RECAP: The Terminator

The Terminator (1984): James Cameron

In the 1970s and ‘80s, James Cameron was a lonely truck driver, crossing the country, hauling our chicken and ball bearings and what not, and dreaming up apocalyptic horror-futures in which cyborgs hunt and kill all humans. Paints a rosy picture of trucking, doesn’t it? Fortunately for us, Cameron turned out to be a pretty good director, so instead of making his future visions real, he made them for the big screen. Oh, I almost forgot: AHNOLD!!!!

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A computer travels through time to kill a childless mother.

Hero (5/10)

Linda Hamilton plays Sarah Connor, a woman strong enough to launch a revolution against future computer overlords. But that’s all in the future. In Los Angeles, in 1984, she’s a waitress who can’t balance her checkbook. Connor is an average woman, sympathetic and endearing. Her son, who is yet to be born, is the reason she’s being pursued by the Terminator. She doesn’t know that until she hears the news tell her that the two other Sarah Connors in Los Angeles have been murdered. She heads to a night club called Tech-Noir, calls the police, and awaits her executioner.

This Sarah Connor will NOT be the third Sarah Connor to die today!
This Sarah Connor will NOT be the third Sarah Connor to die today!

Sarah Connor escapes the club with the help of Kyle Reese, who until this point was thought by Connor to be the killer in her pursuit. Wrong. He’s the good guy, and he says, “Come with me if you want to live.” She agrees but freaks out, hard. Connor is game though, as she’s seen a lot in just a few hours, despite the crazy things Reese says. She slowly warms to Reese and quickly learns to fight the Terminator. By movie’s end Connor is barking orders at Kyle Reese. When she tells him to “Get up, soldier,” we know she’s onboard with the whole naked-time-travel-cyborg thing. She even delivers a great one-liner of her own.

Hamilton plays Connor as well as anyone could. Reese is the man with the knowledge of Connor, and we know she is destined for great things, as is her unborn son. But The Terminator is not that time. She merely has to survive, although she has to survive by killing the terminator. Connor is not a weak character, but she is a passive one.

Connor does as much harm as good, especially when she unwittingly tells her “mother” the location of their hotel hideout. Obviously she behaves in the way any normal person would when confronted with time-traveling killer droids. Yet by movie’s end, she’s become a sage visionary, capable of seeing the figurative storms on the horizon.

Villain (9/10)

A terminator was a completely new villain in cinema history. Evil AI had existed before (HAL 9000 the most terrifying example), but never had such AI come packaged in a fleshy, sweating, bleeding material before. And never had that package been so…Teutonic.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was already a Golden Globe winner and an action star in 1984. But it was one three-word declaration that vaulted him into superstardom. “I’ll be back.”

The line reads almost like a statement on Arnold’s career. But I won’t get into that here. Arnold as the Terminator, specifically a T-800, is the latest in Skynet technology. He is sent to 1984 in Los Angeles to kill Sarah Connor, the mother of human resistance leader John Connor.

Glorious pecs
Glorious pecs, all the better to kill Sarah Connor with.

Skynet in the future only knows her name, city, and year, so Arnold arrives there and then and sets about killing all the Sarah Connors in alphabetical order as listed in the Los Angeles phone book. Such clinic precision befits a computer intelligence, and is therefore frightening.

Arnold really was the perfect actor for this role. I don’t believe the Terminator ever runs. It walks everywhere, because, presumably, that is what it was programmed to do. It knows the best weapons, and has them on hand.

Let’s break down the Tech-Noir scene. T-800 arrives. It doesn’t pay the entry fee. The bouncer confronts T-800, and it crunches his hand. Connor sits at a table awaiting the police. She bends over to pick up something she dropped on the floor at the very moment T-800 scans the area where she sits. And scans is what it does. It doesn’t “look” and never jerks its head across a room unless given a reason to do so.

Nevertheless, T-800 makes Connor and approaches her, drawing the laser-sighted gun already used to kill the other Sarah Connors, and raising the beam to point between her eyes. Reese, who was already at the bar, spots T-800 and pulls out a shotgun. Reese fires bullets into T-800 just before it kills Connor.

Lining up the kill shot. Wait for it, wait for it...
Lining up the kill shot. Wait for it, wait for it…

Now comes an exchange. T-800 shoots at Reese, the immediate threat who leaps over the bar for cover. It turns and shoots at Connor, who is fleeing. Reese pops up again and shoots. T-800 draws a machine gun and kills several innocents.

T-800 smartly traded shots with Reese when Reese was in firing range and shot at Connor when she was in sight. It cycled through its targets like a good little targeting computer. Like a cyborg. Like a terminator.

Arnold played the Terminator with the tiniest smidge of charm. After inspecting its mechanical eye in the motel room mirror, T-800 touches its hair ever so briefly. Arnold (and perhaps Cameron) put just enough humor into T-800 to carry the villain from terrifying to iconic. Three other actors have portrayed terminators, and they haven’t combined to one-tenth the status of Arnold’s T-800. AFI listed the Terminator on both its Villains (#22) and Heroes (#48) chart, a unique distinction that will likely never be duplicated.

