Arnie at 70: In praise of The Terminator

Will any of today’s action movies have the longevity of the 30-year-old classic The Terminator? This is the story of the blistering sci-fi thriller that sent the careers of Arnie and James Cameron into the stratosphere. 

Lou Thomas
Updated:

The Terminator (1984)

The Terminator (1984)

“I’ll be back” became Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature line but the first and best film he has uttered it in was the lean, brisk thriller that catapulted him and director James Cameron to the top of the Hollywood A-list. As Cameron later remarked to his leading man: “We did the first Terminator for the cost of your motor home on the second film.” Cameron exaggerated the extent of Arnie’s trailer requirements for the blockbusting Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) but at a cost of $6.4m, its predecessor was remarkably good value, especially as it unexpectedly made $78.4m at the box office.

We’re 57 minutes into The Terminator (1984) when Arnie first says it. The desk sergeant has refused to let him see Sarah Connor and offered a bench to wait on instead. After briefly inspecting the structural integrity of the police station and uttering the three words that bring greater joy to Arnold Schwarzenegger fans than any other, our not-quite man returns to crash his stolen police car into the reception. Finally, the guns come out and LA’s finest are mowed down in earnest. In a film bursting with explosive scenes of destruction and punk-rock intensity, it’s a nihilistic highlight.

Nice night for a walk

Schwarzenegger plays a T-800 Series Model 101 cyborg – essentially a robot covered in human flesh – sent back in time to 1984 from 2029. The T-800’s mission is to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the unborn John Connor. John is the future leader of the human resistance who fight against Skynet, a defence network of machines who will take control of the world following a nuclear war the machines had initiated. Fortunately for Sarah, her son sent a man back in time to follow the T-800 and protect her. That man was John’s best comrade in arms, the perspicacious Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). It transpires that Reese matches the Terminator in determination if not composition.

Nothing clean, right?

The Terminator (1984)

The Terminator (1984)

Before playing the metal assassin that would help him become a global star, Schwarzenegger was most famous as bodybuilder-turned-actor. He had won numerous tournaments for his weight-lifting prowess and snagged seven Mr Olympia titles (the world’s highest accolade for bodybuilders). Having made an inauspicious screen debut in Hercules in New York (1969) – his voice was dubbed because of his thick accent –  the rest of the 70s saw him play a number of bit parts and star in bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron (1976). Eventually, the title role in Conan the Barbarian (1981) injected some promise into Arnie’s career. The sword and sorcery fantasy became such a success that producer Dino De Laurentiis insisted Schwarzenegger shoot its sequel Conan the Destroyer (1984) before filming The Terminator, which delayed the latter by nine months.

It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear

Cameron himself originally conceived the film’s plot in a fever dream while in post-production on his directorial debut in Rome. He was recovering from sickness and the torrid time he’d had making Piranha II: The Spawning (1981). His lack of power and time in control on the schlocky horror sequel led him to later declare: “I don’t feel it was my first movie.” Thankfully, the one great thing he brought back from Italy to the US was his dream’s abiding image and one that would feature prominently in The Terminator’s penultimate scene: that of a robot rising from the flames.

The Terminator (1984)

The Terminator (1984)

An ostensibly invincible robot escaping a fiery demise would be a striking shot in any film. Here fire is a common visual motif and there are many occasions the camera lingers on flaming wreckage. It appears when a petrol tanker explodes before the robot resurrection. It appears in Reese’s dreams about the future war, taunting him on the battlefield and in the bunkers of the resistance. And it appears during the carnage of the aforementioned police station massacre. Cameron’s repeated imagery seems to suggest the fire can’t be escaped or extinguished despite humanity’s best efforts. Perhaps war is inevitable, even if the T-800 is defeated.

Fire isn’t the only cause or consequence of devastation on show. As one might expect in a story about the battle between men and machines, both are beaten and  annihilated by their tormentors with aplomb. In the opening scene, a thug has his heart ripped out. Elsewhere, people and machines are murdered with guns and lasers, blown up with explosives and crushed in hydraulic presses. Inanimate objects fare no better. Sirens blare, car tyres screech and windows smash. Just like Sarah Connor and Reese, the viewer has little time to stop and think when the ride is so dangerous and exhilarating. John Woo aficionados may have coined the term “bullet ballet” for A Better Tomorrow (1986), but two years before Cameron offered his own symphony of violence.

Come with me if you want to live

For its focus on time travel, future wars and robots, The Terminator is surprisingly street in both setting and production. Despite the extraordinary nature of the plot, the grimy underbelly of LA life is laid bare. Much of the film is set in filthy alleyways, scary car parks, sleazy motel rooms and dank tunnels. In one scene, a child catches a rat, presumably to eat. Reese hotwires a car, makes explosives from household goods and saws the barrel off a shotgun. The first protagonist and antagonist confrontation happens in a nightclub. Tramps have their trousers stolen and bouncers have their fingers broken. Where there is no pain or dirt, there is the mundane. Its heroine is a waitress sharing a room with a friend who has a penchant for midnight snacking. Viewers can empathise with the domestic detail, despite the suspension of disbelief required for the overall plot.

