1 Hr., 47 Mins.
I have a theory that an action movie can never really get old so long as its story never tires. Car chases and gun fights and explosions and one-liners don’t do much bodily harm when they’re surrounded by energetic material and inspired filmmaking; the genre is only really stale when in the hands of Michael Bay and his evil body of hacks, who figure that a lot of noise and mayhem is good enough of an excuse to forget about stringing together a competent story, an attractive assortment of characters.
The Terminator is one such example of an action movie that contains a story incapable of being worn out. Just look at its status: it's been resting at the top of the action movie ladder for over three decades, and undoubtedly will that hold steady. It's easy to see why: Though its special effects are dated, and though its ingenious blending of sci-fi, action, and horror have been rehashed over the years to deadly frequencies, remaining is a spellbinding story, impenetrable cyberpunk iconography, performances of dimension, and hyperactive direction from James Cameron that never allows for our attention to cease. It's all rather simplistically drawn, sure, but don’t underestimate its sufficiency. It is at once rewardingly thrilling and suggestive toward continuation. And in action, longing for more chapters isn’t such a bad thing.
Who isn’t familiar with its story as of 2015? It takes only minutes for the film to introduce us to the titular villain himself, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger with a European body-building menace only he could muster. We discover that The Terminator is not a violent, jacked human but a violent, jacked cyborg assassin sent from the future to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a small-time waitress barely able to make ends meet. Apparently, Sarah, in the near future, will give birth to a son she will name John Connor, who will grow up to be an important figure in the upcoming revolution. (Glimpses into the future, specifically in 2029, are mostly desolate, consisting of soldiers fighting against psychotic machines among wrecked land with fervor.)
Mighty and irreversibly determined, The Terminator will not stop his hunt until the deed is done, coldly murdering every woman with the same name with efficiency. So you could say that Sarah is enormously lucky when Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a ruthless warrior also from The Terminator’s future, appears out of nowhere and takes it upon himself to protect the intended victim. A chase ensues, action following at every turn.
The Terminator consistently bears the feeling of a movie that was made with care and a sizable amount of artistic incentive. Like many classics, there’s a sense that we’re watching history being made — we now know it as an action archetype, but one can only imagine what audiences of 1984 felt as they watched a piece of entertainment slickly suspenseful but also enticingly cerebral. Underneath its popcorn exterior, best of all, is a heart that really makes us care about what’s going on; Hamilton is a convincing damsel in distress turned heroine, Biehn is a feisty hero, and Schwarzenegger is a hoot as the meanest cyborg in the west.
But most pronounced about The Terminator is the work of Cameron, who was then just an upcoming talent waiting for his big break but has since turned into a dependable director able to turn fantasy into luminous blockbusting creations. The film is a quintessential example of a young filmmaker working with nothing yet still making something larger than life — despite having a budget of a meager $6 million, it makes more of an impression than any ready-made action hit in the years following. His screenplay, co-written with ex-wife Gale Hurd, is intelligent, stimulating, and, most importantly, prone to making the decision not to take itself too seriously. His obvious dedication to detail and allowing for old tropes to become new again makes the film an adventure, or a journey, if you will, that you may never want to separate from. It’s a lot of fun — but undervaluing its coherent aesthetics is an impossibility.
The Terminator has, obviously, become a staple in popular culture, spawning several sequels (including an unenthusiastically received one this year) and even a TV show. But nothing can ever compare to the original, when a franchise did not seem even a little likely and when success was found after going out on a limb. A triumph, it seems, is unpredictable. A