“Three billion human lives ended on August 29th, 1997. The survivors of the nuclear fire called the war Judgment Day. They lived only to face a new nightmare: the war against the machines”.
Yes, friends, today’s the day that Skynet, the malevolent artificial intelligence of the Terminator franchise (Various, 1984 to 2019) was said to have launched an all-out nuclear attack against humanity and reduced us to the point of extinction. Subsequent Terminator films and media may have changed this date, and the specifics of Judgement Day, but one thing’s for sure: there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.
Released: 26 October 1984
Director: James Cameron
Distributor: Orion Pictures
Budget: $6.4 million
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, and Paul Winfield
The Terminator (Schwarzenegger), a ramosely, relentless cybernetic killer, is sent back in time from the year 2029 to kill Sarah Connor (Hamilton), who is destined to give birth to the saviour of humankind. Her only hope is Kyle Reese (Biehn), a human Resistance fighter sent back in time to protect her and safeguard the future for humanity.
In 1982, filmmaker James Cameron awoke from a nightmare that was destined to give birth to one of the most influential science-fiction films of all time; inspired by an episode of The Outer Limits (1963 to 1965) and surely influenced by the likes of Westworld (Crichton, 1973), Cameron crafted a script that few, even the eventual stars, had any real faith in at the time. Initially uncertain about casting Schwarzenegger in the titular role, Cameron was won over by the Austrian Oak and, despite only having seventeen lines in the film, The Terminator made Arnold a mainstream icon and featured the debut of his famous catchphrase. Despite the studio having little faith in the film, The Terminator went on to gross nearly $80 million at the box office and was a resounding critical success. The film catapulted Schwarzenegger to superstardom, was preserved in the United States National Film Registry, and inspired first a blockbuster sequel then a slew of merchandise (including videogames, toys, and comic books) and mediocre to lacklustre continuations in a seemingly-never-ending bid to milk the franchise for all it’s worth.
The Terminator opens with one of the most startling and iconic visions of the future ever put the film; in a dark, post-apocalyptic landscape literally littered with human skulls, remains, and the remnants of a once bustling society, machines reign supreme. Gigantic tank-like constructs and airborne fighters are only a part of Skynet’s vast mechanical army, however, which has over-run the world after directly causing a nuclear apocalypse. With the last vestiges of humanity reduced to a rag-tag group of guerrilla soldiers and desolate, frightened civilians, this is a world where humankind is on the very brink of extinction thanks to Skynet’s superior forces and weaponry.
However, the fate of the world is not destined to be decided in 2029; instead, that grim future lives on in the nightmares and memories of Kyle Reese and hangs in the air like an ominous cloud as he desperately attempts to keep Sarah Connor alive. After the human resistance, led by Sarah’s future son, John, scored a decisive and crippling victory over their mechanical oppressors in the future, Skynet activated its most daring plan yet by sending a Terminator, a T-800 model, back to 1984 to kill the mother of its enemy to pre-emptively win the war before it can even begin. In the world of The Terminator, time is like the branches of a tree, splitting off down multiple paths, with no one future being set in time; however, victory in one timeline is deemed victory enough for Skynet and so begins one of the more convoluted science-fiction franchises.
Disorientated and overwhelmed by the time travel experience (and the sights, sounds, and hustle and bustle of then-present-day Los Angeles), Reese is an agitated, highly-strung, and unpredictable individual. He quickly acclimatises himself to his environment, acquiring a degree of clothing and weaponry, and begins to track down (more like stalk) his assignment. Reese is extremely focused and absolutely dedicated to his mission, determined to protect Sarah even at the cost of his own life and over all other concerns; he never gets unduly distracted and is almost as obsessed and determined as the titular Terminator. Haunted by his traumatic experiences in the future war, Reese has no time for frivolities and very little patience for wasting his time; when psychoanalysed by Doctor Silberman (Earl Boen), he flies into a furious rage at having to answer his questions and being held captive when the Terminator is out there, relentlessly hunting its prey.
