The Terminator is better than I thought it would be. The coming attractions made it look like a fairly standard action film emphasizing multiple deaths. Well, that element is certainly present, but there is more to the film than violent killings. Not an awful lot more, but more. The story concerns a killing machine in the form of a human being (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent back in time to eliminate a woman destined to be the mother of a freedom fighter of the future. Human guerrillas in that future have just succeeded in overcoming a genocidal computer and its machine minions. The cyborg is sent back to prevent the leader from ever being born, and the guerrillas dispatch a soldier to stop the terminator.
Schwarzenegger has nothing but a name and a city to go on, so he goes to the phone book and starts murdering all the women named Sarah Connors. Meanwhile, the soldier, with a little more information, has started tailing the important Sarah Connors, a rather average young woman who has no suspicion that disaster is about to strike. The police and the press quickly catch on that something unusual is up, but the terminator is extraordinarily persistent. Shotgun blasts and bullets are no more than minor inconveniences to him because, beneath the flesh, he is really a robot made from an incredibly hard metal alloy.
James Cameron, the director and co-author of the script, deserves most of the credit for lifting the film above others of its kind. The Terminator is well paced, the action sequences are well handled, and Cameron manages to bring enough interesting ideas (both in plot and presentation) to the non-action scenes that we don't fall asleep between bouts of gunplay. Cameron puts the camera in reasonable places, if not the perfect place, he understands how to foreshadow plot developments, and (assuming he had a hand in the editing) he knows how to put sequences together. The action scenes aren't on a par with those of The Road Warrior, or even close, but they are vastly superior to the garbage one sees in films like The Exterminator II.
The acting is good, if unspectacular. Schwarzenegger's body looks even more impressive than in the Conan films, and he brings a certain inhumanity to the role which is entirely appropriate. He and Cameron even manage to get together for a few mildly comic moments. Linda Hamilton is properly paniced as the Terminator's target, and Michael Biehn heroic as the soldier from the future. Paul Winfield is wasted again in the role of a police lieutenant who discovers too late that he is out of his depth.
The Terminator is true to its genre. Many bullets fly, cars crash and explode, and a lot of people die. For the most part, the violence is not terribly explicit. Cameron does not insist on showing us closeups of bullets impacting on Schwarzenegger's victims, which is a welcome change from the usual style of presentation in exploitation films. On the other hand, The Terminator is definitely not for the queasy of stomach, for Cameron deploys some special makeup effects which allow Schwarzenegger (oh, why couldn't the man have a shorter name, or at least one easier to spell?) to perform on-camera surgery on his arm and his eye. The effects, by Stan Winston, are not terribly convincing, but the mere concept of presenting them for our viewing pleasure is pretty gross.
The Terminator also has a few more science fiction tricks up its sleeve than is customary. There are extended sequences set in the future that make good use of some fairly good model work. The special effects people still have to work on a more convincing dummy for their car crashes, however, as the one they used just doesn't make it. There's also a bit of stop-motion animation which is of varying quality, but effective overall. Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, his co-writer and producer, give a bit more sf type explanation than one usually gets, which is just fine with me. Adam Greenberg's photography is also better than average for exploitation action films. I particularly liked the way he clearly established the difference between scenes set in the present and those set in the future by lighting, using colder and harsher lights for the futuristic scenes, warmer and more natural lighting for the modern ones. Not a major innovation, but more than what cinematographers for action films usually bother with.
In summary, if you think you might like The Terminator, you almost certainly will. If you are unsure, give it a try. If you really don't think that a picture with this kind of plot appeals to you, skip it. The Terminator works well within its boundaries, but it certainly doesn't transcend them.
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