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Review: The Terminator (1984)

The Terminator (1984)

Directed by: James Cameron

Premise: A waitress (Linda Hamilton) is targeted for assassination by a cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) that has been sent back through time. A human soldier (Michael Biehn) also travels through time to protect her.

What Works: Few films have been as influential and popular as The Terminator. It’s a movie that’s familiar even to people who haven’t seen it and The Terminator continues to live up to its reputation. This was one of James Cameron’s first directorial efforts and it’s among his best movies. In some respects, The Terminator was for Cameron what Jaws was for Steven Spielberg. Both movies were made by filmmakers early in their career when they needed a hit and had a hungry and vicious directorial style. Unlike some of Cameron’s later movies, there is nothing extraneous about The Terminator. It is efficient and relentlessly paced. At the same time, the storytelling works in a lot of detail and texture that fills out its characters and story world. Some of this is minor such as the banter between the law enforcement officers played by Lance Henriksen and Paul Winfield and the indignities suffered by the waitstaff of a family restaurant. The signature character of The Terminator is Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role and it is an exceptional pairing of an actor with a character. As has often been observed about this film, Schwarzenegger’s size and presence and Austrian accent lend themselves well to the role. The killer cyborg character has been imitated many times but Schwarzenegger has a focus and style of movement that’s never quite been duplicated. Schwarzenegger is the star of The Terminator but Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn are equally important to the film’s success. Hamilton plays Sarah Connor, an unassuming waitress who life has future significance and Biehn is cast as Kyle Reese, a soldier who has come through time to save her. This film has a wild premise (although it seems less so now because the concept is so familiar) and Hamilton and Biehn sell it. Their relationship gives this movie a humanistic quality that contrasts with the violence and with Schwarzenegger’s cold mechanical performance. Nearly forty years later, The Terminator also has the distinction of being relevant to the present audience. It anticipated advancements in robotics that are now coming to fruition as well as the proliferation of computer networks and the merging of artificial intelligence with military technology and the nightmare path this might send us down. The very design of the Terminator is genius in that respect; it’s human on the outside and mechanical on the inside and its final exoskeletal appearance is a monstrous simulacrum of humanity.

What Doesn’t: The Terminator has a reveal in the ending that suggests a paradox. The plot doesn’t hinge upon that paradox and so the reveal does not unravel the whole story. It also serves the underlying romance of the film, giving the finale and Sarah and Kyle’s relationship a tragic quality. But the reveal makes the story so tidy that it feels a bit contrived.

Disc extras: Featurettes and deleted scenes.

Bottom Line: The Terminator remains an extraordinary combination of action, horror, and sci-fi filmmaking. It’s a bullet train of a story that also works in elements of character and texture that gives it a humanity that makes this an extremely entertaining picture.

Episode: #968 (October 8, 2023)