1984 proved a mixed year for sci-fi – some successful (Ghostbusters), some flops (Dune) and some no one remembers at all (a 2001 sequel called 2010). But none had such an impact on pop culture as The Terminator, making 13 times its $6m budget and spawning a franchise that flies in the face of the original’s simplicity.
James Cameron’s tech-noir classic comes stripped-down and bracing, an epic love story inside a B movie skin. The plot is simple: a robot from the year 2029 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) comes back to 1984 Los Angeles to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton); a soldier called Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) follows him to protect her. What ensues is a killer robot movie with a soul, where the characters are coherent and the stakes high – wall-to-wall action guided by powerful emotion.
Cameron’s experience as a matte painter on Escape From New York manifests in the dark, atmospheric design of a city already half dystopian, the mechanical enemy already living among us. Stan Winston’s special effects are strikingly convincing, mixing stop-motion, robotics and everything in between to create a seamless vision of a frighteningly possible future. Brad Fiedel’s score (in 13/16 time) is industrial and futuristic, moving delicately to piano for Sarah and Kyle’s love scene; “I came across time for you Sarah.” No pressure!
The central triangle is brilliantly performed (clearly this is Arnie’s perfect role), with Hamilton believably selling Sarah’s toughness, vulnerability and growth over the course of the film as she edges ever closer to the badass of Terminator 2 – all that time in an institution certainly did wonders for her hair. That she spends the first film threatened over her body before fulfilling (or not) her motherly responsibilities in the sequel mirrors Ripley’s arc in Alien and Aliens, demonstrating Cameron’s talent for balancing strong character work with Austrian leather robots.
Every scene is exhilarating and every line quotable – even the font is iconic. The Terminator is consistently scary as well as exciting, managing real humour amid the alarmingly bleak scenario. In short it’s probably the best film of 1984 and 2029 simultaneously.