Great Action is Great Storytelling: James Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984)

A shot of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) watching TV in James Cameron's "The Terminator" (1984)

[For an in-depth video discussion of James Cameron’s “Terminator” films with Jessica Schneider, click here.]

I have a long history with the first two Terminator films. James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) I watched on VHS, following a visit to a video rental store. I was nine and the film came recommended. Those who were never kids in the ‘80s will never know what it was like to ‘rent a movie,’ where it wasn’t uncommon to spend upward of an hour poring over empty cassette cases, carefully deciding on which one. This required commitment, in contrast to today where one can begin streaming and stop if the film is boring.

So, what I am getting at is that these first two films carry personal significance. Not that I was ever excessively into sci-fi, but I must have known quality writing, even then. Now, years later, I have watched this film numerous times and so I am able to view it from a distance. The Terminator isn’t a poetic film per se, but rather, it is well-written, ‘prose-driven’ cinema. Its success is proof that a film can be commercial and of quality, but more on that later.

How it begins is this: A ‘man’ (Arnold Schwarzenegger) appears in an alleyway unclothed, as though birthed from lightning. We don’t know who he is, and herein exists the cleverness of the writing. He encounters several ‘80s punk rockers (including a young Bill Paxton) from whom he demands clothes. ‘Wash day tomorrow? Nothing clean, right?’ one punk asks. Perfunctorily, the Terminator replies, ‘Nothing clean, right.’ A knife fight ensues and one of the punks undergoes a grisly death (the Terminator pulling out his heart with his fist). Without hesitation, the one unharmed punk offers up his clothes.

Meantime, another man appears who we learn is Sgt. Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). He too births from the light nude and is forced to steal clothes from a homeless man. Cops are onto him, as he looks suspicious. Running through a department store, he manages to steal a jacket and a pair of shoes. Both men are on a mission—one to kill and the other to protect Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), whose unborn son (John) will lead the Human Resistance Movement against Skynet. Thus, the future essentially becomes man against machine, where Skynet undergoes a form of ‘self-realization’ and contains its own sentience. Also, James Cameron admitted to ‘ripping off’ several Outer Limits episodes, written by Harlan Ellison. A video explains the controversy, wherein Cameron was forced to settle in court on account of plagiarism.

Sarah lives with a roommate, works as a waitress, and she isn’t a very good one. Lacking confidence, she mixes up orders and spills water on a customer, as a young boy inserts a spoonful of ice cream into her apron. ‘Look at it this way—in 100 years, who is gonna care?’ her coworker asks. Life doesn’t just happen to her, but it walks on her. Bumbling about, Sarah seems like a nice, young woman albeit disorganized, painfully ordinary, and unsure of herself. It is during her shift that she learns that another Sarah Connor was shot in her home. ‘You’re dead, honey,’ her coworker says.

In just these few interactions, we get a sense of Sarah’s character, as well as human moments among her coworkers that make this film more than mere ‘plot-driven’ cinema. Later that evening, Sarah is stood up by a date (it seems like not many men respect her) and so she decides to go out while her roommate and boyfriend remain home. (A bad move on their part, as the Terminator takes them both out.) Then, upon learning that there is a second Sarah Connor murdered, she grows fearful. A man is following her, but she doesn’t know who he is. She goes into a Tech-Noir club (which is full of 1980s gems—a la hairstyles, clothing, and music) and lo and behold, the Terminator shows up. But through meticulous observation and planning, Reese does too.

We learn that Reese volunteered for the job of protecting Sarah. ‘It was a chance to meet the legend,’ he says. His future world is bereft of sunlight and trees and instead is filled with a metallic wilderness of gunfight and skulls. Sarah, who doesn’t believe him at first, comes to trust him. This result is two-fold. First, after the Terminator (cybernetic organism T-800) manages to murder 30 cops at the police station, she is not left with much choice. Second, that Reese views her as such a brave and important woman is not only shocking but also likely flattering. (His encouragement at least gets her to eventually see herself differently.)  ‘I can’t even balance my checkbook!’ she cries. And although her character is somewhat timid, we are given glimpses of her anger: ‘Look Reese, I didn’t ask for this honor—and I don’t want it—any of it!’ In her life, customers don’t respect her, men stand her up, and life walks over her. But Reese, this man from the future, views her respectfully.

As with any futuristic film involving time-travel, there are always questions that are left to a suspension of disbelief. If Reese is John’s father, how did he end up young in the future? How would he know when Sarah was fertile? Why would Skynet send a cyborg with a thick, Austrian accent to 1984 Los Angeles when the machine is capable of imitating anyone’s voice? And where is the city lockdown in search of this ‘murdering mystery man’? Furthermore, when the cyborg is injured, both Sarah and Reese undergo similar injuries. As example, after an explosion, metal rises out from the fire and begins to move towards them. The cyborg’s leg is damaged and so it limps slowly. Likewise, both Sarah and Reese are injured and limp slowly. When the cyborg is crushed in half, it is forced to pull itself by its arms. And Sarah, who has just pulled shrapnel out from her leg, also pulls herself by her arms. The only defeat? Crushing it. (Which many online have wondered how she knew just the right button to press.)

But all this is negligible. What distinguishes this film from your typical Hollywood Blockbuster is the strength of character. As example, the two cops have their playful bickering back and forth. ‘You know that coffee is two hours cold? I put a cigarette out in it.’ In addition, no one ever listens to police officer Vukovich: ‘You see this scar?’ he asks, but is forced to end his story. Not to mention the dopey criminal psychologist who introduces himself while yawning. ‘So, Reese is crazy?’ Sarah asks. ‘In technical terminology, he’s a loon,’ he replies, after patronizingly asking Reese if the future has ‘ray guns’.

While T2: Judgment Day is strong enough to stand on its own (given the self-contained back story), watching The Terminator is important when evaluating Sarah’s character evolution. How exactly does she go from timid, unsure, and gun shy to that of tough, gun using, and assertive? It is clear that having no one believe her fuels her frustration. Similarly, Reese is dismissed as ‘a loon’. (As is she, who ends up in a mental hospital in the second film.) And Sarah, while well-meaning, is too emotionally driven. She calls her mother’s cabin even when told not to tell where she is (and this tip is what leads the Terminator to find her), she calls her roommate, Ginger, and asks for her to pick her up at the Tech-Noir club (why would she record her location if she knows someone is after her?). Thus, she is no Ellen Ripley. But her reactions are typical. Sarah isn’t a leader, nor is she strong—yet.

The Terminator is simply well-told. And let’s not forget Arnold who, despite early in his acting career, delivers his lines with just the exact manner. Flat, perfunctory, and direct, humans know to not mess with his mission. Some might believe because the film is nearing 40 years old, that this makes it easy to praise. Not necessarily. While I don’t need to convince anyone of The Terminator’s cultural merit, I chose to review it to contest the point that popularity negates excellence. Yes, the film has action—lots of it. There are no lingering ‘poetic’ moments that might bore the average viewer (perhaps why Gene Siskel gave it thumbs down). Hence, The Terminator achieves what few films can—appealing to both the high and low, albeit within its genre range. And while this isn’t the greatest film of its action sci-fi genre—that film did arrive, and thankfully was just a few years later.

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More from Jessica Schneider: Love’s Demands: Ingmar Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata” (1978), The Misery, Cruelty, and Beauty of Robert Bresson’s “Mouchette” (1967)The Weight of Years: Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight” (2013)