Don’t let cyborgs get hold of a phonebook. If there’s one accidental message in this 1984 film, it’s that back in the day it was shockingly easy for murderous time-traveling pseudo-robots to find out where you live. The most important plot device in the first half of James Cameron’s classic is easily the various copies of the white pages pursued by Reese (Michael Biehn) and The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger).
But why are these guys trying to find Sarah Connor? The brilliance of the classic Terminator can be found in how it makes a convoluted premise feel shockingly simple. The seminal 1984 movie is streaming for free, so here’s why you should give it another watch.
If you’ve never seen the original Terminator — or haven’t seen it in a long time — one of the strengths of the film is that it doesn’t spoil itself. Terminator keeps its cards so close to its vest that 45 minutes into the movie you still don’t know why Schwarzenegger is executing people named “Sarah Connor.” An opening text prologue tells you that intelligent machines are warring with humans in the future and that the final battle will be fought in the past, but beyond a few visual flash-forwards, the audience doesn’t get clued in on the actual motivations of either Reese or the Terminator for nearly half the movie.
What makes The Terminator so re-watchable is that the first half of the film is essentially just multiple chase scenes intercut with the horror of Arnold slaughtering people. Director James Cameron mined old-school science fiction like The Outer Limits but also gave Terminator the vibe of a slasher movie. As a result, the action is legitimately unnerving, and the relentlessness of the Terminator gives the plot real menace.
Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t praised enough for his acting decisions in this movie, and it would be reductive to say he just played a big, dumb, brute. Because most people have knowledge of post-1984 Arnold in the Terminator franchise, the notion of the T-800 itself has become something of a self-parody. In T2: Judgement Day the Terminator joined the good guys, and by T3 he was saying “talk to the hand.” And regardless of how you feel about Genisys (2015) or Dark Fate (2019), there’s no way to argue those films made the T-800 scary again.
But in the 1984 original, what’s striking is how utterly callous and inhuman the Terminator is. This might feel like a big “no duh,” but the idea that the Terminator is only there to terminate really comes across in Schwarzenegger’s performance. When the Terminator steals a car early in the film, for example, the scene is small but scary for two reasons.
- It happens in broad daylight.
- When the Terminator gets in the car after breaking the glass, he doesn’t flinch when some of the glass falls on his body.
The second part is chilling and subtle. Within science fiction, actors who play robots/cyborgs/androids are often praised for how they give those artificial lifeforms dimension. People love to praise the emotion of Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner or the childlike wonder of Brent Spiner in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but what made Schwarzenegger’s performance so unique is that he really does seem like a machine.
Whether or not this means he’s a great actor is up for debate, but within the context of Terminator his performance is more than effective; it’s definitive. There’s never been a sci-fi thriller like The Terminator, and when it comes to the horror element even its sequels arguably aren’t in the same genre. No one’s ever said, “this movie did what The Terminator did, only better.” It’s a time travel movie that barely feels like a time travel movie, a horror movie with intelligence, and somehow also a love story.
If you’ve never seen it, you’ll be glad when you do. As thrilling horror in a science fiction framework, The Terminator remains one-of-a-kind.