“It’s just him and me”
Sometimes the road to success hinges on a series of happenstances and whom you know. Just ask James Cameron: on-set special effects director for Piranha II: The Spawning (former boss Roger Corman produced the first) before it became his directorial debut due to creative differences between his predecessor and producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (who subsequently took it away from Cameron after shooting wrapped). Hardly a glowing experience to warrant handing the not-yet thirty-year old six-million dollars to bring an original script to life, but Orion did exactly that with help from another Corman disciple in producer Gale Anne Hurd. Fast-forward to casting an unimpressed Arnold Schwarzenegger (the two would cultivate a lasting creative partnership) after getting passed off to the friend (up-and-comer Stan Winston) of the special effects designer he wanted (Dick Smith) and a classic was born.
Beyond the cool science fiction at its back—whether or not Harlan Ellison‘s claim of copyright infringement accurately taints Cameron’s vision in terms of similarities to his “The Outer Limits” episode “Soldier”—The Terminator is a work of art deservedly preserved by the Library of Congress. It still looks great three decades later from the stop-motion scenes of a metal and bone-strewn 2029 wasteland, the titular cyborg (Schwarzenegger) cutting out his eye with an X-Acto blade, or its silver skeletal puppet limping in pursuit of its prey. Things get a little shaky and rubbery at moments, but this was 1984. Blemishes or not, the special effects are more authentic here than later installments that relied too heavily on computer graphics. There’s nothing like camera tricks, expert blocking, and darkness to forgive the technological shortcomings of practical effects.
That said, the story holds up too. The way Cameron constructs the action in the forefront so his plot can be filled in later as it moves along shows the talent that’s earned him eleven Oscars. Besides a concise title card explaining a nuclear Holocaust and rise of machines against humanity, laser gun carnage quickly shifts to present-day as Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and Michael Biehn‘s Kyle Reese arrive in storms of lightning. The former lumbers unhumorously up to a trio of punks (including early turns from Bill Paxton and Brian Thompson), showing his lack of remorse and imperiousness to injury. The latter runs erratically from police to find safety and anonymity after his very painful journey through time. Both search for Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), but we hope Reese does so with less malice than his menacing counterpart.
By now the crux of the story is a part of pop culture lexicon: the savior of the human race John Connor sends his trusted friend and ally Kyle Reese back in time to save his mother Sarah from termination at the hands of his enemy’s own visitor from the future. Liberties have been taken during the evolution of this minimalist thread with timelines shifting and potential futures disappearing or manifesting as a result of the actions of each out-of-place stranger, so don’t read too much into details shared by Reese not quite aligning with what you may have seen in Terminator Salvation. Whereas subsequent entries were able to increase the effects and “cool” factor for extra twists and turns, The Terminator excels in its simplicity. The only thing that matters is whether Sarah Connor lives.
It’s therefore set-up as an origin story despite our having concrete knowledge of what’s coming. We can assume Sarah is going to survive because it’s her unborn son who orchestrates this one-man rescue party at risk of ripping the space-time continuum apart. This war has raged and continues to do so—evidenced by metallic behemoths flying overhead a desolate battlefield and dematerializing their opponents. Yet Cameron isn’t interested in showing this portion whole because he knows a human element is necessary to win audiences over as opposed to gratuitous war scenes devoid of intrigue beyond a sci-fi aesthetic “wow” factor easily worn-out if overused. He instead provides the story of a young woman destined to become a hero. An unwitting waitress dressing to go clubbing with her friends who has the fate of mankind dropped in her lap.
She’s made aware of what’s happening just as we are and as a result believably accepts what Reese tells her as truth. The police unfortunately don’t have that benefit since they are constantly finding themselves cleaning up the aftermath of Cameron’s destructive shotgun bouts rather than witnessing (and surviving) personal attacks. You can’t blame Lieutenant Traxler (Paul Winfield) or Detective Vukovich (Lance Henriksen) for being skeptical. Even Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen)—beyond his ego and dismissive rhetoric—must be given a pass for treating tales of robots from the future as farce. We would act similarly in their position. Hell, if the effects aren’t as effective as they are, we’d have aligned with their assumptions regardless of seeing Sarah pursued or not. Everything happens so fast, though, that we aren’t given time to question the film’s reality.
That’s the highest praise you can give a sci-fi work such as this: the acquiescence of its fantasy proving true within itself. Hamilton gives Sarah an ample amount of vulnerability, but even at her most frightened we can see the strength lying beneath. Schwarzenegger is so cold-blooded that you believe him to be a robot without the code-filled screens from his vantage point or moving pistons under the skin of his forearm. And Biehn shines as Reese with the emotional range to build a romance with Connor in just a few hours (despite the creepiness of his declaration of photographic love). They’re all in this fight for survival and the stakes on-screen show it as bodies riddled with bullets fall while the Terminator remains standing. The cost of war is high and Cameron ensures it’s paid in full.