Action/Effects (7/10)

The Terminator is light on effects, especially compared to its successor. It only cost $6 million, which today would cost around $15 million. Low budget indeed. Its most memorable effect was of Arnold’s cut face and exposed red eye in the aforementioned motel room mirror. This scene is remembered as cutting edge, but surely anyone then, as now, could tell the entire face was fake. Who cares? It was great to see. I still enjoy watching the cheesy yet groundbreaking effects of Clash of the Titans.

Some of the famous makeup work
An example of the famous makeup work

We should talk instead about the action. When T-800 storms the police station, the extreme, nihilistic violence must have startled even the most hardcore action viewers. The Terminator kills anyone in the way of its goal–which is also killing someone. You know you’re dealing with a machine when it takes a break from its job to do its job.

Dancers in a club, street punks, mothers, roommates, cops–all these people die at the metallic flesh hands of T-800. Cameron has his Terminator shooting only the biggest guns. No Walther PPKs in this flick. T-800 starts with a handgun, with a long barrel, with an attached laser pointer as long as the barrel. It upgrades to an uzi. In the police station T-800 fires a shotgun (not sawed-off) and an M-16. BIG. ASS. GUNS.

Some street punks being robbed of their clothes. They're punks, so it's OK that they die.
Some street punks being robbed of their clothes. They’re punks, so it’s OK that they die.

By contrast, Reese and Connor are forced to use worse and worse weapons. Reese confronts the Terminator first with a huge shotgun. By movie’s end they are down to cheap homemade pipe bombs. When they run out of those, Reese uses a metal pipe. The humans had the good fortune to run into an industrial plant where they could use hydraulics and metal for their own good. The lesson here is: it is better to live near factories than far from them.

Sidekicks (8/8)

At first glance, time traveler Kyle Reese appears to be the hero. As I said, Connor is a passive character for most of the movie. But Reese is decidedly her sidekick. John Connor literally sends him back in time to protect her at the cost of Reese’s life. I can’t think of a purer sidekick definition.

Reese is an excellent sidekick. He was an interesting choice for the mission, as he wasn’t particularly strong. But it’s not hard to imagine him as the physically strongest person fighting the machines in the future. (How can they grow any food when the ground is covered in skulls?) He certainly has the street- and weapons-smarts.

Kyle Reese gave his life to save Sarah and make a baby with her.
Kyle Reese gave his life to save Sarah and make a baby with her.

Reese goes back to save Connor because he loves her. The Terminator is an action movie, but a tragic love story floats in the middle of it. You tricked us, James Cameron!

Reese is a man of total conviction. It’s funny when he gets so enraged at the Los Angeles Police Department because they don’t believe his story of time travel and killer cyborgs. He never pretends that he’s just some crazy guy so they’ll let him go. He just gets angrier and angrier. Reese didn’t get the job for his diplomacy, which is good, because, considering the Terminator, “You can’t reason with it.”

Reese tells Connor he has always loved her, then immediately apologizes for it. This guy has incredible self-control. We should be amazed he didn’t bare his heart right then, and completely. He’s never had love, and perhaps never even a lover. And yet there he is, in dirty, smelly Los Angeles, fighting a machine and fathering the leader of the resistance and saving his love’s life.

Henchmen (2/8)

T-800 has literally no henchmen. It’s on its own, and that’s all we need to know. T-800 would probably find it insulting to have henchmen. Since when does a cybernetic organism need help? Still, it seems disingenuous to give no points in this category, since the villain was so efficient that it did not need any help.

Stunts (5/6)

The Terminator had a small budget. Legend has it that Cameron and crew had to dash around Los Angeles at night to get away with a lot of their filming. These factors combined to create a small production team. They didn’t have much money for stunts, and thus there are few. T-800 is not something that can be fought with fisticuffs. You might as well fight Superman.

The spectacular attack on the police station.
The spectacular attack on the police station.

The driving stunts stand out best in the movie, especially the scenes when Arnold’s stolen motorcycle chases Connor’s stolen truck while Reese throws pipe bombs. T-800 procures an eighteen-wheeler, and its destruction is used with great effect.

Climax (5/6)

The end of the movie comes rather quickly. T-800 finds the hotel where Connor and Reese are hiding out/making terrorist materials. The Terminator busts in guns blazing. Reese wastes no time in stealing a car and barreling down the freeway. Both parties end up crashing. Somehow, the good guys are not crushed by their terrible truck’s thin roof, and they walk away. As usual, Arnold upgrades from puny motorcycle to enormous hauling machine.

T-800 uses the truck to chase/taunt Connor down some random streets. Somehow Sarah Connor is able to outrun the eighteen-wheeler and Reese is able to light a bomb and drop it in an exhaust pipe. He wisely ducks into a Dumpster, completely forgetting to warn Connor.

