In the golden age of low-budget movie-making that was the 1980s, there were an awful lot of terrible movies produced by studios that knew precisely how to churn out industrial quantities of drek for grindhouse theaters, drive-ins, premium cable TV and the home video market. The beautiful thing about such a crazy grist mill is that it allows talented people to get the breaks they would not otherwise get, and prove themselves worthy of far bigger and better things. Sometimes really terrific and unexpected movies arise from this, and one of the best examples is a sci-fi action thriller featuring a Canadian director nobody ever heard of and an Austrian bodybuilder with an unpronounceable last name and impenetrable accent. The studio expected something meant to last a week at the theaters and then join the ranks of the studio’s back catalog. What it got was The Terminator.
The story takes place in 1984 Los Angeles, where mousy waitress Sarah Connor is trying to make it in the big city, unaware that in just a few short decades, an AI called Skynet will lead a robot revolution that will push humanity to the edge of extinction with its army of hunter-killer tanks and aircraft and swarms of Terminators—metal, humanoid endoskeletons covered in vat-grown muscle, tissue and blood that masquerade as humans just long enough to get a chance to kill them. Sarah is just as unaware that one day, her yet-to-be-conceived son John will be the military genius who leads the war against the machines and saves humanity. And, she is unaware that somewhere in the city, the defeated Skynet’s final action is to send a single Terminator back through time to kill Sarah before she can have her son. John Connor must send a protector for his mother, and stalwart resistance fighter Kyle Reese volunteers. What follows is a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse as Kyle races to find Sarah before the Terminator does, so he can protect her long enough to become a mother. Reese knows the job is virtually a suicide mission—1984 doesn’t offer the kind of weapons needed to destroy a Terminator—but he takes it anyway because he knows that if he doesn’t, everybody dies in the predestination paradox Skynet is trying to engineer. What follows is a nonstop carnival of action mayhem in which we see just how hard a Terminator really is to kill, and just how tough you have to be to keep running from something that will never stop chasing you.
The stories of how James Cameron got this movie are almost as enjoyable as the movie itself. Like how he introduced himself at the movie’s finance meeting by having actor Lance Henriksen kick in the door dressed as a Terminator just so Cameron could point to him and explain the concept of the movie’s villain to the thoroughly freaked-out studio staff. Or how Gale Ann Hurd bought the screenplay for a buck. Or how Arnold Schwarzenegger only took the job because he was reasonably sure it would be so minor that if the movie failed, it wouldn’t hurt his career. This, from a guy whose acting credits to that point included Hercules in New York and Pumping Iron. This is a movie that nobody thought made a heck of a lot of sense, let alone would find much of an audience. And to be honest, it probably should not have. There is not a heck of a lot to this thing, really. The premise is interesting, but simple, the story is likewise stripped-down, and the actors aren’t given a whole lot of range in which to develop.
And yet, this is a movie that redefined expectations across the board. James Cameron’s non-nonsense, high-octane directing style created a series of iconic action pieces that remain as compelling now as when they were filmed more than 30 years ago. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s turn as a merciless, taciturn killer robot played to both his strengths and weaknesses as an actor to produce one of the most memorable performances in cinema history. But perhaps most importantly, this is a movie that proved how you could produce something really special if you had a modest budget and some seriously driven creative talent that wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
But above all, the Terminator remains one of the all-time greatest action movies ever made, and it’s not hard to see why. It starts with one of the greatest villain entrances ever as the Terminator arrives in L.A. buck naked, demands a gang of punks give up their clothes, and then rips the heart out of one of them to prove it isn’t kidding around. Later on, an introductory shootout and chase in a nightclub is a perfect case of how the movie spends half an hour building tension to an unbearable degree until it hits a breaking point by showing us in heart-stopping fashion just how much trouble Sarah really is in. But that scene has nothing on the movie’s moment of truth, when in the third act, Sarah is under police protection—where she isn’t anywhere nearly as safe as she would like to think. Kyle is in custody as well, since the police find his story of being a time-traveling soldier from the future just a little hard to swallow. The Terminator homes in on the police station, walks in, and in a poor approximation of subtlety asks if Sarah Connor is around. When the desk sergeant tells the Terminator to take a seat and wait, the Terminator it looks around, sees a whole lot of flimsy wood paneling, drywall and glass, and gives the desk sergeant the closest thing a robot can give to a warning: “I’ll be back.” Boy, would it ever. The bloodbath and fight-or-flight mayhem that occurs from that point forward is a unforgettable cinematic spectacle for the ages. The movies themselves would never be the same.