Vault: 'The Terminator' (1984) Dir. James Cameron
Updated: Aug 31, 2020
A science-fiction action film from James Cameron that catapulted Arnold Schwarzenegger to international film and bore a (questionable) franchise...
In 1984 Los Angeles, Sarah Connor (Hamilton) is unknowingly the target of a future assassin; the Terminator (Schwarzenegger), sent back from the year 2029. The cyborg must kill her, and thus prevent her from becoming pregnant with the future leader of the human resistance.
Also sent back is Resistance fighter Kyle Reese (Biehn) who must locate Conner before the Terminator does and protect her at all costs to ensure her survival to play a part in the future human/machine apocalyptic war.
Reese and Connor must find a way to evade the threat of the Terminator and stop the machine as it cuts a path of bloody violence and destruction across the city seeking its target, as it will not stop, ever, until she is dead…
So much can be analysed and talked about regarding such a landmark science-fiction action film such as this that I don’t know where to start, so will try to keep it blunt and to the point; much like the film itself does. Blunt and to the point, which makes it even more brilliant without the need to fluff around the edges or provide lots of narrative guidance and exposition. It’s sheer pulse-pounding entertainment.
Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks less than 100 words in 16 lines of dialogue in the film but his physical presence and monotone, almost robotic, Austrian accent further prove his portrayal as the Terminator is the stuff of nightmares. He’s mesmerising in every scene and every frame he is in oozes a slasher-style element of horror as his emotionless cyborg stabs, shoots and destroys everything and anyone in his path.
We don’t need CGI to create unstoppable monsters and villains, just the stature of Arnold Schwarzenegger armed with a powerful hand gun that creates a sense of fear in this role. Outstanding.
Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn make a worthy and determined duo as they flee the Terminator and give us an emotional humane element to the story and ones yet to be told during the 2029 future war we are teased with so well. Hamilton shines and draws on our empathy as an innocent women targeted by a killer, and her fear and angst is played so well that she never comes across as annoying, or feeble or inept. Biehn may be physically incomparable to Schwarzenegger, but that’s the point, as he is the one man saviour assigned to protect Connor and relies on his military tactics and world-weary knowledge to stay one-step head of patronising police officers and innocent bystanders getting in his way.
I need to reign in my review as I could talk for pages about the factors that make this film so well. As the film is 80% played out across night-time, the urban reality of Los Angeles shines through and plays out as the perfect battleground for the heroes and villain to traverse, with nothing glamorous or dominating about it; it’s real, and makes things more terrifying because of it.
Director James Cameron doesn’t use anything to sugar coat his characters and settings and this makes them more believable with their faults and strengths, like Paul Winfield as Lieutenant Traxler who you never know if he believes Connor and Reece or not. It’s little touches that just make the battle to stay alive and be believed that little more desperate and tense as it plays out against the always present countdown for the next arrival of the Terminator at their location. Cameron directs the story using his surroundings and actors for all their individual strengths, and it works.
With an iconic synth soundtrack by Brad Fiedel that is dominated with a real brutal, dysfunctional main beat to signify the Terminator’s presence in the film and signify the danger, it adds to the tension and horror of the threat that never seems to stop. Once those iconic, robotic beats begin you know you are going to be in for more suspense and action. This soundtrack seems to fill in the gaps where you may expect dialogue and blends the journey of all characters seamlessly.
The SFX are a little dated now in some scenes, but it actually is still refreshing to see the detail put into miniature work, models and stop-frame motion before the ease of CGI came into play to let Cameron create a vivid and scary killer in the Terminator himself thanks to gruesome surgery, brutal surface wounds and atmospheric glimpses into a nightmarish future war zone filled with hulking machines, disorientating lights and crunching bones littering the floor.
I need to stop now, because there are some small issues you could pick up from the film but these only come to light in the future sequels that make you question the overall narrative, so this can’t be seen as a fault in the 1984 original, as this could easily be left as an open-ended standalone film with an ominous, undecided future out there.
With great attention to detail to play out a sci-fi / horror film, James Cameron knows how to direct his actors and build a world around them that help create something so fantastical but also so terrifyingly real, that image of the Terminator himself, that eerie soundtrack and the brutal, heart-pounding action sequences and shoot-outs will stay with you long after the credits roll.
A master-piece of simple cinema to show how science-fiction and horror can be done together for a powerful and memorable outcome.
'The Terminator' is a Hemdale / Pacific Western Productions film