Arnold Schwarzenegger has achieved many things in his 72 years on this planet, from bodybuilding to being governor of California, but this may be his defining moment. With 16 lines of dialogue and an intense glare, he delivers one of cinemas most iconic performances. Released in 1984, The Terminator has spawned one of the biggest action franchises in history. It all starts here, with one of the best action films of all time.
The Terminator is a masterclass in visual storytelling, with dialogue kept to a bare minimum. We follow Sarah Connor as she, with help from soldier Kyle Reese, attempts to survive termination by a killing machine from the future. This “terminator” (Cyberdyne Systems Model 101; the T-800) has been sent from Los Angeles in the far of future of 2029. It’s slightly bizarre watching this now, when the apocalypse should be in full swing, but there is a sense of relief that this has not yet come to pass. It’s not an impossible version of the future, one of our own making, and it looks as real as the keyboard I’m typing on. The skulls on the ground, the obliterated buildings and the machines themselves are all done with practical effects, making for an unsettling image. Meanwhile in Los Angeles of 1984, the city is grimy and fills me with a sense of anxiety. I can’t tell if this was by design, or if LA in the 80s was just like that. There’s a certain air of claustrophobia achieved by telling this story in alleyways and small buildings, keeping the atmosphere as clouded as possible. The Terminator started life as a horror film, and you can see those elements poking through in what came to be a science fiction classic.
The horror element is especially prevalent in this films blood and gore. It’s rated 15 and for good reason, it is not for the faint of heart. So much so that my boyfriend was shocked I’d even seen it. There’s a scene of the T-800 operating on himself which includes cutting off his flesh to get to the metal endoskeleton and cutting out his left eye. It is clearly an effect, and the replica of Arnold’s head is clearly rubber, but I think that just adds to how unsettling the scene is. It’s the one time, minus the occasional moment in the finale, where the effects don’t hold up to modern standards. The T-800 is finally stripped down to his endoskeleton, which was built and then added in with stop-motion. It was cutting edge at the time, and though it may not be now, it’s still really cool to watch.
Also super cool is the badass known as Sarah Connors, though she isn’t that character yet. She spends time fending for herself, but she also spends a fair amount of time screaming in fear and relying on Kyle Reese. Kyle is a soldier sent by Sarah’s son John in the future and he is the badass of this piece. He proves to be almost as unstoppable as the T-800, and his ending feels justified. The ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel, but without the necessity that it be made. With 5 sequels and several timeline alterations sine The Terminator‘s release, it’s good to look back and remember where we once stood. Canonically, by 1985 Sarah Connor is pregnant with her son (and future rebel leader) John. The apocalypse is still due, which means the war between man and machine still happens. In 2029, a T-800 will be sent back to 1984, followed by Kyle Reese under the command of John Connor. The machines then lose the war.
There is a reason that The Terminator is considered a classic and spawned a franchise. It’s wonderfully made and manages to hold your attention despite the lack of dialogue. It also helps that they followed up with one of the greatest sequels of all time.
I’ll Be Back…