Set in 1984, The Terminator has two people — one of whom is actually a cyborg — coming from the future in order to either protect or kill a target. Said target is Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a woman who works at a local diner. The first character we see emerge naked from a ball of light is the titular Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), while the second is a human named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn).
We’re not initially sure what’s going on. We see these two characters come into view, and we see the Terminator kill someone else named Sarah Connor. Then we hear that a second woman named Sarah Connor is also dead. He’s systematically going through the phone book and killing everyone with that name. Meanwhile, the Sarah we care about feels like she’s being stalked, and she is, but it’s by the human whose mission is to protect her. Why he she so important? Who are these future people? Is everyone just crazy?
The cops think so. At one point, Sarah and Kyle both get caught after a high-speed chase with the Terminator. It’s during this chase that we find out the two future characters’ origins and missions. Sarah, as we learn, will father a son that will end up becoming the leader of the human resistance against the machines. There’s a war going on in the year 2029, and without John Connor, her future son, the humans will lose. The machines figured killing her before that son is born would allow them to win the war, so they sent a seemingly unkillable machine to complete that task. The humans, realizing that she’d be an easy target, send a single shy human. Is it any wonder why the machines think it a good idea to take us over when you think about that logic?
Whatever. That’s the set-up. Reese has to keep Sarah alive while trying to kill the Terminator, while it has the single goal of trying to kill her. It’s like a game of chess with these two characters; seeing who can outsmart one another is part of the fun. They get involved in chase scenes, shootouts, and, well, that’s about it. But there’s a bunch of each, so you’ll be unlikely to get bored.
The Terminator is largely the film that got Hollywood to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in a different light. Prior to its release, he didn’t exactly have the best of roles, with his only true star making role coming from the two Conan films. He had problems with delivering dialogue, and he didn’t have a lot of range, which made serious dramas mostly out of the question. But here, he was turned into a true action star. Director James Cameron realized his acting weaknesses, and made sure not to play to them. Schwarzenegger is an imposing figure, and could dish out one-liners, so that’s what we got. His character didn’t talk much, but Schwarzenegger looked like he could kill you with ease. That’s really all you needed from the role, and this was excellent casting on the part of Cameron.
There is a lot of action in this film, even if most of it seems like one big chase scene. That’s really what it is, because there isn’t a lot that two people with limited weaponry can do against a futuristic killing machine. Oh, they eventually manage to get something that can damage it, but even that seems largely ineffective against something as strong as the Terminator is.
We learn that the Terminator can not feel pain, or any emotion, so I feel the need to ponder some of its actions. The earliest point of contention comes at the beginning, when it’s about to kill the first Sarah Connor. It knocks on the door to her house — something that will never again happen — and politely asks if she’s Sarah Connor. Why go through that effort if you don’t care about feelings, and you’re just going to kill her anyway? It’s not like killing an innocent person, which will happen frequently later on, is going to bother your conscience. Oh, and after the one high-speed chase I mentioned earlier, a lot of police officers show up. Kyle and Sarah are both trapped in a car. If you don’t feel pain, why not just go kill them right then and there? We’ve already seen that bullets fail to do real damage. Instead, the Terminator escapes.
Apart from these logical problems, the only other issue I had with The Terminator was in the special effects done in crafting the Terminator without skin on. We learn that this thing has organic skin, blood, and other human-like things so that it blends in. It moves just like a person would. At one point though, this skin is removed and we get a stop-motion robot in its place. Now, maybe it’s just me, but fake skin should not improve one’s mobility. After the skin comes off, it no longer moves like a person, instead feeling very stiff and like it doesn’t belong. This doesn’t matter that much, especially because it’s a film that was made in the year it was set (1984), but it might take you out of the experience.
The Terminator is a very solid action/science-fiction film, and still largely holds up to this day. The story it tells is interesting and smart, the action is intense and plentiful, and it ends up being a very satisfying experience. It does suffer from a couple of logical issues, and the special effects aren’t always the best, but these are overcome by the film’s strengths and the imposing presence of its titular character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.