Director: James Cameron
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, Bess Motta
Plot: A robotic assassin, dubbed the Terminator (Schwarzenegger) is sent back in time to kill the mother of a rebellion leader, who is yet to be born.
The original Terminator is one of the more interesting classics from the 80s. This is mainly because most of the franchise’s fans’ memory of the series come from the arguably more impressive sequel. Judgement Day features the two unkillable robots kicking the living daylights out of each other and has far more explosive set-pieces that we associate with the series than the original does. Maybe this is because Judgement Day has become the symbol for what a Terminator film should be. This makes it even more insightful to return to the original and see a very different, but just as thrilling, version of the story.
The truth is The Terminator relies less on action and is more of a chase movie. We could argue that there never really is a proper fight scene here, most of the shoot-outs done in vehicles, until the very end, which still comes across as the two heroes fleeing from the robot, rather than actually taking this on. It is a good reminder that the Terminator is actually a pretty scary movie character (the ending’s animation might look dated, but that terrifying look of pure evil and malice is still there). Sure, the Terminator never quite hits the same ‘blockbuster carnage’ that its sequel managed, but there is still a lot to enjoy from the original. There are just some scenes that need to be seen here, and not replicated by the sequel. The exact moment that the iconic phrase ‘I’ll Be Back’ gets coined is nothing short of incredible and the final showdown with the Terminator is up there with some of the best 80s cinema going. There is also an insight into the future war, something that the series didn’t bring up again, until a critically disappointing Salvation. Those scenes set the tone and make the stakes of the movie very clear. This isn’t just some horror movie scream queen running from a horror movie monster: humanity is on the line here. In some ways, you don’t really understand the Terminator until you have seen this movie. Sure, Judgement hammers home the mentoring of John Connor and the upcoming apocalypse well, but it is the relationship between Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor that truly gets the ball rolling. No matter how many sequels the series manages to conjure up, this is the heart behind it all: this is what the Terminator is fighting for. And I haven’t even managed to get to my favourite scene yet. Nothing the sequels do have anything like the moment when Arnold Schwarzenegger performs self-surgery on his damaged body. If you can forgive the outdated special effects (Cameron was dealing with a limited budget), it is a breath-taking moment. We see under the skin of this killer robot and, if you can put up with the bloody self-mutilation, marks the moment that the Terminator became more than an action movie: it became a cult symbol.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on behind the action too, smart little details that I didn’t notice on my first watch. Throughout the entire film, it is always machinery that lets Sarah Connor down. The Terminator might be the only robotic organism that is actively trying to kill her, but it is humanity’s dependence on machines that makes Kyle Reese’s job of saving John Connor’s mother such an uphill struggle. Sarah is unable to put distance between her and the Terminator in the first place, because she is caught being transferred from police station to police station over the phone. An answering machine gives away her location. A conversation over the phone with her mother – a means of communication that arguably strips away the human element – turns out to be a trap. I am sure there are many more examples tucked away in this movie that I have yet to find. I also like the parallels between Reese and the Terminator. Their hunt for Sarah is very similar, in the way we see them both get themselves clothes, hot-wire a car and launch their search. They have different methods and it is entertaining to see their paths set them apart as characters. Yet at the same time, there is something robotic about Biehn’s character. In many ways, he is a tool himself, made very clear when he is interrogated by the police, but clueless when it comes to providing them with answers. His training has taught him to ‘disconnect pain’ and to bite back on his emotions, like his hidden love for Sarah Connor. It was interesting seeing a surviving side of humanity, where they were slowly evolving into the very machines they are trying to stop.
But when all is said and done this is Arnie’s show. Linda Hamiltion might be incredible and Biehn works well as the gruff action hero (early on in the movie, his delivery is surprisingly poor), but it is Schwarzenegger who went on to become the household name. I have always thought that Arnie was an incredible actor, just sadly trapped in the wrong body. His mannerisms are too stiff and his voice too monotone, yet his passion and understanding of drama is second to none. All of the little trademarks that make the Terminator came from him (the reloading of weapons without looking, the methodical scanning of an environment). Now, it looks like he is just another robot, but back in 1984, he invented the genre. It is almost impossible to do a robot impression, without the Arnie impersonation. Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the key reasons that the Terminator is as great as it is, the actor finally being handed a role that is tailor-made for him. He will get better at it, as the movies progress. Here, there are moments when the robot is a little too stiff and Cameron doesn’t seem to have too much faith in that Austrian accent that ironically will end up cementing the Terminator’s status in movie history. However, from the moment that naked Arnie materialises onto your TV screen, you know that we are onto something special.
Final Verdict: The original Terminator might only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what the franchise is capable of, but that doesn’t make it any less incredible.