Warning! The following contains spoilers, however, the film is over 27 years old and a classic, so if you haven’t seen it, sort it out!
It’s sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day gets a lot of praise and love, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie, but for me, the 1984 original is the better film.
With only his second film as director James Cameron sets out his stall with a fantastically atmospheric science fiction thriller and chase movie which was one of the major things that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a bona fide star.
The plot is fairly simple- in the future mankind is raging a bitter war against the machines, after an artificial intelligence known as Skynet began nuclear war. The survivors have been hunted and forced underground by killer robots known as Terminators, who are often disguised as humans.
The human resistance is headed up by John Connor, and they are on the verge of a massive victory. The machines hatch a plan to send a Terminator (Schwarzenegger) back in time to 1984 to take out Connor’s mum, Sarah (Linda Hamilton) before she gets pregnant with the savior of mankind. Connor sends back one of his own men, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to keep her safe and stop the cyborg killer.
Physically outmatched, Reese does have a couple of advantages over his robotic enemy, knowing Sarah’s middle name and what she looks like. As the Terminator starts working his way through the phonebook taking out all the Sarah Connors, Reese has to tool up and keeps watch over her.
Reese rescues her from the machine, but is later arrested and believed to be insane by pompous psychiatrist Silberman (Earl Boen), but the Terminator arrives at the police station to try and find Sarah. After a massive bloodbath where the Terminator takes out all the coppers in the building, Reese and Sarah flee.
Sarah warms to Reese, and feels bad for him due to the nightmare world he will inherit and they sleep together.
During a final showdown, Reese is mortally wounded but Sarah manages to crush the Terminator in factory machinery. The film ends with a pregnant Sarah leaving the city in order to prepare for the future, recording a message to John and explaining that Reese is his father.
What I love about this movie, and why I think it’s superior to the follow up is that it’s a much tighter, straightforward movie. Once the set up is established it barely lets up as the implacable Terminator methodically works it’s way towards it’s target, gunning down anyone who gets in it’s way.
Later in his career Cameron would become a major offender in letting his films get baggy and not being vicious enough in the editing suite, but here he’s a model of restraint and tight, no frills movie making. It’s an incredibly tense movie with a real threatening vibe and the Terminator has genuine menace. There are no scenes that feel unnecessary and the movie whips along at quite a good pace.
The only time Cameron drops the ball is during the sex scene between Sarah and Reese, it’s poorly shot and goes on rather too long and Cameron seems to be clubbing the audience over the head in his attempt to convey that this is the moment that John Connor is conceived. But this minor quibble aside, it’s damn near perfect as a sci-fi thriller.
The scene where the Terminator visits the first Sarah Connor in the book is a remorseless, ruthless attack that sees darkness come into the suburbs. Arnie does the role perfectly, and while this has led to tons of jokes about his style only being convincing while playing a robot, I think there’s a lot of good work here, as Schwarzenegger maintains this cold, inhuman vibe throughout and keeps his face in this deadpan mask that doesn’t react to anything that goes on around him.
It’s also the only time that Schwarzenegger would play an out and out villain in a movie, crafting an iconic image as the robotic killer.
Despite the tension and the quick pacing of the film, it should be understood that Cameron also does a great job with crafting his characters, and is aided by a cast at the top of their game.
Linda Hamilton does a great job as the regular Josephine who’s thrown from her job as a waitress into having to go on the run. She makes Sarah a rather sweet and charming woman, and her struggles to deal with learning about what the future holds for herself and mankind in general feels believable and honest. Told she’s to be the mother of a great leader and a “legend” in her own right, she’s understandably thrown, but she shows the resilience and toughness that hint at what she will go on to accomplish. Hamilton is superb in capturing the change as well as the sensitivity she feels towards hearing about Reese’s future life.
Reese is played rather brilliantly by Michael Biehn, who gets the sense of the character just right. Reese is shown to be tough, resilient and intelligent, but there’s also a feeling of his social awkwardness and the fact that growing up as a soldier in a warzone has left him emotionally wrecked. This is shown in flashbacks, but is shown more subtly throughout Biehn’s performance, as he lets us see that Reese is constantly wound up, ready for danger and that he is completely thrown by the more relaxed, safe environment of the 1980s.
Watching him awkwardly navigate through the world and his emotional distance kind of hints at how growing up in war can stunt people’s emotional development and despite his toughness and ingenuity, it’s rather touching that when he and Sarah get it on she has to be gentle with him and lead the way, as affection and intimacy are clearly things he is not familiar with.
While Sarah Connor is a wonderfully strong heroine and rightly sighted as one of the best female characters in science fiction, I always feel this does a great disservice to the character of Reese, who is just as much a hero and is willing to selflessly throw down his life in taking on a far stronger and superior enemy. Both characters are heroic, and I think should equally be recognized for this.
Script-wise the movie is pretty solid, as the Terminator Arnie only gets just over a dozen lines, but these include what would become his catchphrase “I’ll be back” but the script does a fine job in conveying the plot and building character. There are funny moments such as a scene between Sarah and her flatmate’s boyfriend on the phone, and a sense of character is built quickly.
Most memorable however is when Reese outlines what they’re facing, his speech about the Terminator is chilling and manages to make the relentless killing machine even more terrifying:
The police shrink is shown to be pompous, self-centred and rather insensitive, while the cops are shown to be very different from the kindly lieutenant who attempts to reassure Sarah and explain the events she’s witnessed and his slightly tactless detective, played by Cameron regular Lance Henriksen. They may be bit parts, but they feel like real people and I warmed to them more than I did to major players in later Cameron movies.
In fact as well as being a phenomenal movie in it’s own right The Terminator also serves as showing what happens when filmmakers are given too much of a budget to play with. Here, starting out and not gifted with a massive pile of cash Cameron has to work well on crafting atmosphere and character, and creates a film that is lean, mean and gripping, as his career would progress he would steadily get bigger budgets and more freedom and this would result in baggier films and a filmography which for me would pretty much steadily decline in quality and emotional resonance (T2, True Lies, Titanic, Avatar- a career of decreasing merit).
Also, as we near the end of this post, it’s worth pointing out that the movie also has one of the best endings for a movie too.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.