Arnold Schwarzenegger is probably best known for his iconic role in The Terminator (1984). In fact, the movie's line "I'll be back." was voted as the #37 movie quote by the American Film Institute (out of 100), and as #95 of "The 100 Greatest Movie Lines" by Premiere in 2007. It’s also one of the few examples of a good movie that has an even better sequel.
The film starts out in a post-apocalyptic 2029. Los Angeles has been reduced to a rubble-strewn battlefield under the thumb of all-powerful ruling machines. Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a member of a human resistance movement, is sent back in time to 1984. His mission is to protect Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the man who will lead the future rebels against the tyrannical machines, from being assassinated before she can give birth. Also sent back to 1984 is The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a an emotionless and efficient killing machine with a powerful metal endoskeleton, but with an external layer of living tissue that makes it resemble a human being. The Terminator is programmed to kill “Sarah Connor,” and begins killing off every Sarah Conner in the phone book. It’s a non-stop manhunt as Sarah and Reese struggle to stay ahead of the relentless killing machine.
The 1980’s was full of ridiculous and awesome action movies. They generally featured ridiculous muscular action heroes, often Sylvester Stallone (as Rambo) or Schwarzenegger (in other roles). These movies featured highly unrealistic, masculine, tank-like heroes that could take just about any kind of abuse and keep going. They would also never seem to run out of bullets and would instantly kill nearly anyone they shot at. These were the heroes of the 80’s action movie. It is interesting to see this same kind of character portrayed as the antagonist in The Terminator. The hero is much weaker and has finite recourses, while the antagonist has an arsenal at his disposal and will not tire nor stop pursuing his target.
The Terminator is one of writer and director James Cameron’s early films. Cameron is known most recently for Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009). He hasn’t directed a whole lot of movies, but the ones he has done are quite good, including Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). If you watch closely you can see some similarities in The Terminator that show up in some of his other films. For example, in the 2029 scene there are hovering, flying robots attacking the human base that look a lot like the hovering gunships in Avatar.
We’re accustomed to seeing high end special effects in James Cameron’s movies. The Terminator is no different. The effects are a bit dated today, but they are still good. There’s a Schwarzenegger puppet that is used when The Terminator is repairing itself to avoid detection. It’s pretty convincing, though it’s still clearly a puppet. When all the living tissue is removed from The Terminator there is a frightening skeletal machine that still chases Sarah and Reese. A metallic puppet is used for close up shots and a smaller stop-motion puppet is used for wider shots. Even when Sarah is being chased by a stop-motion metal man, it’s still suspenseful. There’s also plenty of practical effects; like some beautiful pyrotechnics in the explosions. Modern movies often use too much computer graphic enhancement in their explosions and it ultimately weakens the impact. The Terminator was made in a time where explosions looked really good, before computers started messing with them.
The Terminator was James Cameron’s first iconic film and a movie that solidified the stardom of Arnold Schwarzenegger. There have been lots of other movies that tried to imitate The Terminator’s success, and there have even been several spoofs done on Saturday morning cartoons. It did spawn a couple of sequels (after the excellent Terminator 2) and a TV series that weren’t so memorable. Still, as a pop culture icon, The Terminator is worth seeing at least once, and possibly worth adding a Blu-Ray copy to your home collection if you’re into 80’s action movies.