The Terminator Movie Review (1984)

The Terminator stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, and Michael Biehn and was directed by James Cameron. Set during 1984, it tells the story of Sarah Connor, a young waitress played by Linda Hamilton, who’s been targeted for termination by a cyborg assassin sent from the future. With the help of a protector from the future, she must try to survive in order to ensure humanity’s future.

It’s always interesting to revisit the early films in a long-running franchise, especially when those moves have become an iconic part of pop culture. “I’ll be back” is probably one of the most frequently quoted movie lines of all time and I would venture to guess that most people would be able to correctly identify a sunglasses-wearing Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator, even if they’ve never seen any of the movies. Much like another iconic character – Rambo – The Terminator has become nearly synonymous with 80s action movies. And, much like with Rambo, the general pop culture perception of the character and the franchise don’t exactly line up with the actualities of the first film.

Even as a casual fan of the franchise, I was a little surprised by the tone of this first movie. I’ve seen it quite a few times, but it’s been a number of years since I last rewatched it. I had no trouble remembering the basic plot points, but I guess I went into it expecting a lighter movie than it actually is. This is pretty dark and grimy, not only in terms of the visual aesthetic, but also the plot.

There are actually some pretty brutal moments of action in this, not to mention a touch of gore. It’s mostly related to The Terminator’s fleshy exterior, but there are some bloody moments beyond that too. Given its spot in pop culture history and the countless movies that have been influenced by it, it’s easy to forget just how unique and original the first Terminator movie was. It wasn’t adapted from a book or a tv show, but instead came right from James Cameron’s mind – or perhaps more precisely – from his dreams. Cyborgs weren’t exactly a new or novel concept in 1984, but the idea of a cyborg assassin sent from the future to kill somebody in the past in order to change the future was pretty novel. Another novel concept? Casting an Austrian former bodybuilder as your main villain.

The Terminator 1984
The Terminator 1984

It might seem like an obvious choice now, but Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t yet the go-to action star. Plus, The Terminator character was originally written as a stealthy every-man character who could easily blend into the crowd… something Schwarzenegger isn’t exactly known for. In fact, he initially read for the part of Kyle Reese. But, he was eventually cast as The Terminator and it was a gamble that paid off. He brought a sense of formidability to the role and both his size and accent only furthered the idea that he’s a machine. He really doesn’t have all that much dialogue, but the lines he does have are delivered in an interesting way. He’s got a very robotic and threatening tone, but he’s so matter-of-fact and literal that it injects a bit of humor, making for an all-around entertaining character.

The other thing that really struck me on this rewatch was the transformation of Sarah Connor. Like I said, it’s interesting coming back to the first movie in a franchise when you know the trajectory for its characters. It’s really crazy how simple and humble Sarah Connor’s beginning is. Even over the course of this single film, her transformation is impressive, but never feels jarring or out of place. Towards the end when she barks out “On your feel soldier!”, it feels right for her character. Cause it is her true character… or is it? Was she always destined to become who she does? Or was it only cause of The Terminator and Reese’s trip to the past?

Time travel’s certainly an interesting thing. Alright, let’s talk about the pros and cons. Pro number one is definitely Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator. It’s crazy to think he almost didn’t play this role… it would’ve been such a different movie if they had gone with the stealthy terminator plan. Schwarzenegger brought a degree of physicality to the role that was just so believable. You have no trouble believing that he’s a cyborg and you also have no trouble believing that he’ll stop at nothing to complete his mission.

The second pro is the tension. Right from the start, this movie does an excellent job of crafting a compelling story that puts you on the edge of your seat. You start the film knowing absolutely nothing, so when Schwarzenegger makes his dramatic first appearance, you have no idea who he is, how he got there, or what he wants. Even after Reese provides his exposition monologue, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Combine that with the seemingly unstoppable nature of The Terminator and you’ve got an exciting and unnerving situation that culminates in a finale that feels more like something out of a horror movie than an action film. On the con side, my biggest issue has gotta be the future scenes. I understand the desire to show us what’s at stake, but anytime the film cuts to scenes from 2029, it just drags for me.

The future’s so visually uninteresting and even the plot points feel like generic dystopian sci-fi. They really disrupt the pacing and even just the general flow of the story and I would’ve much preferred if the film just exclusively stuck to its 1984 setting. Luckily, there are only a few future scenes, so it’s not a major detriment to the film. Con number two is pretty minor for me: the special effects.

The practical effects were actually quite good, especially given the relatively low budget for the film. Things like the arm repair scene or even the eyeball scene are squirmingly realistic. But then you have other moments that are eye-rollingly bad now. Again, I can’t knock the film too much given the technical limitations of 1984, but any of the electrical or laser effects are just so silly now. And the stop-motion endoskeleteon scenes feel a bit off-kilter in a kinda distracting way. I’m gonna give The Terminator 3.5 out of 5 paws. It’s got an interesting mix of sci-fi, action, and horror plus a compelling story and one of the most iconic movie characters ever created. I would recommend The Terminator to anybody who’s interested in sci-fi or action movies. It’s dark and grimy for an action film, but still has plenty of shootouts, chases, and explosions.

The time travel premise offers a more interesting and unique story than the typical bombastic 80s action movie and it’s the type of film that just about anybody will be able to find something to like in. Action, sci-fi, horror, drama, romance – it’s got it all. If you liked The Terminator, I’ve gotta recommend The Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

It’s a continuation of this first film, set eleven years later, and offers a slightly brighter-tone, plenty of action, and an unexpected relationship. If you liked the cyborg elements of this movie, I’d suggest you check out Robocop for another frequently brutal sci-fi action film set in a grimy dystopia. And if you appreciated the character of Sarah Connor, you should check out Alien for another movie that not only straddles the sci-fi-horror line, but also features a strong female lead. Alright, a couple questions for you guys.

Number one: Have you seen The Terminator? If so, what’d you think of it? And number two: What’s your favorite movie featuring a cyborg? Be sure to leave your answers in the comments below so we can get a discussion going.

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