- The Terminator
- Rated R
- Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton
- Directed by James Cameron
- Written by James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd
- 108 Minutes
- Originally Released 1984
Somewhere in a gritty corner of L.A., violent electrical discharges sear the air. Suddenly the naked figure of a man appears, later known as the Terminator (Schwarzenegger). Crouched as if to squeeze through time, he rises, unscathed, and begins ruthlessly assembling the necessities of his mission: clothing, high-powered weapons, and a page from the phone book--a page containing the addresses of three women, all named Sarah Connor.
Meanwhile, in some other dank alley, another figure maerializes: a man named Reese (Biehn). He, too, finds clothing and weapons, using cunning instead of force. He, too, is looking for Sarah Connor.
Ignorant of the gathering storm, Sarah J. Connor (Hamilton) soon hears that two women with her name have been brutally murdered. Noticing Reese following her, she ducks into a night club and calls the police, who tell her to sit tight. Already terrified, she looks up in time to see the Terminator about to blow her away. Reese intervenes and, in the firefight, helps her escape.
Even as Reese explains just what their pursuer is--a cyborg sent back in time to kill her--it finds them. A frantic car chase follows. The Terminator crashes, but the cops, convinced Reese is the killer, swarm in and take him away instead.
As the LAPD listens, skeptical, to his ravings about a future where war machines exterminate humanity, the Terminator storms the police station. Reese and Connor get away and find a place to hide, where they realize they're in love. But the cyborg, chillingly impersonating her mother's voice, tracks Connor down.
Yesterday Connor had no worries; now she must face a killing machine that won't stop until Sarah Connor, future mother of resistance leader John Connor, is dead once and for all.
"Do I look like the mother of the future?"
The Terminator is a lesson in how to crank up the tension from frame one straight through to the climax, through vivid side-by-side contrast. The Terminator has a powerful build and an implacable stare; Reese is smaller and tighter, his face marked by death and privation. The Terminator rips a punk's heart out in order to get his clothes and moves on; Reese's furtiveness arouses police suspicion as soon as he arrives. Minute by minute the Terminator, and the war machines it represents, becomes more invincible, until its emergence from an explosion as a monster of steel places Sarah Connor's survival in real doubt. Writer/director James Cameron plants just one seed of hope: The cyborg was a last resort--John Connor had defeated them. Human resilience prevailed, but first we had to be pushed to the edge.
That's why, although the Reese/Terminator shoot-'em-up dominates, Sarah Connor is the true center of this film. She must change from a carefree, mo-ped-riding waitress into "the mother of the future." Her transformation crystallizes what must happen for a world of soft, myopic humans to shake off the shackles of the machines already starting to dominate them. Linda Hamilton effects this metamorphosis beautifully. At the beginning there are hundreds of women like her in L.A.; by the end, she alone will keep us alive. When Reese compliments her field dressing, she imbues her casual reply--"It's my first"--with a glimpse of an entirely new future.
A complex future
Two long car chases--admittedly two of the best ever--are offset by dozens of nice touches. Some shots have a wry flavor that's carefully double-edged. When the cyborg runs over a child's toy on the way to kill the wrong Sarah, it's cheeky, but it also reinforces the killer's ruthlessness, which Schwarzenegger so unnervingly brings to life.
Despite other ballyhooed films, The Terminator should still be the calling card for Cameron, Schwarzenegger and Hamilton alike.
My favorite moment occurs in one of the flash-forwards, as Reese walks through a refugee warren. Reese's eye catches a mother and child who, jarringly, look like they're watching TV. But the shot changes, and we see that they're staring emptily into a little fire burning inside an old TV case. It's another small, wry moment that helps bring home the horror of this not-so-distant future.