It’s a Classic: ‘The Terminator’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Come with me if you want to live!”

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Arnold Schwarzenegger is the iconic killer cyborg in ‘The Terminator’ (image credit: MGM).

Year:  1984

Starring:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Lance Henrikson, Earl Boen

Director:  James Cameron / written by:  James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd

What’s it about?

An unstoppable cyborg is sent back through time from the year 2029 to murder Sarah Connor, a waitress who will be mother to the leader of the human resistance waging a future war against the machines…

In review: why it’s a classic

Prior to 1984 it would be hard to believe that James Cameron would become one of modern cinema’s greatest auteurs.  Having previously worked as an art director on Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (and later increase his profile by co-writing the screenplay for Rambo: First Blood Part II with Sylvester Stallone), Cameron had made his directorial debut with the dreadful horror sequel Piranha II: The Spawning.  Yet his fever-induced vision of a robot killing machine would spawn not only a successful filmmaking career but also a pop culture phenomenon.

Setting out to create the definitive technological science fiction terror tale, Cameron would drive The Terminator above its perceived B-movie trappings and create an all-time classic.  Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role, The Terminator sees a formidable and seemingly unstoppable cyborg sent back in time to the then present day of 1984 from the year 2029, where mankind faces extinction in a war against Skynet – an advanced form of A.I. – and its army of war machines, to murder Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the human resistance’s leader, John Connor, before he is born and can lead the human race to victory.  There’s hope for Sarah in the form of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn – later to star in Cameron’s Aliens), a resistance soldier also sent back to 1984 with a mission to find and protect her from Skynet’s ‘Terminator’ at all cost.

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Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn in ‘The Terminator’ (image credit: MGM).

Say what you will about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting abilities, but his balance of subtlety and intensity created a truly terrifying adversary, a shark-like robotic predator driven relentlessly to fulfil its programming in a career-defining role that would propel him to superstardom and a performance that is a crucial component in the success of The Terminator.  The film is a tense, exciting and often terrifying sci-fi action chase-thriller that posits a frightening scenario in which the advancement of technology and humanity’s hubris results in its obliteration.  Its dystopic elements are levied by the romance that builds between Sarah and Reese and together with the hope of humanity’s survival, creates a sense of hope amidst the bleakness.  Michael Biehn is great as Kyle Reese in a performance that conveys more depth than the average action hero.  Biehn is certainly adept at handling all of the required physicality but there’s a vulnerable quality to Reese that brings a lot of humanity to the character and a believability to a man out of time who has only ever known a life of hardship and struggle.  Linda Hamilton is perfectly cast as Sarah Connor with a fine portrayal of the everyday girl-next-door who has the fate of humankind literally placed in her hands.  Despite the fantastical aspects of the story, Sarah’s arc and her growth unfold naturally as she begins to unlock her inner strength and ultimately accept her destiny.  She is the heart of The Terminator and Linda Hamilton helps to create one of the most iconic screen heroines, inspired by Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

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No escape? The Terminator continues its relentless pursuit (image credit: MGM).

The film’s special effects have aged extremely well and bely the $6 million production budget.  Younger viewers may scoff at the more practical nature of The Terminator but the ambitious blend of miniatures, puppetry, stop-motion animation and rear screen projection are a testament to Cameron as a pioneer in filmmaking.  Of course not all of the credit should go to Cameron, sure, through his tenacity the film’s grand vision was realised but it mustn’t be forgotten that the film’s groundbreaking effects and design would never have been achieved without the works of effects company Fantasy II and Hollywood legend Stan Winston (who would collaborate with Cameron again on Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day as well as creating the deadly alien hunter in Predator).  The Terminator is the successful sum of numerous parts and would not have been complete without Brad Fiedel’s score, undoubtedly one of the greatest revelations in motion picture music.  As strong as the film’s concepts and visuals, the metallic clunks and thrumming beats infused within Fiedel’s electronic score bring the killer cyborg and ravaged future Los Angeles to life.

