally auditioned for the part- infamously kicking the door in of the casting director, with his hair oiled back and tinfoil on his teeth- and even O.J. Simpson was on the short list, but Cameron thought “such a nice guy couldn’t be a ruthless killer.” And many of the plot points used in the second film were already planned for the first, such as attempting to destroy Cyberdyne Systems before they can invent Skynet. In fact, shots were filmed that showed technicians picking up pieces of the destroyed Terminator at the factory as Sarah was wheeled away in a stretcher, showing Cyberdyne logos on the building.
This movie bears rewatching because it has become part of the culture. It was selected for inclusion into the National Film Registry in 2008. The film’s open ending, where Sarah is driving a Jeep into the desert with a pistol at her side, hardened from her experience and recording messages to the unborn son she now carries, made us yearn for a sequel and in 1992 they delivered, topping the original in almost every way. The second sequel without Cameron got a lot of fan flack for how it stooped for jokes such as “talk to the hand” and suggesting that the future cannot be changed, but it was still a solid entry and deserves kudos for its dark ending. The upcoming Terminator: Salvation which opens today starring Christian Bale as John Connor and apparently no Arnold Schwarzenegger is much anticipated, despite director McG’s track record. Let’s hope it stays true to the original vision. And IMDb shows a Terminator 5 in development by Cameron; I’d love to see him return to both the Terminator and Aliens franchises that he contributed so richly to.
All the entries in The Arnold Project