Virtually no other film of the 80’s is as closely associated with its time as The Terminator. Presenting an apocalyptic vision against the backdrop of a nuclear war, it includes a strong woman as humanity’s salvation, and an ice-cool aesthetic typified by the unforgettable black shades of the muscular terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger). The iconography of the film bears the inscription of a culture at its peak, in which new-wave music, stylish hair and black clothing all combine to conceal the insecurity that lurks behind the facade of an often narcissistic pose.
On the other hand, like the design-inspired, post-modern French productions Subway (1995) and Betty Blue (1985), the film itself contributed to the creation of this lifestyle. The direct, clear arrangements and self-conscious juggling of aesthetic parameters were mostly intended to achieve superficial effects, the cultural hallmark of the decade, which inevitably characterized the cinematic style of The Terminator. The bold, explicit storytelling and the straightforward presentation yield a film that unfolds almost entirely without dialog. The secret lies in the captivating mixture of thriller, science fiction, action and romance. And last but not least, in the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the multiple bodybuilding world champion who made his international breakthrough with this film, thereby committing himself to the stereotype of the taciturn superman. But this fixation on the seemingly one-dimensional image of undiluted virility paired with cool ruthlessness actually proved surprisingly flexible, as was shown by the sequel Terminator 2; Judgement Day (1991), in which Schwarzenegger took the public completely by surprise by portraying a thoroughly charming terminator.
The first movie, however, created the image of a killer without a conscience. After an atomic war, machines have seized power. Initially created as the ideal security system, they soon train their sights on the human race. A handful of underground fighters led by the charismatic John Connor offer a tenacious resistance. In order to crush the resistance fighters, the machines send a killer machine in human form back in time to the year 1984. His mission: to “Terminate” Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the future resistance leader and eventual liberator of the human race. The arrival of the terminator is like the diabolical birth of a new species. A spark-filled electric discharge and a blinding flash of white light precede a muscular male body that materialized from a cloud of smoke. It is a cyber-kinetic organism, a cyborg; the terminator. Bullets cannot harm him and mechanical violence can only damage the surface made of skin and tissue. Underneath his soft exterior gleams an evil-looking metal skeleton and demonic red eyes glow out of his iron skull. Against such a background, the remarkable absence of dialog becomes understandable, for any superfluous word would be detrimental to the effect of the body language. Why talk when the only logical course of action is to run for your lift? The resulting pursuit is as good as they come.
The hair-raising car, motorcycle, and tanker chases, reminiscent of The Getaway (1972) or To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), are pure physical cinema, a somatic depiction of movement, whose effect resides in the fact that it knows no obstacles. Even in places of ostensible security like a police station or a motel, peace is merely a deceptive illusion, destroyed in an instant by the kinetic force of the terminator. From the very start, the gloomy vision of the future leaves no doubt that it will be almost impossible to protect Sarah Connor from the terminator’s deadly mission. While at the beginning of the film, the unknown motivation for the terminator’s Draconian campaign provides for a nerve-wracking suspense a la Night of the Living Dead (1968), the rest of the film gradually focuses on the question of when the hunter will finally bag his prey and bring the pursuit to its dreadful conclusion. Because even Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a fighter sent from the future by the humans to protect Sarah Connor, is unable to stop the terminator he is, however, able to delay its mission long enough for Sarah eventually to succeed in crushing the seemingly indestructible metal torso of the terminator in a metal press after a furious chase. So it is Sarah Connor herself who terminates the terminator and takes the fate of the future in her hands, because a short romance between Reese and Connor has provided for the existence of humanity’s future emancipator, whose turbulent childhood is chronicled in the equally impressive sequel.
James Cameron succeeded in creating a formally persuasive film. Schwarzenegger’s figure is an convincing as the new visual language, which allows the audience to see with the eyes of the “machine,” thus dissolving the borders between humanity and artificiality.
Near the beginning of the first movie, when Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton) receives a message on her answering machine from a man cancelling a date, the voice on the machine is director James Cameron's. Hamilton and Cameron got married years later but have since divorced.
Mel Gibson turned down the role of the Terminator. O.J. Simpson was also considered for the role but the producers thought he was "too nice" to be taken seriously as a cold-blooded killer.
Kyle Reese: There was a nuclear war. A few years from now, all this, this whole place, everything, it's gone, just gone. There were survivors. Here, there. Nobody even knew who started it. It was the machines, Sarah.
Sarah Connor: I don't understand.
Reese: Defense network computers. New... powerful... hooked into everything, trusted to run it all. They say it got smart, a new order of intelligence. Then it saw all people as a threat, not just the ones on the other side. Decided our fate in a micro-second extermination.
GOOFS AND BLUNDERS
When the Terminator is rising to his feet after getting blasted out the window, a production vehicle and a huge stage light are visible behind him.
The boom microphone is reflected in Sarah's sunglasses when she puts them on just before driving off at the end of the film.
When Sarah is put into the ambulance, the boom microphone is briefly reflected in the left rear window.
In the second future-war sequence when the H-K is pursuing the car, you can briefly see a semi trailer in the background, which may be the production vehicle.
A stage light is visible in the background when Reese is in his crouch after arriving from the future.
When the Terminator finishes punching the hole in the door to the computer factory and walks in, a puppeteer's head can be briefly seen behind him.
When the Terminator skeleton rises out of the flames, a silhouette of a crew member can be seen behind the flames, rising from a crouch to pull a big lever. As the lever comes down, the metal skeleton rises up.