Certain aspects of the production mirror Reese’s DIY efforts at saving Sarah. Having run out of money at the end of the shoot, Cameron had to go guerrilla. When Arnie first punches a hole in a car window, the scene was shot without permits. The film’s final shot was also recorded on the fly and the crew were stopped by a local cop who they convinced they were shooting a student film.

On your feet, soldier

Action and grime aside, what turns a very good film into one that stands up to repeated viewings is a character who an audience roots for or at the very least become fascinated by. In terms of the former, Sarah Connor is a brilliant heroine and among the most important female characters in sci-fi and action cinema. When she first meets Reese she is scared, vulnerable and incredulous but slowly and believably hardens into a determined soldier-in-waiting.

The Terminator (1984)

The Terminator (1984)

By the film’s thrilling denouement, a classic narrative reversal has occurred. Sarah drags a crumpled Reese along and wills him to fight on, an unthinkable turn of events at the start of their adventure. Linda Hamilton would take her role far further in Terminator 2, where Sarah becomes akin to a female Kyle Reese, a brave, muscular protector full of steely determination and handy with any resource that can be used as a weapon.

If rooting for Sarah Connor comes naturally, then being awed by the T-800 is just as easy. Whether he’s dispensing terse one-liners or icily hunting his prey, Arnie has a unique poise and presence. Paramilitary magazine Soldier of Fortune even suggested the way he handled guns in the film was “entirely plausible”.

Given the way many see the Terminator as Schwarzenegger’s defining role, it’s difficult to imagine Lance Henriksen in the part, though at one point talks had progressed far enough for him to attend a meeting with executives while wearing Terminator-esque make up. Henriksen’s consolation prize would be the supporting role of Hal Vukovich, while the studio’s suggestion of O.J. Simpson came to nothing. In 1984 it was thought Simpson was too nice to play a killer.

Don’t make me bust you up, man

Schwarzenegger wasn’t the only person responsible for making the Terminator the terrifying killing machine it appears on screen. Stan Winston, hot from his grotesquely thrilling special effects work on John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), worked with Cameron on getting the robotics spot on. If viewers wince when the bloody robot arm tendons are tweaked, Winston’s crew are responsible. Meanwhile, special effects company Fantasy II took care of stop motion movement the T-800 needed.

It’s a shame that, excluding Dr. Strangelove (1964), civilisation’s end is not commonly explored for comedic purposes. Sci-fi and action are sometimes too concerned with maths and seriousness for their own good. Refreshingly, The Terminator’s moments of levity stop it becoming too po-faced. Arnie’s profane dismissal of his scruffy hotel housekeeper, the former’s forceful removal of a man from a phone box, and pretty much anything criminal psychologist Dr Silberman (Earl Boen) says is funny. Cameron and T3 director Jonathan Mostow evidently felt Boen’s efforts were worthy of more screen time: he became the only actor to appear in the first three films and play the same character.

Did you just see a real bright light?

Since The Terminator, Cameron has taken his ideas as far as anyone could have imagined. Aside from directing, producing and co-writing T2, he went on to direct and co-write Aliens (1986). The huge importance of the Alien heroine Ellen Ripley’s place in the sci-fi firmament is without question, while neither is Cameron’s affinity with strong female characters.

Sigourney Weaver, who played Ripley, also features prominently in Cameron’s Avatar (2009), which regardless of its merits is still the highest-grossing film ever made. Cameron’s few forays outside of the sci-fi genre include Schwarzenegger action romp True Lies (1994) and Titanic (1997), the second highest-grossing film ever made.

Predator (1987)

Predator (1987)

Arnie, of course, has become so famous that a truncated version of his forename is enough for even non-fans to identify him. For the rest of the 80s he mostly made deliciously camp but in-on-the-joke action films with the picks being Commando (1985), The Running Man (1987) and Predator (1987), aside from his first proper attempt at a comedy, Twins (1988).

The 90s saw him become the biggest action star in the world with Total Recall (1990), T2 and True Lies. The underrated Last Action Hero (1993) was a box office flop while Batman & Robin (1997) has frequently been cited as one of the worst films ever made. By 2003 he had become the governor of California, perhaps an even more remarkable real-life position than the fictional roles he has held on screen.

There’s a storm coming

Since leaving office in 2011, action roles have cropped up again and in 2015 Arnold Schwarzenegger will appear in Terminator: Genisys. James Cameron won’t be working on the fifth Terminator film and the whole enterprise seems a very long way from when producer Gale Anne Hurd brought his script for $1 with the condition he also directed it.

It’s been three decades since Brad Fiedel’s melancholic industrial theme first clanked purposefully over The Terminator’s credits, but Schwarzenegger isn’t one to forget. On the recent 30th anniversary of the film’s release he thanked fans for their loyalty and support in a special video. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary action film being praised the same way in 2044.

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