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The Terminator, written by James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd, directed by James Cameron, 1984, 105 min.

Note: Due to litigation on the part of Harlan Ellison, James Cameron was forced to add this to the end credits of The Terminator: "Acknowledgement to the works of Harlan Ellison."

The Terminator is an example of the remarkable work that can be achieved within the limitations of a tiny budget by a filmmaker with imagination and a sense of pacing. Cameron's movie has been endlessly imitated and parodied, even made into a sequel twice, once by himself, and once by a different creative team, yet it has never been outdone. The Terminator is a stripped-down, efficient action movie that somehow manages to have decent characters and a few interesting science fiction ideas. Furthermore, The Terminator is probably the only action movie that makes sense, in my opinion. I'll try and defend that statement in a minute. As I'll mention in my capsule review of Terminator 2 (see below), I hold that sequel partly responsible for a decade's worth of absurdly loud, banal, and effects-heavy action movie spectacles in the 1990s. The Terminator is certainly the same case, as it was one of the main progenitors of the stupid 80s action movie and the lumbering hunks of wood that starred in them. Thankfully that time period is long gone, most of its stars faded into obscurity, and the movies that resulted easy to spot and easy to avoid. Schwarzenegger himself, vaulted to the A-list by The Terminator and lesser movies of its ilk, has lacked any serious hits for almost ten years and recently decided to switch careers, leaving Terminator 3 as the last entry in the series (at least, the last Terminator movie with Arnold as the star).

Two mysterious strangers arrive in 1980s Los Angeles, both appearing out of thin air accompanied by electrical discharges, both naked. The first, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, gets his clothes by killing a group of punks. The second, played by Michael Biehn, steals clothes from a bum and from a department store, all the while running from the police. Schwarzenegger's character goes on a murderous rampage, systematically killing all Sarah Connors in the city, in the order that he found them in the phone book. Biehn's character seems to be hunting a Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) as well, and when the two men finally find the same woman, a nasty firefight ensues. It turns out that both are from the future but only one is human. Schwarzenegger is an unstoppable killing machine known as the Terminator and Biehn is a lowly human named Kyle Reese, sent to protect Sarah. In one of the smartest segments of the movie, the exposition that follows this point is given on the run, as Sarah and Kyle desperately try to escape the Terminator. The future according to Kyle goes like this: within a few years, nuclear war will wipe out most humans, a war triggered by the rise of an intelligent machine named Skynet. Skynet will try to eradicate all of the remaining humans but one leader, John Connor, will lead a swelling resistance to the point of near-defeat for the machines. In desperation, Skynet will send an infiltration unit, a cyborg Terminator, to kill the mother of John Connor before he is ever born. The humans send Kyle back to make sure that Sarah has warning; the two certainly don't seem to have much hope against the awesome killing power of the Terminator.

Cameron gives us one amazing action sequence after another, as the two puny humans try to survive the inevitable onslaught. Many of the action sequences here have become famous and iconic, for the good reason that they are well written, excitingly paced, and inventively staged (especially considering the budget). For example, the well-known police station segment is in fact a carefully plotted escalation of the sense of danger. While on the run, Kyle and Sarah are surrounded by police and forced to surrender; after crashing into a brick wall, the Terminator escapes to recuperate. Kyle and Sarah are debriefed, and Kyle seems unable to keep his mouth shut about his true mission; the police convince Sarah that Kyle is crazy. Sarah asks about her safety and is reassured that there are 30 cops in the building. The Terminator tries an infiltration tactic first, asking to see Sarah, and when he is forced to resort to combat, he utters three words that spawned a multitude of moronic one-liners, "I'll be back." Will 30 police officers be able to protect Sarah? If not, how low are the odds that Sarah and Kyle will survive on their own?

Paradoxically, I find the latter half of the movie, as taut and character-based as it is, not quite as interesting as the first half. Cameron escalates the action, and does so efficiently and capably. But I see the genius of the movie in its impeccable set up, especially of the characters. Sarah Connor is an average woman, working at a low-paying job, not particularly lucky in love, and apparently possessing no inner qualities that would lead to a successful fight against a futuristic killing machine. Kyle Reese is the scarred survivor, emotionally distant, and competent enough to see that even his desperation to save Sarah might not be enough. Putting these two together in a series of dangerous situations might inevitably lead to a relationship and the obvious time-travel-related twist at the end, but the movie functions at a deeper level than these screenwriter's clichés. I also appreciated the attention paid to minor characters such as the two police officers who try to help Sarah.

The ideas of the film are fairly basic: the menacing machine and time travel as a closed loop. The first of these is why I think this is the only action movie that makes sense (although arguments could be made for similar movies such as Robocop). Schwarzenegger would go on to play many action heroes in his movies, but it always struck me as strange that a flesh-and-blood human could do such crazy antics. Commando is probably the most egregious example of this kind of mid-80s action movie farrago, as Schwarzenegger annihilates an island full of machine-gun-toting mercenaries. Just one bullet in a hailstorm of lead, and poof, no more heavily accented one-liners. In The Terminator, Schwarzenegger gets hits with round after round, but he can keep going because of his internal combat chassis. And in a deftly orchestrated scene, Cameron shows that even the Terminator has to repair himself, at least for purposes of passing as a human. The machine is designed to achieve its goals, and if this makes the Terminator another villain who gets back up after the heroes think they have won, at least it works for the movie not against it. Instead of destroying credibility, this supports the sense of the Terminator as indefatigable.

