For a film that started a multi-billion dollar franchise and persisted for over three decades, The Terminator has a surprisingly quiet start. There’s the opening shot of the post-apocalyptic war in 2029 Los Angeles, of course, with tank treads going over skulls. Laser weapons flash and explosions go off, and then that memorable scroll plays in a futuristic font:
The machines rose form the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future.
It would be fought here, in our present. Tonight…
That’s all we get. In the film’s opening sequences, viewers watch Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator and Michael Biehle’s Kyle Reese appear in 1984. Each of them faces the same struggle: get clothes, find a vehicle, and start their mission properly. The Terminator kills a punk, Kyle steals some clothing in an alley.
The two barely say anything, but director James Cameron quickly establishes who here has the power and who does not: the Terminator can effortlessly kill anyone without blinking an eye, while Kyle is struggling on the run. Then, when the film switches over to a waitress on a busy shift, the movie doesn’t even say her name. Rather, Cameron shows it on a punch card: Sarah Connor.
The legacy of Terminator is so well-known at this point that it’s hard to approach The Terminator as a stand-alone movie. But it’s worth trying because going in blind allows Cameron to masterfully build suspense. Who is this robot person killing everyone? Why is he just killing every Sarah Connor in the phone book? What is this other, much more hapless person doing in 1984 while dreaming of a future war?
These questions are answered eventually with words, but Cameron chooses to provide an easy image at first: they’re at war. They meet in the wonderful Club Tech Noir, perhaps the zenith of ‘80s locales. The whole film has elements of style and efficiency throughout, but Tech Noir is where James Cameron truly began to find himself as a director.
The entire sequence in the film, with the Terminator crushing the hand of the bouncer (“Hey, that guy didn’t pay!”), seeing Schwarzenegger's eyes scanning through the smoke, moving through the ecstatic crowd looking for Connor, seeing Connor dodge his gaze through sheer luck, watching the red lights of the club appear on her face, and then those lights becoming the red light of the Terminator’s gun (why does a cyborg need a scope? Because it looks cool, obviously). All while “Burnin' in the Third Degree” by Tahnee Cain & The Trianglz plays in the background, warning of impending doom.
And then, it all explodes into gunfire. Brad Fiedel’s score, mechanical pulses that creep and scream, carries the rest of the scene.
The Terminator isn’t perfect. Sarah Connor is presented as a passive, completely helpless passenger to Reese, whimpering in a car while he instructs her to follow his every move in a very backstory-heavy car chase. The damsel-in-distress mode for Connor would be completely ditched by the film’s sequel, in which she is every bit the equivalent bad-ass of Reese or the Terminator or anyone else.
There’s a lot that future Terminator films would ditch from this first one, including some things that they should have kept: a sense of dramatic tension and style, provocative visuals, a plot that doesn’t get too tied down in its own mythology. It’s worth going back to this stylized film, while it's still streaming on Hulu, to experience (or, more likely, re-experience) the unlikely start of a mega-franchise.
The Terminator is streaming on Hulu until September 31.