The post Star Wars deluge of science fiction and fantasy maintained a low bar in terms of quality. A feature didn’t need much to distinguish itself from the steady stream of dreck. Against the films of its era, Terminator boasts an embarrassment of riches. An instantly iconic score, three strong leads and at least as many strong supporting characters, a well developed aesthetic… any of which alone would elevate this film. It exists as a marriage of Alien and The Road Warrior, blending the horror/sci-fi hybrid with a promise that the sins of today will lead to apocalypse.
Of all the assets of the film, the best may be director James Cameron. The Terminator was only his second feature as a director, but he spent years in the Roger Corman factory and designed special effects for other genre films of the era. With a miniscule budget he creates a fully realized future hellscape where the shells of buildings and the skulls of dead humans are crushed under the treads of mechanized tanks.
The Terminator does seem to struggle at first with what film it’s trying to be. It flirts with the slasher genre and plays through many of the cliches and tropes in rapid fire: the horndog boyfriend, the ditzy sexualized best friend, bad haircuts. The characters are a bit older than the average, living on their own, romancing instead of just fucking which is important as Terminator is one of the few slasher-type films that posits childbirth as the means to survive and conquer an existential threat (Final Destination was supposed to end on such a note).
At the same time it seems to tip its hat to Cameron’s origins and tries to be a Corman-movie-gone-good. Even the first sequences with the titular Terminator play as much as gallows humor as ratcheting up suspense. Like any good Corman-ite, Cameron finds space for Dick Miller as a crotchity gun store owner. No one seeks out Miller for dramatic heft. But then Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese shows up.
Biehn gives his best performance here, all white-knuckle intensity. He’s perpetually tense and on guard. The few quiet moments the film allows him segue into fraught flashbacks of hopeless conflict that conclude with Reese just a breath away from certain death. In a sly move, its also Reese who delivers the exposition, and in a few short monologues he establishes the conflict, the future, and the particulars of time travel with plenty of throwaway lines just for world-building (“rubber skin, easy to spot”). Paradoxically, the only time Reese seems at ease is when Sarah sinks her teeth into his hand. “Terminators don’t feel pain, I do” he says in an even, unbothered tone.
The Terminator itself is one of the great cinema monsters. While Reese’s original description is apt (“Its what he does,It’s ALL he does”), the creature is more efficient than indiscriminate in when it administers lethal force. Throughout the film it purposefully avoids conflict as often as it engages. It’s also a mesomorphic creation with two primary states: wearing skin and the exposed skeleton. Both proved iconic.
The role springboarded Schwarzenegger into super stardom. Audiences would flock to his features for the next ten years, although he’d never again play the villain. Likewise the dry wit, and comedic timing would largely be missing from the rest of his filmography.
Despite its regard and place in building up the stature of Cameron and Schwarzenegger The Terminator was only a minor hit in its initial theatrical run. Only the 21st highest grossing film of 1984. Most people who experienced The Terminator did so through their TV sets. The smaller screen didn't dim Cameron's vision. The lower fidelity presentation even helped. Watching the film on modern HD screens, the effects and sets are unmistakeably threadbare. So despite its reputation as a cinematic classic, The Terminator is better remembered as one of the keystones of 1980s video store sci-fi. It made an indelible impression beyond its box office and seemed to inform nearly every horror/sci-fi film into the early 90s.
James Cameron’s next feature Aliens serves at least as a thematic continuation. It contains more of the Terminator cast than that from the original Alien and for that matter more than the actual Terminator sequel released in 1992. Cameron’s design touch is evident and much of Aliens feels like a bigger budget take on the apocalyptic future established here.