Overview: A humanoid, cybernetic robot goes back in time (to the year 1984) in order to win a war against humanity (in the year 2029), tasked with the single assignment of killing one young woman (Sarah Connor), the soon-to-be-mother of the future leader of the human resistance against the machines. 1984; Orion Pictures; Rated R; 107 minutes.
He’ll Be Back: James Cameron’s 1984 sci-fi action-blockbuster The Terminator still stands as one of the greatest genre releases of all time, standing alongside such thrilling, escapist serials as George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy, Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones franchise, and Ridley Scott’s creature-feature Alien (which, like Cameron’s film, was also followed by a slew of largely unnecessary sequels and tie-in titles, on both the big and the small screen). In Cameron’s directorial debut, Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger (now synonymous with the action blockbuster) made a name for himself as everyone’s favorite Terminator T-800 Model 101, cyborg assassin, playing off of his initial success as a lead actor in the comic book adaptation Conan the Barbarian. As the Terminator, Schwarzenegger played off of his already imposing frame in order to imbue terror, menace, and a cold detachment that would soon become synonymous with future Terminator antagonists. In The Terminator, the sci-fi genre was turned on its head in the service of what at times bled into classic horror genre filmmaking, Arnold’s metallic behemoth the thing that will not die, and keeps coming back for more, upping the ante and increasing viewer attention and tension accordingly.
Isolated Incident: Looking back on James Cameron’s original Terminator film now through the lens of cultural historicism and cinematic classicism, what truly stands out about the first film to feature the insidiously self-aware, artificial intelligence system and corporatized conglomerate, Skynet, is how self-contained The Terminator still is, even with a grand total of four feature film sequels produced so far and two more currently under development. In The Terminator, Skynet has yet to become the all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing entity of ethereal evil that it has since become in the feature franchise (and thankfully so). In Cameron’s initial film in what has unfortunately become something of a joke in terms of feature franchise filmmaking, the Terminator machine portrayed by Schwarzenegger is singular, and in that singularity is made significantly more menacing, his shadow the only one that strikes fear in what is a claustrophobic, near neo-noir, inflected with equal parts police procedural, melodrama, and aforementioned, horror-tropic thriller. In The Terminator, the T-800 Model 101, Arnold Schwarzenegger model, is appropriately primary, and whose demise during the film’s final climactic sequence is therefore all the more emotionally relieving and dramatically cathartic, a cinematic high that none of the subsequent sequels ever quiet manage to reach or replicate.
In Sarah Connor We Trust: Regardless of the quality of the Terminator franchise as it now stands, with far too many sequels, TV shows, and video game tie-ins to count (all of which have, collectively speaking at least, served to lessen the impact and retrospective quality of the first film), at the end of James Cameron’s The Terminator, the audience is left with one of contemporary American cinema’s greatest female protagonists and heroes: Sarah Connor. In Linda Hamilton’s portrayal of the mother of humanity’s last hope in the war against the machines, Hamilton becomes a symbol of hope in war waged between Gods and men, the distinction between the two blurred time and time again by the various narrative convolutions and redundancies of plot that have occurred across the film’s subsequent installments. In Connor, Cameron delivered what is perhaps his most succinct and cohesive original character, her plight one which has fed a shared cultural imagination within the sci-fi film genre for nearly three decades, and will undoubtedly continue to do so for decades to come. While Connor’s role in the first film is largely resigned to that of one in subjugation to her male protector, Kyle Reese, by time that T2 rolled around, Connor was ready to take control of her own destiny, transforming herself into a veritable badass, and a worthy icon for feminism in the mainstream. When the credits begin to roll at the end of The Terminator, we know that Sarah Connor can hold her own in the battles to come, her chosen nature as the mother of humanity’s last hope deeply archetypal, lending Cameron’s film with all of the authority and eminence of allegory, myth, and religious parable.
Overall: James Cameron’s directorial debut made waves when it was initially released way back in 1984, and its influence within the contemporary movie and entertainment industry can still be felt. It’s important historically, culturally, and critically within our nationally shared social history, which is why it truly deserves to be regarded as one of the greatest films of all time.