With the release of what hopefully will be the next great “Terminator” film today (trying to be very optimistic over here) it’s time to travel back in time (which in reality we aren’t doing) and review the original classic film. First released in 1984, James Cameron’s original “Terminator” is a landmark in Sci-Fi action films. With a fresh premise, suspenseful direction, thrilling action and dramatic presence; “Terminator” works on nearly all levels even though Cameron’s vision didn’t match up with his budget restraints.
The plot may not seem original by today’s standards as we’ve seen plenty of film’s pay homage to it. The best example being Rain Johnson’s 2011 Sci-Fi film “Looper”. The premise of “Terminator” follows a “miss nobody” Sarah Connor. She goes through her everyday life not giving much a care in the world. When she attacked by an unknown seemingly unstoppable assailant. Saved by another assailant, Kyle Reese, turns her entire world upside down when he reveals himself to be from the future, sent to protect her from the Terminator (also sent from the future). A cybernetic machine with real human tissue that has only one goal in mind to kill its target at all costs. Both sent from the future where machines rule over mankind but where one man leads a fight against the machines, John Connor. The Terminator’s goal….kill his mother before he was ever born so the machines can win the war.
The lore set up of A.I. rebelling and taking over the world is what a lot of modern day Artificial Intelligence films are inspired by. Here Cameron keeps the story fairly simple for what could make for an overly complicated plot. The story unfolds in a frantic pace as the chase never seems to let up. There is an urgency to this film that is never felt in the other ones. There are only moments to catch our breaths (well placed however). Much of the exposition is told on the run as Kyle Reese saves Sarah from the Terminator. You are forced to keep up with it but you’ll never mind doing so. The story is given is chuck size bites giving just enough to digest and feel satisfying while never overwhelming the viewer.
In those moments of franticness we come to know our titular characters. Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), a women plucked from her own life who at first seems very helpless. Her journey forces her to develop and adapt until she no longer needs to be saved and contributes to the fight against the Terminator (taking notes “Jupiter Ascending”? Development of your lead is key). Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) a harden solider from the future, spent his entire life fighting the machines. He is tough but has his own soft side that draws Kyle and Sarah together. A great and commanding presence when on screen but is a good counter balance to Linda Hamilton’s untested and unsure character.
Of course you can’t talk about “Terminator” without talking about the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Although he has never been proclaimed to be a great actor he absolute owns the role of the freighting, terrifying, and bone chilling antagonist T-800 Terminator. Before he was the hero, Arnold played one of the most memorable villains in film history. His stone cold deliver and demeanor made you feel powerless against him and made every scene dire for our main characters.
By this point James Cameron (whose name is a powerhouse now) was certainly unknown to most all filmgoers. The only real credit he had was “Piranha Part II: The Spawning” (which will never play during ads for any of his new movies). Here you can see all the trappings of the later Cameron pictures. His knack for filming action really shines here with several standout actions scenes. Perhaps the most memorable being the police station massacre. You can see him honing in on his craft here with some points feeling like a strong film student that is still learning the ropes. I don’t mean entirely as a knock either, his inexperienced is only shown a few times (and I’m only talking about little minor things like some of his lighting choices) but nearly for the entire movie you’d be amazed at the talent Cameron had even at that point. His vision is hurt a bit by the low budget he had to work with but achieves something close to it with great creativity to work around the budget constraints.
Despite its age and older visual effects the original 1984 “Terminator” is still an ever true work of Sci-Fi art. With only the smallest of flaws, “Terminator” is an excellent masterful work of both the Sci-Fi genre and the action genre. With strong and well defined characters and terrific suspense “Terminator” is not to be missed and should be viewed before you go the newest feature (that will hopefully be good).