The Terminator (1984)
Succeeded by: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
James Cameron's innovative, apocalyptic android time-travel sci-fi was a hard-hitting action revelation for both mind and body when it was released under a relatively limited budget in 1984. It was only Cameron's second film, and arguably the first into which he had put his best effort, after debuting with the sequel Piranha Part Two three years prior. A fit and aptly placed Arnold Schwarzenegger consolidated his status as an otherworldly action hero, which he had established with the two Conan movies, and Cameron merged elements of horror and the superhero genre into his dark and relentless futuristic tale. It was a formula which was going to live on.
Stories dealing with time travels can arguably never be watertight, because circular argumentation will always apply: If the terminator succeeds in killing John Connor's mother, why would it have been sent back to kill John Connor's mother? Fortunately, Cameron and co-writer Gale Anne Hurd had already asked all these questions which viewers are often left throwing annoyed at the screen. In The Terminator, everything has been considered and everything holds up - despite the remaining ambivalence.
The thematic scare of The Terminator is humans versus machines, and the risk of the latter taking over control over us. Although this concept arguably was more recognizable during the cold war 1980s (WarGames had staged a similar idea a year earlier), it is presented rather timelessly in The Terminator, often with nods to the authorship of Stanislaw Lem. There is no preaching or cheap scare tactics, because Cameron isn't only intimidated by the machines, he's also vividly fascinated by them. Arnold's character may be the bad guy, but he is created by filmmakers who are attracted to his existence, and we cannot help but fall into the same mentality. Is there a soul in there? Where does artificial intelligence end and self-awareness begin?
Herd's and Cameron's script is clever, insightful and full of suspense. It keeps interest-level high and the viewer on the edge of his seat. And Cameron's direction combines shrewd storytelling with a knack for creating surging, perceptible action. He never runs astray with his images or allows them to become messy, even in the fast-paced segments. That is the sign of a stylistically confident filmmaker who probably knew he was about to create something out of the ordinary. And his The Terminator looks and feels just as crisp today as it did a quarter of a century ago.