The time travel aspects of The Terminator are also treated well: this story forms a closed loop, like 12 Monkeys. The trip to the past by Kyle Reese has always already happened and the past can't be changed. Terminator 2 introduces the mutability of time, thus creating a whole host of logic problems (the same problems as happened in Donnie Darko), while Terminator 3 moved back towards a closed loop. On a structural level, the movie only uses the futuristic cyborg as a higher level of threat than would be otherwise possible in that time period, but at least the time travel side of the story isn't as messed up as it could have been.

The low budget of the movie shows through in several segments. When the Terminator is trying to repair himself, the use of an animatronic head instead of Schwarzenegger is quite noticeable. Also, later on when the organic wrapper has burned away and all that is left is the underlying chassis, the stop motion animation is jerky. But modern filmmakers take note: none of these flaws matter! Cameron knows what to do with his special effects, something that can't be said for the vast majority of current directors.

I should mention the excellent music in the movie. The Terminator is one of the smallest handful of movies to use electronic music effectively and interestingly. Brad Fiedel's soundtrack here creates a mood just as successfully as Vangelis' work for Blade Runner, also with electronic music; the two moods couldn't be more different, which is a tribute to the imaginations of the respective composers. Fiedel makes us believe the menace of the Terminator in our guts.

DVD Note: The Terminator is available in a double-sided dual-layer Special Edition DVD. The movie has been cleaned up visually, and the soundtrack now packs quite a punch. Special features include lots of text and image galleries, deleted scenes, and two documentaries totalling over an hour.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day, written by James Cameron and William Wisher, directed by James Cameron, 1991, 130 min.

Terminator 2, bolstered by a massive budget, is likely the movie Cameron wanted to make the first time around. But my reaction to Cameronís later movies has always been that his lower budget movies, constrained as they were, were far better, lacking in bloat and forced into creative ways of telling the story. Iíve also felt that Terminator 2, while canny and interesting itself, is partly responsible for summer movies that have just gotten louder and stupider and more useless, all big budget spectacle and no heart. I wish Cameron had continued making films and showing all of his imitators how itís done.

Since the events of The Terminator, John Connor has been born, but his mother has gone crazy from the pressure of her status as mother of the future resistance leader so she is in a mental asylum. John doesnít quite believe what heís been told, but his doubts are put to rest by time-travelling messengers of doom. The not-so-secret secret of the movie is that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a good Terminator this time, reprogrammed and sent back to protect John. The evil Terminator is a liquid metal unit, the marvelous villain known as the T-1000. This unit is a startling leap ahead in capabilities over the old Terminator, which preserves the underdog status of our heroes even though they have a presumably unstoppable killing machine on their side. A series of unique action setpieces follows, but the plot is more complicated than trying to destroy the T-1000. This movie tries to outdo the first outing by giving Sarah Connor the idea of changing the future instead of just preserving the present. Is this possible? Or even a good idea?

DVD Note: Terminator 2 has been released a number of times on DVD, and the nomenclature has become confusing. The Ultimate Edition and the Extreme Edition are the two most recent, and since the extras don't always overlap, itís quite a money grab. Both use seamless branching to include both the theatrical cut and the director's cut (which has more character development in the middle section, but not much else of interest), and both have a plethora of documentaries and special features.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, written by John Brancato, Michael Ferris and Tedi Sarafian, directed by Jonathon Mostow, 2003, 110 min.

In the absence of almost all of the original talent of the Terminator series except for the star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, this could have been a horrible movie. In fact, itís a surprisingly effective entry in the series and manages to give us a reasonably decent science fiction viewing experience in a summer that had many disappointments. The movie takes the risky but entirely valid strategy of self-parody; this doesnít always work, but the strain of the seriousness that plagued Terminator 2 is gone. The first and third movies are probably the ones that are most consistent in tone, the first deadly mean and third more jokey.

Sarah Connor has died, and John Connor is trying to ignore his continuing nightmares about the future. Could the rise of the machines be already averted? Two more Terminators arrive in town to answer that question, Schwarzenegger once more as the friendly Terminator, and another new model for the side of evil. The T-X isnít quite the enormous leap in villainy as the T-1000 was, so that is disappointing and makes the movie much less memorable. The T-X has the mission of killing John Connor as well as all of his human lieutenants, and she uses all of her destructive tools to do it, including the clever ability to control other machinery. The movie has much the same structure as the previous movie: a smash-bang opening to throw the characters together, a quieter middle section, with an extended confrontation to close. Some of the action sequences are thrilling enough to be worthy of the series, such as the chase that involves a pickup truck, a motorcycle, and an enormous crane truck.

The ending of the film is a pretty blatant set up for a sequel, but now that Schwarzenegger has moved into political life, it remains to be seen what form it will take. The story of Terminator 3 becomes a close-loop time travel tale, which harkens back to the first movie, but this one definitely leaves the audience wanting more.

DVD Note: Terminator 3 is the first Terminator movie to be filmed in the age of DVD and it shows; the picture quality is note perfect, and the sound is stunning. The movie also has 2 commentary tracks that are pretty nifty. Unfortunately, the second disc of the 2-DVD set is useless; one mildly interesting documentary about special effects and a lot of fluff.

Last modified: January 25, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (

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