Truck go BOOM.
Truck go BOOM.

The bomb blows. They did it. Connor actually says, “We did it.” Oh, how naive, how very naive. They did something indeed, and that was to burn off the entire carbon-based exolayer of the machine. Everything but those sinister teeth. The Terminator is pissed. It’s pissed all the time now because the teeth are gritted, so that’s how we know that. It starts walking, but Reese is very injured. Connor has to get him up and into the well-placed factory.

The Terminator's true self
The Terminator’s true self

Reese buys Connor some time by whacking at the machine with a metal rod. That works as well as asking a hurricane to stop raining. T-800 smacks Reese a few yards through the air. Reese has one more pipe bomb. He lights it, jams it into the metal brute, and it blows.

Now, for a second time, we think the Terminator dead. It’s not, but it now has only the torso part. And those teeth, always those teeth. Reese is dead. Connor is about to be, but she crawls through a compressor and terminates the Terminator.

I like the explosive climax. They saved the best for last: an actual explosion, the best car chase, and what T-800 really looked like. The most explosive moment actually came when the some disembodied hand zipped up the body bag holding Kyle Reese. Reese loved Connor! He was a hero in his own right, and he died! That was a major moment. Can you imagine if Samwise Gamgee died? Or Chewbacca? We would have nationwide days of mourning, but Reese’s death is almost an in washington dc

We shouldn’t be surprised that he died. He knew he couldn’t get back to his own time anyway, which is a kind of death. He was, in 1984 Los Angeles, and this perhaps makes Reese the only person in history to ever believe this, already in his own kind of heaven, because he was doing what he loved most with whom he loved most, and he died doing it. Can we hope for anything better?

Sarah Connor climbs through the plant as the Terminator’s torso crawls after her. She leads it through and into a hydraulic press. Connor emerges from the end as the machine grapples at her. Breathing heavily, her ankle crushed by the Terminator, Connor slaps her hand behind her at buttons that will activate the machine. She hits the right one.

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“You’re terminated, fucker,” she says. The Terminator succumbs to kinetic force and is destroyed.

Connor lives to carry the fight forward. Pregnant, she drives through the desert to a gas station. A friendly attendant looks toward the mountains and spots dark clouds. “There’s a storm coming in,” he says. Connor, knowing what he meant but thinking of something else, says, “I know.”

Jokes (2/4)

It’s funny that the funniest character in The Terminator is a machine. The “It’s funny” from the previous sentence does not count in the scoring of the movie, however. Arnold does a perfect job selling the Terminator as a character to fear, but also to be charmed by. “Your clothes, give them to me.” “Fuck you, asshole.” “I’ll be back.” “Get out.” All great lines delivered with enough comic timing and comic accenting to put “The Terminator” on that AFI Villains list I was discussing. When Arnold poofs his hair? Priceless. All the points for Arnold, but we get little from the supporting cast.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first day in America.

Setting (2/4)

I wasn’t living in Los Angeles in 1984, but imagine it was a dark place. Literally dark, because in this movie all the scenes took place at night. The streets were strangely deserted at night, which I can’t picture happening at all in L.A. But the City of Angels is a good place to set The Terminator.
Night clubs always make great settings.

No city in America better exemplified the nation’s feeling of invincibility in the ‘80s than L.A. You want excess? L.A.’s got it. You want gang violence? L.A. again. The city hosted the Summer Olympics that year, and without the United States’s primary athletic competitors, the Soviets of the retaliatory boycott, in town, the Americans somehow amassed more medals than were awarded. What a great place to stage a fight to the death between the excessive present and the holocaustic future.

Commentary (0/2)

The Terminator wants to say a lot about the fragility and hubris of humankind. It wants to tell us that we did it to ourselves, “it” being the upcoming, inevitable nuclear annihilation. It wants to tell us that machines are evil. It fails to do any of these things.

First, if machines are like Arnold Schwarzenegger, bring ‘em on! I’d listen and obey a robot overlord that shouted one-liners at me. Second, the story tells almost nothing of the rise of the machines. Reese was born after the war, and we see a flashback/forward to his decrepit living situation, but the story of the war came secondhand to him, and thus thirdhand to the viewers.

I bet the eating was good in 1984 L.A.
I bet the eating was good in 1984 L.A.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

The only offensive thing is that it ended!!!!!!


  • (2) The Terminator Theme Music is probably the most memorable in the last 40 years of cinema NOT created by John Williams. Sure, that puts it at #78 on the overall list, but it’s still an accomplishment.
  • (1) Whoever put those teeth on the terminators deserved an award.
  • (3) Automatic Arnold bonus.

Summary (51/68) 75%

The Terminator is a low-budget action masterpiece that made a world-beating career for its director and its star. The movie was so good that the star played the villain and still came out on top. Cameron and Arnold worked together again in the sequel and True Lies, easily two of the ten best blow-’em-ups of all time. Their 1984 endeavor, while not my favorite of the trio, is considered the best.