Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen
Plot: To ensure its survival in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by machines, a sentient computer sends a robot assassin back in time to kill the woman whose unborn son will be the leader of humanity's rebellion. As mankind's last hope, a lone warrior is also sent back to protect her.
Originally dismissed as a low-budget exploitation action flick,
The Terminator proved to be a breakout film for both Cameron (Aliens,
Terminator 2) and Schwarzenegger.
The plot, culled from stuff like the Outer Limits and Frankenstein, sets the premise for a film that has all the makings of a B-movie in its presentation including the acting, the sets, and the effects. And yet Cameron manages to constantly surprise with his guerilla filmmaking, fabulous story-telling ability and an interesting, meaty script full of crowd-pleasing instances.
Apart from a few romantic scenes in the middle, the film is a non-stop ride from the get-go, the narrative never leaving its audience time to breathe, even providing all its story's exposition on the run.
The main drive for the film is action and suspense, and with a bevy of thrilling set pieces (including violent gun battles, scorching car chases and futuristic warfare) and interesting plot twists, it delivers this in spades. This is inspired, mesmerizing stuff that's incredibly entertaining and doesn't bother with any redeeming social qualities, taking risks that bigger-budget films would never have taken, such as killing off its hero and having a strong female character.
Due to the film's low budget there's an economy of special effects, yet the ones on display are perfectly set-up and well-produced, working wonderfully to create the mood necessary to push the story forward. Indeed, these instances are so well placed that it feels like a much more elaborate production. The now-legendary Stan Winston also created the cool "melted-skin" make-up effects.
There's also a great visual style, a nightmarish view of the future evident in the very noir feel to the production (or "tech noir" as it came to be called, showing the dark side of technology), with flashbacks of the future that are particularly bleak but atmospherically vivid.
The wonderful metallic, techno-inspired score also helps build the tension throughout.
Part of the appeal of the film is definitely that it plays on adolescent fantasies, that it's viscerally enjoyable and that it's just a pure adrenaline rush.
Memorable scenes that have become legendary include the exoskeleton walking out of the fire, or Arnie intoning "I'll be back" before driving into a police station with his car.
Thanks to Schwarzenegger's hulking mass and minimal acting, the human version of the Terminator is a frightening, believable killing machine. Biehn, however, really carries the picture, exhuding an energy and presence that he has never been able to recapture on film. The rest of the cast is solid and believable.
In all its guilty pleasures (its black dead-pan humor, comic-book violence and impressive imagery) this is indeed the ultimate B-movie. Done quickly and on the cheap, it is nonetheless entertaining, intense, original, deftly crafted and satisfying, easily going beyond the standard boundaries set by Hollywood.
More than a simple cult film, The Terminator is one of the most influential films of the 80's and a true sci-fi classic that is still convincing enough to bring even jaded audiences under its spell.
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