You might have heard of this one.
Intro: The Terminator was James Cameron’s breakthrough film, the movie that put him on the speed dial of every producer in Hollywood. In this one modest action flick, Cameron established his fundamental style, made ‘Schwarzenegger’ a household word, and created a fictional universe deep enough to sustain a multi-billion dollar Hollywood action franchise.
And he did it armed only with a shoestring budget and a reputation as “the flying piranha guy.”
The Movie: In the year 2029, giant motorized tanks roll over a field of crunching human skulls. A prologue talks of war and annihilation, assuring us that the last battle for the future will take place in our time… tonight.
1984. A freak lightning storm rains naked men down onto the California streets. One of these men is a hulking, Austrian brute (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who promptly mugs a street gang (which includes Bill Paxton and that alien thug from The X-Files) for their jeans.
Meanwhile, another naked guy (Michael Biehn) snags a pair of trousers from an unfortunate homeless man. That’s right, folks, the first 10 minutes of this movie is all about the future coming back to steal our pants.
Slacks acquired, both men embark on a quest to find local waitress Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). The Austrian’s technique is to track and assassinate all the Sarah Connors found in the phone booth. The other guy zeroes in on the right Sarah, then shadows her into a dance club called Tech-Noir.
The Austrian shows up to shoot Sarah, but the other guy rescues her from certain death by plugging several shotgun rounds into the Austrian’s chest. A bewildered Sarah watches the Austrian rise to his feet, just in time to get a message from her defender – “Come with me if you want to live.”
The man is Kyle Reese, a soldier from the future sent to protect Sarah from a programmed killing machine, a cybernetic organism called a Terminator. Sarah’s future son will be a great leader in the epic war between humanity and the ruthless machine army manned by the defense grid Skynet. The machines, on the edge of losing the war, sent the Terminator back in time to erase the existence of their enemy, John Connor, before he can even be born.
The Terminator quickly finds the pair, resulting in a disastrous car chase that severely injures the bot and lands Reese and Sarah in jail. While Reese proclaims his sanity, the Terminator busts into the precinct and slaughters everybody with a badge. Reese and Sarah escape and hide in a motel room, where Reese romances Sarah with talk of plastic explosives and guns. He has a confession – Sarah’s son John gave Reese a picture of her in the future, his most prized possession. Reese volunteered for this mission because he’s in love with her. Sarah swoons and the two decide to make with the sexy time paradox.
The Terminator soon arrives, sending them running for their lives once more. The chase ends when the Terminator hijacks a tanker truck, and Reese makes him pay for it with a pipe bomb in the exhaust. Whatever doesn’t kill a terminator, however, makes him stop-motion. Arnold exits the stage as the flesh burns off the machine, which climbs out of the fire and chases the couple into an unnamed factory. Reese dies defending Sarah, but the severely crippled machine makes one last lunge for her throat. With an ironic one-liner Arnie would approve (“You’re terminated, fucker.”), she mashes the bot in a press.
In the film’s final scene, a visibly-pregnant Sarah drives to Mexico, making audio tapes for baby John. The future is uncertain, but a storm hangs on the horizon.
The Scene: Say you’re an assassin with orders to terminate a young woman. She’s in police custody, barricaded safely inside a building with 30 police officers standing between you and her. What do you do? If you’re human, you might observe the station at a distance and wait for your chance, or perhaps you’ll infiltrate. If, on the other hand, you’re an unstoppable killing machine from the future, you might try a different tactic. Like, for example, plowing into the building with your car and laying waste to every soul in your way, including the cool Paul Winfield and the cooler Lance Henricksen. And of course you do, because you don’t give a fuck, because you’re a robot. It’s the meanest scene in the film, redefining the rules of the game. How do you combat something that seriously lacks in give-a-shit? For Sarah and Reese, no place is safe and they are completely on their own. This scene makes this villain, which in turn makes the film. And, of course, it’s all prefaced by…
The Line: “I’ll be back.” It’s the line that launched a career. On the page, it’s nothing special. But combined with his sudden, violent return a few moments later, it struck an audience nerve and became Arnold’s signature line for the rest of his career.
The Production: Unlike other films on this list, the production of The Terminator appears to have been rather calm. Instead of the usual urban legends of James Cameron’s wrath, most of the production stories revolve around the long list of original “Terminators” before Arnold came on board. Originally the part was supposed to go to Cameron favorite Lance Henricksen, who wound up in a bit police officer part instead. Biehn was also considered for the role before snaring the part of Reese. There is a frequent rumor that OJ Simpson was up for the part, but that Cameron vetoed him for being unbelievable as a cold-blooded killer. I don’t know if I buy that one, but it’s a fun story. While I love Arnold in the role, a part of me mourns for the Lance Henricksen version we never saw. It would have been very different, but perhaps even more chilling.
The story famously came to Cameron in a dream, but there is some debate about exactly how much Cameron invented. The writing credits actually belong to Cameron and his eventual ex-wife Gale Anne Hurd, with William Wisher doing an uncredited polish on the dialogue. Sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison, however, filed a lawsuit which accused Cameron of stealing the idea from several of Ellison’s short stories. Although the terms of the lawsuit sound like a reach, the studio settled out of court and Ellison is acknowledged in the credits.
…A James Cameron Film: This is the film that established James Cameron’s technique. Cameron plays with the theme of nuclear war and the idea of machinery and technology becoming humanity’s biggest threat. Technology can also save us, however, as Sarah learns in the factory – a factory whose whirring machines draw an obvious parallel to the machines of the future. Sarah Connor is a proto-version of the superheroine Cameron likes to work with, and she blooms completely by the sequel. Also, this film combines Cameron’s favorite stable of actors, with Michael Biehn, Lance Henricksen, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bill Paxton all in various roles. The only thing we’re missing is an ocean.
Lasting Impact: Enormous. In addition to being an action highlight of the ‘80s and spawning a slew of mediocre imitations, The Terminator is its own cottage industry, giving us masks, toys, books, games, sequels, a TV spinoff, and, incidentally, James Cameron himself. If The Terminator had failed, Cameron might have had his star snuffed before it had even begun to shine.
On a bigger level, The Terminator gave us a new look at the future, and it wasn’t a pretty one. The Terminator didn’t invent the idea of a machine-dominated dystopia, or mankind’s extermination via technology, but the film certainly popularized it. Other action franchises, such as The Matrix trilogy, owe a debt of gratitude to this film bringing that idea into the mainstream.
Perhaps most importantly, The Terminator gave us Arnold Schwarzenegger, who at the film’s release was mildly famous simply for being famous. He’d become a minor celebrity from his bodybuilding success, and achieved some movie fame for the Conan series, due more to his pecs than his performance. The Terminator and “I’ll be back” gave Arnold real audience clout, which he parlayed into an shrewd string of action hits and, eventually, into politics. Today, he’s one of the most powerful political figures in the country, possibly the world, and only a constitutional amendment away from making a serious run at the Presidency. To say The Terminator started this is simplifying things, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
Reason for Ranking: This was a difficult film to rank, my first real challenge. While the film is a landmark of action cinema and has a tremendous legacy, and despite its archetypal story and iconic scenes… I have to rank the actual film here, not its script or impact. Ultimately, The Terminator is clunky in spots, and a lot of the movie is showing its age. There are simply better films in Cameron’s catalog, even if they don’t have quite the same far-reaching influence. It’s a very good film, but Cameron has topped it many times since.
The James Cameron Project:
6. The Terminator
7. The Abyss