The Terminator is a rarity in films today: an action/sci-fi film that is both entertaining AND intelligent. James Cameron probably did not have in mind when he co-wrote and directed the film that it would spawn a subculture that would create other films and television programs about the characters he created. It's almost certain he didn't believe that one line delivered by a bodybuilder with an Austrian accent would become one of the most indelible catchphrases in cinema history. However, it's a good thing he didn't know what a cult this film would create. Otherwise, we wouldn't have two extraordinary films, the first being this one.
Two beings are sent from 2029 to modern-day (1984) Los Angeles. The first is The Terminator himself (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a cyborg sent on a mission: to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the future mother of the leader of the Resistance, John Connor. The second: Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a soldier sent by John to protect Sarah. The two search out for Sarah, a waitress who becomes terrified when two women with her same name have been murdered. She is nearly killed by the Terminator but Reese saves her and after a wild car chase they are apprehended by the police. In the police station she takes refuge, but the Terminator will not stop until his mission is accomplished. Reese saves her again, and they flee toward the mountain home of her mother with the cyborg in pursuit. At this point, there's a twist in the plot that I can't give away but that should be obvious.
This is the film that made Arnold a star and a one-word name. It took just three words to put him in a league of his own. Contrary to myth and impersonators, "I'll be back" was, to my ears, pronounced rather normally, albeit robotically (which was the correct interpretation). I didn't hear "Bach" but "Back", but that somehow has entered into the American lexicon. His performance was pitch-perfect for the character he plays: he's suppose to be a machine, and he speaks his lines like a machine. In the movie, he's a terrifying force: an unfeeling, unreasoning killing machine that won't be satisfied until it destroys what it came to destroy (a bit like al-Qaeda). His relentless pursuit is what gives the film the extra sense of terror: nothing can stop him. Well, almost nothing.
Linda Hamilton makes her first turn as Sarah Connor a vulnerable woman, caught in circumstances she can't possibly understand but realizing that she HAS to live, to survive. This is at the heart of the picture: her unwillingness to be killed versus the Terminator's inability to let her live.
Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese brings both strength and a hint of sadness to the role, fitting for someone who has lived his whole life in a post-apocalyptic world.
I've had my issues with Cameron (Titanic being THE BIG ONE), but when it comes to science-fiction films, he is among the best. The plot makes sense, and the performances both large and small (such as Paul Winfield as a cop investigating the killings of the Sarah Connors) are effective and efficient. Also, the special effects still hold up quite well. Certainly, they are not in the category of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which along with The Matrix pushed visual effects to a greater level of ingenuity. However, so many years after its release, they still look good. That is one of the hallmarks of a great film. They do something that a lot of films with more elaborate effects cannot: they serve the story rather than showcase the technology itself.
The world of the Terminator has taken on a life of its own. There are movies, television shows, I suspect comics dealing with this world. There's even an experience at the Universal Studios. It's tapped into the fear of the future many people have, of technology run amok, but also into the belief that the future is not written and can be changed. The Terminator, as a film, does its dual jobs well. It tells a fascinating story well and in an entertaining manner. It is one of the best sci-fi films of the past twenty-five years, and a standard for the genre.