“Listen, and understand! That Terminator is out there! It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead,” says Kyle Reese to Sarah Connor.
The fear of technology is something that has existed for decades now. A nightmare involving this fear would inspire a young writer/director named James Cameron to create what has become the Terminator franchise. Cameron wrote and directed the first two films, with the second film becoming (and still remains) the big highlight of the franchise. The first Terminator film was a decently-budgeted sci-fi film that boosted his directing career to new heights (he had previously directed 1981’s Piranha II: The Spawning, a film he did not have creative control over) and cemented Arnold Schwarzenegger as an action star. I had seen The Terminator a few times on cable growing up, but did not get a chance to see it on the big screen until 11 years ago at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of their “L.A. On Film” retrospective. It was so enjoyable that I felt as though I was watching it for the first time.
1984’s The Terminator follows a young woman who is pursued by two men sent from the future, one a cyborg sent by Skynet to kill her and the other a human soldier sent by the human resistance to protect her at all costs. Cameron gathered together an impressive cast that included Arnold Schwarzenegger (as the T-800), Linda Hamilton (as Sarah Connor), Michael Biehn (as Kyle Reese), Paul Winfield (as Lt. Traxler), Lance Henriksen (as Sgt. Vukovich), Bess Motta (as Ginger), Rick Rossovich (as Matt), Earl Boen (as Dr. Silberman), Dick Miller (as the Gun Shop Clerk), and Bill Paxton and Brian Thompson (as street punks). Cameron’s direction is strong, staging pulsing action sequences and drawing excellent performances from his cast, including Schwarzenegger (who became a certified star for his portrayal of an unstoppable killing machine) and Hamilton (who brought innocence and naivite to her role as well as a slowly-developing strong will). Biehn is also impressive as the soldier from an apocalyptic future who not only is tasked with protecting the woman whose unborn son will become one day become the leader of the human resistance but must adjust to the peacefulness (compared to the constant war he was used to) of the new time period.
The screenplay by Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd explores the danger of artificial intelligence gone amuck (represented by the existence of Skynet in the future as well as embodied by the Terminator himself). It also explores the effects of war as well as the concept of a time paradox (John Connor sending back in time the man who would become his biological father). Adam Greenberg’s dark cinematography complements the tone of the film quite nicely. George Costello’s production design is first-rate (the 2029 war sequences were very impressive). The makeup design by Jeff Dawn and special effects by Stan Winston are simply incredible (especially considering the low budget). Mark Goldblatt’s editing gives the film a good pace, keeping it tight and the action sequences very intense.
Brad Fiedel contributes a fantastic, synthesizer-based score with a memorable theme that is haunting and propulsive (a variation of it on piano even turns it into a tender love motif for Sarah and Kyle). James Cameron’s The Terminator was a small sci-fi film that would leave a very big mark on film history, establishing Cameron as a rising, hot director and eventually led to a bigger, even more successful sequel in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day.