It stands to reason that The Terminator came from a nightmare. James Cameron’s second directorial effort stemmed from his nightmare experience of trying to call the shots on his first feature film as director, Piranha II: The Spawning – a shoot that Cameron found himself locked out of by its producer. His experiences were so bad that the legend goes that Cameron, in the midst of a fever dream brought on by the horrible experiences of his first directing gig, had a nightmare about a robotic endoskeleton rising from burning flames.
Whether or not this really did happen, or is just a matter of ‘print the legend’ when it comes to the origin tales of famous films and their even more famous directors, it’s a story that just helps further cement the brilliance of James Cameron’s second film. It’s a shame it isn’t his debut, even if in our minds we kind of equate it with being his first. If it had been the first time he called “action” on a movie set, The Terminator would have been one hell of a calling card for a director who would one day claim to be king of the world and constantly rewrite the rulebook when it came to producing and directing brilliant Hollywood blockbusters.
So many aspects of The Terminator have fallen into the realm of myth, and urban legend: how there was talk of O.J. Simpson being cast as the titular character but then dismissed because many behind the scenes thought that it would be too much of a stretch for anyone to believe he could be a killer; how Lance Henriksen was the final choice, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was in consideration for Kyle Reese before Cameron realised that Conan the Barbarian would be an even better choice for the titular character.
It would end up being a film both of its time and beyond it; a time capsule from 1984 that has all the hallmarks of an 80’s film (the fashions, the hairstyles, a brilliant synth-driven score from Brad Fiedel) and yet features the type of world-building and mythology that has helped give The Terminator a timeless feel, like some sort of dark, punk Star Wars. As if Cameron, working with one of his lowest budgets as director, decided to marry the type of world-building thinking that one would have expected from George Lucas, but with a low-budget, exploitation film that would reach beyond the realms of slasher and exploitation in a way reminiscent of John Carpenter and eventually into something approaching punk art. It almost seems apt that the first people the T-800 (Schwarzenegger) encounters when he lands in the Los Angeles of 1984 are a bunch of punks just itching for a fight and who get the tables turned on them in violently spectacular fashion.
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The Terminator moves like a rocket ship from the moment it opens, teasing its hellish future magnificently, hinted at in dream sequences dotted throughout before launching itself into a never-ending chase for Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) that takes on the dark-noir streets of Los Angeles, 1984. With only her protector – also from the future – by her side, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn, who should have become a bigger star if his sensitive action hero performance here is anything to go by) and Sarah find themselves up against a world that will never believe them, in a film that is the perfect combination of action, sci-fi, and horror.
Cameron may have gone on to direct Aliens right after this, but never again would his work ever come close to approaching the pure horror that The Terminator would offer, nor would he be as streamlined, dark or nasty again. That isn’t to say that being dark and nasty is the only thing the film has to offer. One of the many who got their starts from the world of Roger Corman, The Terminator is the closest Cameron would come to a full-blooded horror and slasher movie; instead the killer is not flesh and blood (strictly speaking) or supernatural, he is a robot. Instead of knives he uses guns, and the final girl isn’t just someone who has to survive, she is the ultimate mother whose child will save us all.
For a film that plays very much in the realm of the slasher, it does so on an epic canvas that would be expanded even further in Terminator 2 (that rare type of sequel that went bigger and ended up being genuinely better than the original) but which never forgets about heart and soul. Nobody in Hollywood can mount an action sequence as spectacularly or as cleanly as James Cameron and yet he never gets the credit that he deserves for his writing. Sure, we may make fun now because we’ve lost count of how many Avatar sequels are in development, but his films work because of the brilliance of their structure, their characters, their twists and turns, and their ability to genuinely surprise.
The Terminator may be a killer robot film, but it’s one with a love story (the first of many) rooted at its core and one in which destiny means Kyle and Sarah must get together before the credits roll. That Kyle doesn’t make it to the end gives the film a tragic undercurrent, but before we and Sarah can mourn, the horror starts up again. Most movies lose points easily for not knowing how to end, but there’s no denying that Cameron is the master of ending things and then starting them up again. Every time you think it’s over, it’s not. The film is a mean machine of escalation and cyborg horror that only the director’s own sequel has surpassed. The less said about the other sequels the better.
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Then there’s Schwarzenegger, playing a pure-blooded villain for the only time in his career (no, Batman and Robin does not count). He exudes menace and fear in a way that actors more highly regarded may have struggled with. The sequel may turn him into a hero for an audience more used to seeing him play heroes in the seven-year gap between first and second film, but given how dark that Austrian charm of his can actually be turned, there is almost a feeling of disappointment that he didn’t play a villain again. Even his famous catchphrase, which has its origins here, is used as a dark joke that plays even more spectacularly given the chaos that takes place immediately after.
The Terminator isn’t just important for how it launched the careers of Cameron and Schwarzenneger and its impact on blockbuster cinema – there’s also Linda Hamilton and Gale Anne Hurd. While Cameron is the one who has changed the face of Hollywood on many occasions, film making has frequently ended up being, quite wrongly, a man’s game, and which many in the industry are trying to change every day. One of the most important names to appear on The Terminator is that of Gale Anne Hurd, who produced the film and would do the same for other Cameron films such as Aliens and the forever underrated The Abyss. Hurd would go on to not only be that rarity, a female producer, but one with a massive hand in genre productions, from comic book movies such as Hulk, to massive television success The Walking Dead and disaster movies such as Dante’s Peak and Armageddon.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day would further develop Sarah Connor’s character and Linda Hamilton’s performance. Her performance here is genuinely sympathetic and engaging, but the sequel would give a generation of moviegoers one of the most complex and legitimately tough female characters in movie history. That she stemmed from a film such as this, produced by a female producer who has managed to keep a massive foothold on an industry resistant to inclusivity should be no surprise.