This is what I thought I knew about The Terminator—released 30 years ago this weekend—before I watched it for the first time a few nights ago:
– The title character is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
– He’s a robot who’s been sent back in time to do… something.
– He’s a bad guy. Except they keep making movies about him, so maybe he’s a good guy. Or he starts as one, then becomes the other? Regardless, he is definitely either good or bad. Yep. That much I know.
– Linda Hamilton plays Sarah Connor, a badass with great arms who will someday give birth to Christian Bale.
– SKYNET is… also there. My iPhone corrects “skynet” to “SKYNET,” in all caps, so it has to be a thing.
– The movie features lots of guns, explosions, and guns causing explosions.
– At one point, Arnold says “I’ll be back” and “Hasta la vista, baby” in a flat, accented monotone.
And… that’s about it.
As I’d soon find out, many of my preconceived notions about the movie were dead wrong. I was expecting a splashy action epic with dazzling (for the time) special effects and a complicated mythology peppered with Proper Nouns and Made-Up Words that had been Capitalized to show their Importance. In other words: All along, I’d been confusing The Terminator with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a longer, more technologically advanced, much bigger-budget affair that serves as a template for the zillions of wannabe franchise-launchers that followed in its wake. (Or so I’m told; I still haven’t seen T2. Sorry!)
Instead, I discovered that The Terminator itself is a taut, spare, surprisingly straightforward thriller—more of a sci-fi-flavored slasher movie, complete with its own mysteriously indestructible killer, than a tentpole designed by the proto-Michael Bay. Which is probably why I ended up finding the whole thing so charming.
If you, unlike me, still haven’t seen the movie that turned James Cameron into James Cameron, here’s a quick plot rundown: Ahnold plays a cyborg killbot encased in a sweaty shell of human flesh. His mission: to murder Hamilton’s Sarah, a mild-mannered, Vespa-riding waitress who will someday give birth to the savior that leads humanity in a fight against the machines. Thankfully, Sarah has help from another time traveler: Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), the movie’s third major character and the only one I hadn’t heard of before I finally watched it. (The story’s pretty much a three-man show, though it does also feature Paul Winfield as a no-nonsense cop and Bess Motta as Ginger, Sarah’s poor, doomed roommate. She just wanted a delicious sandwich! She didn’t deserve to die like that!)
Though there’s a brief explanatory opening title card, some talk of the coming machine uprising—this being 1984, it’s of course caused by the Cold War—and a small case of Capital Letter Syndrome (Reese mentions “HKs,” hunter-killer bots that do just what it says on the tin), The Terminator is mercifully light on exposition. The handful of future flashback scenes serve mostly to establish the movie’s stakes (the whole world will look like this dimly-lit soundstage if The Terminator isn’t stopped!), not to spoonfeed details to the audience; the story begins with a naked Arnold falling from the sky, not with a bunch of wicked robots bleep-blooping about how and why they’re sending him through time. Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd’s admirably economic script cares more about building tension and watching it boil over than tedious world-building, which immediately sets The Terminator apart from the movies its sequel would help inspire (especially expensive, lukewarmly received dystopian flicks like Elysium and Oblivion).
Another thing that differentiates The Terminator: Bay’s Transformers movies, which feature an astonishing amount of destruction but very little blood, are rated PG-13. The Terminator, released just a few months after the MPAA first dreamed up the PG-13 rating, got slapped with an R instead—understandable, given both how violent it is (though it’s par for the course by modern standards) and how frequently characters lob around the f-word. I get why present-day studios try to keep their biggest movies nominally safe for anyone older than 13; an R-rating limits a film’s potential audience, which in turn (theoretically, at least) limits revenue. Even Warner Bros. capitulated to the trend with the fourth Terminator movie, which got the franchise’s first PG-13 rating. That said, it’s incredibly refreshing to watch an action movie made specifically for and by adults—one that isn’t gory for the sake of gore, but also doesn’t hold back from showing grown-up people swearing and having sex and actually suffering from the horrific destruction caused by a 6’2″ steel-boned murder machine.
Speaking of that murder machine—after a lifetime of knowing Schwarzenegger best as 1. an overly musclebound action hero, 2. Kindergarten Cop, and 3. the governor of California, it’s kind of incredible to watch how perfectly cast he is in this movie. Usually, it’s an insult to call an actor “robotic;” here, the future governor’s stiff inhumanity works as a character choice. Bizarrely enough, even the accent makes sense—a futuristic exterminator created by other appliances shouldn’t have a perfectly calibrated California drawl. Of course he barely knows how to talk! And even if you can’t get over that aspect, the guy only has about 18 lines throughout the film—which turns out to be the ideal amount. (Alas, I’ll have to wait until I get around to T2 to see “hasta la vista” in action.)
I was also impressed at how The Terminator presents its heroine, a character so beloved that she’d eventually get her own (admittedly short-lived) spinoff TV series. As depicted in the first movie, Sarah’s neither wide-eyed victim nor emotionless, humorless Action Girl. She’s more of an archetypal Reluctant Hero—an everywoman with an exceedingly normal life who’s suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar world of cyborgs and gunfire. She acquits herself well, though not unrealistically well, surviving endless barrages fired by Arnold and eventually becoming the the Final Girl by crushing the skinless Terminator in an hydraulic press. (One thing that hasn’t aged as well as the rest of the movie: Stop-Motion Full-Robot Terminator, which is either delightfully quaint or laughably janky, depending on how charitable you feel.)
Sure, Sarah’s relationship with Reese feels a little rushed—but their romance is at least justified by the narrative itself. (I did have to laugh at the idea that Sarah and Reese “loved a lifetime’s worth” in just a few hours; somebody got Titanic in my Terminator!) And the flash-forward that ends the film—a harder, more cynical Sarah drives off into an approaching storm, ready to face the inevitable—both shows that Sarah has endured some real character development and manages to make viewers want to see her story continue without seeming like cheap sequel-bait.
In short, The Terminator‘s a good, old-fashioned movie, though calling it that makes me wish we didn’t live in a time when virtues like economy and internal logic seemed like throwbacks instead of givens. Watching it made me feel like Kyle Reese staring at that old picture of Sarah, yearning for a bygone time I can’t actually remember. I wish more modern-day studio action movies were like The Terminator; given Avatar‘s pompous bloat, I especially wish more James Cameron movies were like it. If the movie (and nostalgia culture) have taught me anything, though, it’s that the past is never truly past—and even if newer productions can’t exactly live up to The Terminator‘s promise, at least we’ll never be short on opportunities to look back and admire it from a distance.