Hard to believe now but, in 1984, James “King Of The World” Cameron, the sultan of the summer-sized event flick, unleashed a keen, lean and metal-mean conceptual sci-fi thriller. It didn’t sink under its ambitions. It didn’t let its star, a pre-parodic Arnold Schwarzenegger, loose on any quote-sized quips. It lifted from Alien, robot movies, slasher flicks, conspiracy thrillers and film noir, yet emerged as a brash, bolshy beast of its own. And, post-Alien and pre-Aliens, it helped engineer a switch for female actors from ’80s career-girl types to action-geared leads. The Terminator was small and cheap, but it was deadly effective.
Even now, Cameron’s script and plotting look like a test-case in efficiency. If you didn’t already know, you might have guessed that the guy was trained in the grab-’em-fast Roger Corman production school. Two visitors from a machine-dominated future arrive in LA. One is a cyborg out to terminate Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), whose as-yet-unconceived son will grow up to become the leader of the human resistance; the other is a resistance foot soldier (Michael Biehn), sent back from 2029 to save Sarah’s life.
Cameron marshals the strands into a tough, terse package that’s well-driven by the Austrian Oak. The Terminator plays smartly to Arnie’s limited range, giving him the affectless forward momentum of Halloween’s Michael Myers and the pure purpose of Ridley Scott’s alien (“It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with...”) while keeping any wry winks at the man’s iconic standing nice and sly. (With witty inaccuracy, one thug calls Arnold “a couple of cans short of a six-pack”.) By contrast, Hamilton’s “arc” is surprisingly full and persuasive, given the film’s brief running time (107 mins), turning her from a big-haired, shoulder-padded ’80s gal to an action icon-to-be.
Sure, the script clunks and grinds occasionally and Arnie’s effects-enhanced face isn’t always convincing, but then again, his real one rarely is. But the heavy-metal future hell Cameron cooks up still steams with potency and, for those coming to it for the first time, the film grips like a steel hand. As a sci-fi thriller with the guts to take itself seriously, before genre flicks became too nod’n’wink, it’s a future vision well worth going back to.