The Terminator

Directed By: James Cameron

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, and Paul Winfield

"Thank you, Sarah, for your courage through the dark years.  I can't help you with what you must soon face, except to say that the future is not set.  You must be stronger than you imagine you can be.  You must survive, or I will never exist."
-Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn)

Very few films, especially franchise installments, leave an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape.  If we look to those big budget spectacles that historically fit the bill, they're more often than not science fiction films.  Big budget pop culture masterpieces like The Empire Strikes Back, Planet of the Apes, and Alien all fit that bill.  Sometimes, however, it's the smaller films that make the big splash. The quintessential example of this is perhaps none other than James Cameron's sci-fi classic The Terminator.  Budgeted at $6 million, helmed by the relatively unknown Cameron, and starring the still rising Arnold Schwarzenegger, there's no reason on paper to have believed that this low profile 1984 sci-fi thriller would lay the groundwork for the modern blockbuster as we know it and simultaneously revolutionize time travel on the big screen for decades to come.

In the year 2029 A.D., war is raging between mankind and machines.  Decades prior, an artificial intelligence defense system known as Skynet becomes self-aware and launches nuclear warfare on the humans.  A man known as John Connor rises up and leads the Resistance against these machines bent on the extinction of the human race.  Now, the Resistance is on the precipice of victory, and the machines just can't have that.  With this in mind, Skynet sends a cybernetic organism known as the Terminator (Schwarzenegger) back to 1984 Los Angeles to kill John Connor before he's even born by killing his mother Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).

Boasting a metallic endoskeleton and human flesh on its exterior, The Terminator is a machine built for one purpose — death.  With Sarah Connor being a fairly common name, The Terminator starts eliminating anyone in the Los Angeles area bearing this fateful name.  Recognizing the danger posed by this cyborg, the Resistance sends fighter Kyle Reese (Biehn) back in time.  Mere flesh and bones, Reese may not be enough to stop it from getting to the Sarah Connor he's been sent back in time to protect.  This is evidenced by the Terminator's bloody path of destruction through the streets of Los Angeles as well as the media whirlwind and police investigation led by Lieutenant Ed Traxler (Paul Winfield).

There's nothing else in blockbuster cinema quite like The Terminator.  James Cameron's low budget indie is one of the all-time great films.  With pulse-pounding action sequences, endless suspense, and one incredible story, this sci-fi thriller blazes a bloody trail into the annals of cinematic history.  Laced with gunfire, destruction, and mayhem, the sound mixing is nothing short of incredible.  What most impresses me throughout the film is how Cameron builds tension with some epic 80s electronic music.  Cameron does all of this to showcase his cyborg's nightmarish reign of terror in grand style.  Moreover, The Terminator is in many ways not just a sci-fi thriller but a fright fest.

I can't talk about The Terminator without explicitly addressing time travel.  The opening quote from Kyle Reese says it all.  The future is not set, yet one version of the future is altering the film's present in 1984 in an attempt to put the world on course for a different future.  This is a rich and intriguing premise.  If Sarah Connor doesn't give birth to John Connor, the Resistance never rises, and mankind is doomed to oblivion.  At the same time, John Connor is never born if the adult John Connor doesn't send his younger friend Kyle Reese into his past.  The past and future are very co-dependent upon one another.  Either way, the Terminator has come to forever alter this time cycle.  This notion of time as cyclical lends itself to a rather profound and thought-provoking take on time travel on the big screen, one that has reverberated throughout cinema for decades.

The Terminator is a film that could have been made or broken on the basis of a single performance, that of Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Conan the Barbarian may have put the Governator on the map, but his first outing as this futuristic killing machine elevated him to another level as action royalty.  Though one could argue that he's a relentless murderer akin to slashers Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, Schwarzenegger's Terminator is so much more than that.  Schwarzenegger gives us an imposing physical specimen who stalks his prey with a slow, menacing walk like said horror slashers.  More importantly, however, he gives us a one of the great cinematic villains of all time and a pop culture icon with his cold, calculating performance, something Voorhees and Myers will never achieve.

Schwarzenegger may dominate The Terminator, but Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton are no slouches as Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor respectively.  For his part as Reese, Biehn gives us a brave, resourceful action hero up against insurmountable odds.  However, this isn't what makes his performance memorable.  In his nuanced portrayal of Reese, Biehn gives us a man scarred by the perpetual warfare of the future who still somehow manages to have love in his heart.  For her part as Connor, Hamilton primarily gives us a damsel in distress doubly terrified by the nightmarish future that awaits her and the vicious, brutal slice of it that hunts her in the present.  She does infuse her performance with flickers of the spunky, scrappy attributes that come to define the Terminator matriarch later in the series.  These attributes come to the forefront in the film's climax.

I've got nothing but love for The Terminator.  James Cameron's cinematic spectacle gave birth to a franchise that's still going to this day and has influenced generations of films in its innovative approach to both time travel and futuristic warfare between mankind and machines.  This film has more than just stood the test of time.  It's gotten better and better with it.  The Terminator gets a sober rating.