Far from the capable and competent character she would later become, Sarah is a meek and relatively uninspiring waitress in The Terminator; the literal definition of a nobody, she’s overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated at work and, despite having friends and a social life, is relatively lonely and unassuming at the start of the film. Disturbed to find that women baring her name have been brutally shot to death across town, Sarah does the smart and logical thing by trying to contact the police but her distress is only increased when she notices Reese following her. When Reese saves her from the Terminator and begins to bark orders at her and rant about a dystopian future and cyborg assassins, she is overwhelmed, clearly scared out of her mind, and, naturally, doesn’t believe a word of what he says. In their earliest moments together, Sarah actually shows some fire when she tries to fight Reese off but, gradually, she comes to see that his ravings are all too true and shows a shadow of the potential she has as an assertive individual by first tending to Reese’s gunshot wound and, in the finale, inspiring him to continue fighting even while mortally wounded and, ultimately, overcoming her pursuer through her own initiative.
Of course, when you’re talking about The Terminator, you have to talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger; since he’s a walking mountain of a man, it may be difficult to believe that the T-800 was ever an effective infiltration machine but Arnold plays the part of a cold, emotionless cyborg to absolute perfection. The T-800’s monotone voice, unblinking stare, and relentless tenacity make it a chilling villain alone but its menace is only increased by its human appearance; unlike slasher villains and other movie monsters, the Terminator looks and acts human, even sweating and bleeding, and its inhumanity is only revealed in its fittingly machine-like efficiency and the degradation of its outer skin over the course of the film. Cold, remorseless, lacking both empathy and pity, the Terminator doesn’t hesitate to gun down or eviscerate those on its path and is, for all intents and purposes, absolutely unstoppable with the weaponry available to Reese.
Because of this, The Terminator is, largely, an escort mission for Reese and a constant race against a unrelenting antagonistic force. Constantly on the defensive, hounded by the Terminator and the police at every turn, Reese and Sarah have few chances to stop and catch their breath but make use of every moment they have together. At first, this means acquiring new vehicles to evade pursuit, finding lodgings, and cobbling together more effective weaponry but, in time, Reese, admits that his motivation to travel through time wasn’t just out of blind devotion to his much-respected commander-in-chief, it was also out of love for Sarah. Though he struggles with these feelings and to stay completely focused on his mission, Sarah, grateful for his affections, protection, and all that he has sacrificed for her (and deeply sympathetic towards the unspeakable horrors he’s lived through in the future), reciprocates his feelings and, amidst the terror of their predicament, they come together (both literally and figuratively).
One of the first and most striking things about The Terminator, thanks to its simple but effective title sequence, is Brad Fiedel’s iconic Terminator theme; a rhythmic, synthetic symphony that resembles a heartbeat, the theme is both memorable and versatile, emphasising the Terminator’s ominous presence whenever it is onscreen and being sped up, slowed down, or played on different instruments to punctuate more emotional or energetic moments of the film. The Terminator also has a grimy, bleak aesthetic and tone that is in stark contrast to its more outlandish science-fiction elements in a style that Cameron described as “Tech-Noir”; sadly, too few films try to emulate this style of filmmaking, to say nothing of The Terminator’s many sequels, which emphasised blockbuster action over tense, atmospheric dread and the unsettling horror of the T-800.
The Terminator is almost genius in its premise; the idea of a cybernetic assassin that is purposely made to appear human means that the film can build towards its more striking sci-fi elements and allows it to use its budget wisely in service of a steadily increasing pace. It isn’t until nearly forty minutes into the film that we first see through the T-800’s eyes or see (and hear) how ineffective conventional firearms are against it and, as the T-800 is further damaged by gunfire, car crashes, and explosions, more and more of its mechanical innards are revealed. This leads to some ambitious practical effects and animatronic shots, such as the T-800 fixing damaged servos in its wrist, amputating a wounded eye, and sporting a bloodied chrome skull beneath its torn skin.
