ᴊᴏᴇ ᴍᴄᴋᴇᴏᴡɴ’s review published on Letterboxd:
I had to watch this to cleanse my soul so I thought I’d review it properly..
The Terminator opens with the end of the world. There is a war waging. The machines have taken control and are hunting the remaining human warriors left on earth. The year is 2029. The war however, will be won tonight.. in 1984.
We cut back to the present day as a bolt of lightning rips through the night. A hulking man emerges from the debris. He doesn’t appear to be from this earth. He stands, completely naked, scouring the land for whatever it is that he is searching for.
At the same time across the city, a further flash of lightning in the sky as another man falls to the ground. This guy screams in pain as if he has been burnt. He looks confused, where is he? What year is it?
Both men run amok. One murders a couple of punks and takes their clothes, the other robs a homeless man for his pants and runs from the cops.
Sarah Connor is a waitress at a local diner. She’s having the worst time. She can’t get an order right and that pesky kid is dropping ice cream in her dress pocket. Her friend assures her though, in a few years, who’s going to care… Don’t we all feel that way from time to time? Only, in this case, actually, everyone may care..
In one of the many brilliant sequences in this movie, the hulking beast that first arrived in that flash of lightning scours a phone book for a name… Sarah Connor. He picks the first name, tracks the address down, knocks the door, and without remorse blows Miss Connor away.
But this wasn’t the waitress.. she’s still dealing with her own issues. She’s supposed to go out on a double date tonight but her fella has stood her up. Shit job, shit boyfriend, how could it get worse? Well, as she checks out a movie by herself, she decides to get a drink in a local bar, and on the TV it announces the death of Sarah Connor. Our protagonist would strike it down as a horrible coincidence if not for the fact that her waitress buddy punked her only hours earlier when the TV announced the death of another Sarah Connor.
Someone is killing Sarah Connor’s. Why? Could he be, as Paul Winfield's Lieutenant Traxler says “the goddamn Phonebook Killer”?
And so ends the setup for one of the most ingenious pieces of cinema ever made. At it’s heart, the Terminator is a gritty b-movie, maybe even a quintessential slasher.. All weapons, violence, quips and chases. But behind it is a masterful story, the concept of a killing machine that has been sent back through time to kill the mother of a man who will lead a resistance against machines in the future. That little nugget of an idea gives birth to many fantastic elements within the movie.
Just like Alien before it, there is a standard concept, but what sets it apart is everything around it. The future, machines becoming self-aware, nuclear holocausts, time travel and time paradoxes.. throw in a fantastic script full of interesting myth-building backstory, great dialogue and room for an action set piece every ten minutes and you have a bona fide classic.
Like Alien again, it is the thought behind each aspect of the film that really drives it, for example, the design of the Terminator itself and how it begins to reveal itself as the movie progresses. Whereas you had the egg, the face hugger, the baby, the monster.. now you have the bodybuilder, the red eye, the wired wrist, the endoskeleton..
There is also such heart to the film. All the establishing early sequences with Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor are absolutely perfect. They show her humility, vulnerability, humour… all things that will be tragically stripped away from her. All these things matter.. without them, you get a routine sci-fi stalker movie, but this film has endured through the years because you desperately will Sarah Connor to get out of this nightmare, despite how ill equipped she is to deal with the terror in front of her.
Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese is excellent as a future soldier. He is perfectly believable as both a hardened war veteran and yet complete fish out of water. He plays the early scenes particularly well, where you believe he is the stalker until the movie turns on its head in a legendary scene in the TechNoir nightclub. He also delivers the best monologue of the film - “He absolutely will not stop… until you are dead!” From there on out its a thrilling game of cat and mouse. And boy is that cat mean..
In the role that introduced him to the world, Arnold Schwarzenegger is truly iconic as the unstoppable killing machine sent back from the future. The casting of the former multiple Mr. Olympia is one of the great finds of ’80’s action cinema. He stalks his prey with utter unflinching malevolence, without a hint of remorse. However, as showcased in the now legendary “I’ll be back” moment, there is a hint of the humour that will develop in his roles, culminating years later with Terminator 2. In this though, he is absolutely terrifying. It’s a testament to his performance that when I saw this as a kid, I was much more terrified of him as the Terminator than the later endoskeleton.
On top of the wonderful script and performances, the action is second to none. Particularly for a film of this budget. It’s hard to imagine James Cameron working under tight purse strings but this film cost just over $5 million to make. And I think it is his greatest achievement. For all of the big budget blockbusters he’s delivered over the years (and he still does deliver on them 90% of the time), it’s ironic that this little stripped down thriller delivers some of the most memorable and defining moments of his career.
There’s too many moments to single out but if I had to, it would be the TechNoir club scene. It is pure cinema. Brad Fiedel’s music, Adam Greenberg’s cinematography how the camera pans through the crowd of dancers, the red dot of the gun sight nearing Sarah’s head, the slow-mo shot of Kyle trying to get a clean shot and then the finger movement after the Terminator is blasted through the window to indicate he’s not stopped, and he won’t be stopped.
Simply one of the greatest films ever made.