Whilst the franchise may have faltered in recent years, James Cameron’s The Terminator remains forever a classic piece of science fiction cinema and with its laudable technical achievements, thrilling action and a captivating story it’s a film that will continue to endure.

Standout moment

Homing in on its target, the Terminator tracks Sarah Connor to the Tech Noir nightclub – making its way through the crowds on the dancefloor, drawing a handgun as it approaches Sarah and prepares to make the kill.  But Kyle Reese is already there, waiting to spring into action…

Geek fact!

Initially under consideration for the role of the Terminator were Lance Henrikson (who would go on to appear as LAPD cop Vukovich, alongside Paul Winfield’s Lt. Traxler) and O.J. Simpson.  Arnold Schwarzenegger was also originally put forward by his agent for the part of Kyle Reese.

If you like this then check out:

RoboCop (1987): the ‘other’ iconic 80s techno sci-fi action classic, director Paul Verhoeven executes a violent and satirical film with a superb central performance from Peter Weller as the titular part-man, part-machine future cop.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

13 thoughts on “It’s a Classic: ‘The Terminator’

  1. I still like the original Terminator film the best. With its stark vision of the future, great time travel plot, and Arnie’s relentless Terminator hunting down Sarah Conner throughout the film its an absolute masterpiece. That moment when we first see the T800 Endoskeleton rise from the flames in the final chase is so chilling! The franchise might have stalled badly but the original remains one of the best Sci-Fi films of all time.

  2. Excellent throwback review, Chris. I remember watching this as a kid and being “scarred” for life but being fully amazed by it at the same time. I think Judgement Day had an even more impact on me as a kid though, because of T-1000. I still have goosebumps hahaha I’m likely to rewatch all of the Terminators movies again in the near future and I look forward to reliving this one once again. It really is a true classic masterpiece! A bit sad about what it has now turned into but, oh well, there are worse movies out there!

    • Thanks Lashaan! I actually remember the buzz when T2 was coming out, I was only around 9 years old and too young to have seen it until it came out on VHS (although I got to see it on the big screen in 2017 for the 3D re-release)…but thanks to my Dad, I’d already seen the first Terminator, which I was way way too young to see and it had such an effect on me. It was pretty scary and intense but I loved it right away, as I still do today!

      I actually thought ‘Dark Fate’ was good, if not earth-shattering, and its left me in a curious place – I can’t see myself revisiting the ‘other’ post-T2 sequels as it all just seem a big mess now. I will however be rewatching the short-lived ‘Sarah Connor Chronicles’ tv series which was actually decent!

      • It only ran for two seasons (about 30-32 episodes all together I think) but was an enjoyable extension of the franchise with Lena Heady as Sarah Connor and Summer Glau as a reprogrammed female terminator. I’m definitely planning a review but it’ll probably be much later in the year when I actually get around to rewatching it all. But certainly recommended!

  3. Bravo on the retrospective! The first Terminator IMHO is still the best of the Terminators (sorry T2 fans). It had this gritty, raw feel that perfectly enhanced its thrilling action pieces.

    It is remarkable what Cameron was able to present with a limited budget, yet the film was clever, imaginative and sucked you into its grim world. Its haunting future scenes contrasted nicely with the more mundane present scenes. And the transformation of Sarah Connor from an unassuming everyday server into humanity’s savior was organic and inspiring.

    It’s too bad the later sequels did not measure up, though they had their merits, but nothing could replicate the joy of discovering this little film that became a classic.

    • I’m in the same camp, as much I love T2 and as groundbreaking as that was in its own right, the original Terminator still remains my favourite with T2 a close second.

      It’s a shame Dark Fate couldn’t have worked out for the better as the franchise is now even more of a mess. To be honest, I wish that the ‘Sarah Connor Chronicles’ tv series could have had a longer run.

  4. Terminator is in my top 5 favorite movies. Of course, I enjoyed the thriller/sci-fi aspect of it, but I loved the character of Sarah. I was a sucker for her romance with Kyle, but I also appreciated how she moved from a damsel in distress to a kick-ass heroine herself (over the course of several movies).

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