The films of James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the Terminator franchise itself have all gotten more bloated, silly, and pointless, so it’s worth coming back to the beginning (or near-beginning) of all three. The Terminator has a great sci-fi hook (cyborg sent back in time from a future Armageddon to kill the mother of the man Who Will Save Us All) but what really makes it good is a pure B-movie sensibility, everything stripped down to the basics of character, plot, and dialogue.
Cameron didn’t have the budget or time to indulge anything here; all he could do was bring his incredible technical sense to film setpiece after setpiece. (Among other things, this film has the best use of the “so you think that was the ending?” ending.) He brought in some of our finest character actors (Lance Henriksen, Michael Biehn) and catchphrases (“Fuck you, asshole”) and Brad Fiedel layers an unforgettable 80s synth score (♬𝅘𝅥𝅮♬) over everything. At times, this feels like Cameron’s version of John Carpenter’s classic Escape from New York from three years earlier.
At the core of it, you’ve got two great and distinct performances. Linda Hamilton is purely human, mixing fear and energy and playing both over a rising curve of strength that pays off so well in the final minutes (she feels a little like a Howard Hawks heroine by the end); and Schwarzenegger is purely mechanical, from the level movements of his eyes to his diction to the way he just will not fucking die or even care that he’s getting shot. The fundamental mistake of all the sequels was trying to get him to play a character; The Terminator understood that he’s a force.
The Terminator streams free on Amazon Prime. (Hey, I just got an email from Harlan Ellison’s lawyer. Can’t wait to read it!)