Original US release date: October 26, 1984
Production budget: $6,400,000
Worldwide gross: $78,371,200
Released with great fanfare on October 26, 1984, James Cameron’s The Terminator continues to resonate with audiences and influence filmmaking to this very day. In those days, event blockbusters were in their infancy. There had been a handful – Alien, Superman, Jaws, Blade Runner – but there weren’t tens of them per year, as we’re accustomed to, today. If you got one in a year, you were lucky. Arnold Schwarzenegger was riding the momentum of his pair of movies adapting Conan the Barbarian. Director James Cameron was practically unknown at the time, having only one feature film to his credit – Piranha Part 2: The Spawning. You all know that one, right?
The Terminator was the perfect professional marriage of the two at the perfect time. Rounding out the cast with television actors Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, Cameron proceeded to construct a high-concept science-fiction tale the likes of which had never been seen, before. Time-travel stories weren’t unheard of, but The Terminator was different. This time, the time travel wasn’t accidental. It wasn’t benign. It wasn’t for the sake of exploration. It was an intricate part of the story. It was used strategically with both nefarious and defensive purposes. And it created a time loop that could break your brain if you tried to wrap it around the potential ramifications for too long.
All of this was deliberate. Despite the parade of gunfire, car chases, cyborg violence, and explosions, The Terminator was an early example of thinking person’s sci-fi cinema. If you aren’t familiar with the concept (SACRILEGE!), in the year 2029, a war rages between man and machine. At the heart of man’s resistance lies freedom fighter John Connor. The machines send their cyborg Terminator back to 1984 to murder John’s mother Sarah before John can be conceived. In response, the humans send a soldier by the name of Kyle Reese to find and protect Sarah and destroy the Terminator, allowing the humans to maintain their foothold in the future and continue their fight for survival.
The story becomes even more complex as it plays out, but even with just the little bit above, there’s a lot to consider. For example, if time travel were possible, and someone sent someone else back in time to effect a change, in the future time from which the envoy originated, the changes would take hold immediately, right? So, shouldn’t the humans have sent Reese before the machines sent their Terminator? Otherwise, the Terminator arrives, kills Sarah Connor, and John Connor is wiped from existence before he even gets the chance to send Reese.
OR . . .
Does the effect of the Terminator’s arrival in 1984 not immediately take hold in 2029 because the time stream must allow for Reese’s arrival in order to prevent a time paradox and allow events to occur as they have already been established?
I DON’T KNOW! And that’s part of the fun of these types of stories. But that’s not all of the fun. The action sequences, though a little pedestrian by today’s standards – are brutally staged and are choreographed in a very simple, straightforward manner. Cameron doesn’t get too fancy. He doesn’t pull in too tight or cut too quickly, therefore making the events hard to follow. James Cameron, even at the dawn of his legendary career, was a master storyteller and inherently understood that the primary goal of any film is to communicate efficiently and clearly to the audience. I’m not suggesting that there’s no room for mystery or for subtleties. But in every film, all of the necessary information to follow and interpret the movie as desired by its filmmakers should be presented in a way that allows it to be effortlessly registered by the attentive.
Now, while The Terminator is a moderate thinker in its own way, it’s not a David Lynch or Terrence Malick film. But it’s still important that the audience can easily discern the events as they unfold. That’s not an issue, here. The action is easy to follow (and exciting to watch) and the story is told clearly, complexities and all.
The special effects by Stan Winston were groundbreaking for its time. With the advent of computer-generated images in the decades since (which, despite some people’s protestations, are a huge benefit to films like this), they look dated. There’s an animatronic version of Schwarzenegger’s head created for some scenes that involve delicate interaction between his human and robotic components. It’s obvious that it’s not really Arnold because the movement just isn’t natural. The stop-motion animation used for the T-800 during the climax is also jerky and unconvincing.
But my point isn’t to level these as criticisms. The effects in this film could not have been better than this in 1984. Should Cameron have waited until the effects technology caught up to his imagination before telling this story? After all, that’s what he did with Avatar. Well, that isn’t for me to decide, but I don’t think so. And I’m glad he didn’t. If a story is in your head, you tell it. You get it out. Otherwise, it consumes you. And the story is always more important than the effects.
My only point in bringing it up is to say that using the standards of the modern day to criticize films of long ago would be foolish and anachronistic. The Terminator is an American film institution that introduced a new level of sophistication to futuristic science-fiction. It’s one of the few films that actually has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. For me, the only bothersome flaw is the poorly conceived character of Dr. Peter Silberman. Played by Earl Boen, Silberman is a psychiatrist who laughs at and mocks his patients, all while yawning in their faces. I don’t care when the film is made or what genre it falls in, the characters should all speak and behave authentically and a psychiatrist would never represent themselves or their profession in such a manner.
Still, the character comes and goes rather quickly, making little-to-no impact on the overall narrative. Other than that, the film grabs audiences with an original concept and then makes them think about what they see in between all of the fighting. In the decades since 1984, there have been umpteen variations on the idea of artificial intelligence rising up against its creators, but as far as film goes, even if The Terminator didn’t do it first, it’s still the go-to for people who are talking about how frightening modern technology is to them. Cameron’s impactful presentation combined with Schwarzenegger’s intimidating turn as the eponymous Terminator left a lasting impression in the minds of the viewers and a pop culture footprint that has lasted far longer than anyone could have imagined. I suspect that if Cameron and company could go back in time, they wouldn’t change a thing.
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