“I finally realized that the only way I was going to get my career jump-started was if I created my own project and then held onto it tenaciously, like an abalone, until somebody would put up the money for it. So I conceived a project that had the imagery I could create cost-effectively with my experience in visual effects. It had some of that imagery but not so much that the budget was proportionately large, because I knew no one would trust me with a large budget.” James Cameron interviewed by Robert J. Emery for The Directors: Take One
By now, anyone with ears should have heard of The Terminator, a down and dirty science fiction action thriller about Adam and Eve on the run from a killer cyborg played by the future governor of California. A surprise box office hit that was championed by enough critics to qualify as a success on every level, few at the time may have realized how extraordinary it was that this movie ever got made, while those studying the DIY production techniques today might miss what a great movie it is. In Los Angeles of the year 2029, machines have risen from the nuclear apocalypse they triggered against mankind to wage what has turned into a losing war against the survivors. In a last desperate act, a cybernetic organism known as a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent to Los Angeles of the year 1984.
Also traveling back in time naked as the day he was born is Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). After the Terminator visits an unlucky gunsmith (Dick Miller), it begins assassinating every “Sarah Connor” in greater Los Angeles. The next Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) realizes she’s in danger and calls police from a nightclub. The steady Lt. Traxler (Paul Winfield) urges her to stay in public until LAPD can get to her, but the Terminator displays no regard for witnesses as it attacks. Reese rescues Sarah and explains that the Terminator has targeted the young waitress to eliminate her unborn son, who’s destined to lead mankind to victory against the machines. Once captured by police, Traxler, his partner (Lance Henriksen) and a psychologist (Earl Boen) offer Sarah a rational explanation for her ordeal. Their theory lasts as long as it takes for the Terminator to track Sarah to the police station.
While on the payroll of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, James Cameron was promoted out of the fx department with battlefield speed. When his first gig as director — Piranha II: The Spawning — ended badly for all interested parties, Cameron had to create a project for himself. Mixing low cost locations with a sci-fi element that favored special effects, Cameron backed into the idea of a robotic hitman sent through time, arrived on the title Terminator and wrote most of a screenplay. A former production manager at New World named Gale Ann Hurd helped polish the script, which Cameron sold to her for one dollar in a pact that he’d direct it. Hurd spent two years struggling to raise money for that, finally cajoling Hemdale Film Corporation to finance Terminator and Orion Pictures to distribute it. Shot with a single camera, the picture caught critics and the industry by shock when it opened #1 at the U.S. box office.
The Terminator is the ultimate B-movie. Like the relentless killing machine that became the best known role of the Austrian Oak’s career, Cameron locks in on his target audience and in terms of artistry and intensity, keeps coming. Over-delivering became standard operating procedure for Cameron but in a departure from his big budget action movies, the violence here is as uncompromising as it is audacious, with police officers and even women mowed down or blown apart by gunfire. What lifts The Terminator out of the grindhouse and into the Library of Congress (where it was preserved in 2008) is its foreboding of how dependent we’ve truly become on machines and where we’re headed if we surrender our humanity completely. Unfolding over a 24-hour time frame, the cast is well picked for the nonstop physicality of the story, while the electronic score by Brad Fiedel strikes a powerful doomsday vibe.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 685,301 users: 81% for The Terminator
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: N/A
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