While many of these shots now look rather dated, especially compared to the vastly superior special effects of the second film, they’re still impressive for the time and considering the budget of the film. The Terminator also features some complex and remarkable model shots and miniatures, specifically whenever it jumps to Reese’s nightmares of the future war, and concludes with an ambitious, if clunky, stop-motion effect to bring the exposed T-800 endoskeleton to life. Thankfully, this is only for a brief scene and animatronics and puppets are used for the remainder of the conclusion and to astonishing effect; with a practical, tangible effect to work against, Reese’s final and tragic last stand against the T-800 and its ultimate destruction are all the more compelling and cathartic since it actually feels as though these characters have overcome a very real and very dangerous threat.
If there’s a downside to The Terminator, though, it’s that Arnold’s alluring screen presence is lost in this finale; although it hardly speaks a word throughout the film, the T-800 has a commanding and captivating screen presence thanks to its unflinching, stoic expression and ability to emulate voices to pass as human. Its human façade erodes over time just as Reese’s rational, machine-like efficiency gives way to human emotion and affection, and it becomes noticeably more aggressive and bolder in its pursuit of Sarah. Initially, there’s a sense that you could survive an encounter with the T-800 if you simply acquiesced to its demands for clothes and weapons but, by the end, it’s storming a police station and gunning down countless police officers without any hint of subterfuge or subtlety. Similarly, while it initially tries to mask its decaying exterior, it abandons all pretence and pursues them, gammy leg and all, as little more than a remorseless, inhuman, mechanical monster.
Of course, a central theme to The Terminator, and the entire Terminator franchise, is of fate. Reese carries with him a message from John, to Sarah, that there “is no fate but what we make”, which is designed to inspire her to allow Reese to protect her and to fight to change the future. Reese describes 2029 as a “possible future”, again indicating that humanity is not necessarily doomed to extinction and extermination, but the very fact that Sarah and Reese’s unity results in her pregnancy ends the film on an ominous cliff-hanger that suggests that, while the future may not necessarily be set in stone, it is destined to happen one way or another. Later films and Terminator media would greatly expand upon this and use it as an excuse to continue the franchise, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so, but, thanks to an excised sub-plot, there’s little in the film to suggest that the goal is to change the future. Instead, the idea is to preserve the future; by ensuring Sarah’s survival, Reese ensures (at the cost of his own life) that John is born, and humanity is victorious in the future. Fate, however, dictates that this future timeline remains on course since not only does Reese inadvertently become the father of the future (so to speak) but they practically bring about the creation of Skynet through their final confrontation with the Terminator; while this is, obviously a major part of the sequel, the fact that the film purposely ends on a cliff-hanger and with a few unresolved loose ends suggests, however implicitly, that fate is as inexorable as the Terminator itself.
The Terminator is another of the formative films of my childhood; it was, to my earliest recollection, one of the first films I watched to revolve around time travel and present a dystopian, nightmarish future where humanity has been reduced to pockets of underequipped soldiers. It had a lasting effect on my imagination thanks to its bleak visuals, horrific special effects, and thought-provoking approach to time and fate, and was directly responsible for my appreciation and affection for the works of Arnold Schwarzenegger over the years.
Though the future is a dismal, desolate landscape filled with ruins and suffering, The Terminator is a film as much about hope as it is about inescapable destiny; even with everything lost, humanity continues to fight back against the machines and, even though he’s far from the ravages of that war-torn future, Reese continues to adhere to his mission, whatever the cost, in order to ensure that humanity will, ultimately, triumph. It’s tricky to decide which is better between this and the sequel but, while Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, 1991) may be bigger, better, and more impressive in almost every way, sometimes it’s just as entertaining to return to the grim, gritty original, which is much more like a traditional slasher or horror film than a sci-fi/action piece and, as a result, just as entertaining in its own right thanks to its simple, but ambitious, story and effects.
What are your thoughts on The Terminator? How do you think it holds up today, especially compared to its other sequels? What did you think of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance in the film and do you think it made sense for him to play the titular cyborg? What did you think to the film’s portrayal of fate, especially considering how the later films skewed the concept somewhat? Would you like to see another Terminator film more in the style of this one rather than the bombastic sequel or do you think it’s better to leave the franchise as it is after everything its been through? How are you celebrating Judgement Day today? No matter what you think about The Terminator, and the Terminator franchise, feel free to leave a comment down below.