James Cameron’s first film came to him in a dream. The Terminator (1984) went on to spawn an increasingly worse movie franchise, a vast amount of pop-culture references, a movie career for Austrian muscle man Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a mighty directing career for action movie genius Cameron. Let’s go 1980s!
The high-concept plot involves an unstoppable robot monster heading back in time to wipe out the mother of a resistance fighter.
That’s all in the distant future of Los Angeles, 2029… but to stop that happening, everything must happen in the past of 1984. Okay?
For in that bleak future, nuclear war has ravaged the land. Machines under the influence of the AI network Skynet have overrun the planet. The robotic bastards!
Thankfully, legendary resistance fighter John Connor stands in their AI way. Good on you, man!
He’s backed up by the far too handsome Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), who’s sent on a mission back in time to stop the Terminator from killing Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton – boasting the most ’80s hairdo ever).
Reese is successful and fends off the advances of the remorseless robot. But he’s then arrested by the pigs (English for “coppers”) and faces charges of lunacy.
There are clips of him acting like a deranged maniac after apprehension, with some kindly cops relaxing Hamilton with the knowledge Reese is simply a good looking lunatic.
But then Big Arnie will be back and we have lots of escaping, romance, and a giant robot going around to the bitter end. Chaos, carnage, mayhem, tension!
All of that adds up to one of the most visceral and riveting films of the 1980s.
Stripping away the high-concept sci-fi gubbins, it’s a simple premise. But what comes of this is an intense, well acted, often frightening, and brutal chase film.
There’s a claustrophobic chill to it all, with Schwarzenegger’s violent screen presence dominating proceedings.
But full credit to youngsters Hamilton and Biehn, too, for thumping in excellent performances to really throw you into the plot. The latter’s sense of urgency is particularly engrossing, ensuring The Terminator was never going to be a crappy low budget B movie.
And for Cameron, not even 30 at the time of filming, no low studio budget was ever got to stop his creative intent – a trick he managed with his next film. The masterpiece Aliens (1986).
Despite its reputation now, The Terminator was far from a major hit.
On a tiny budget of $6.4 million filming began in 1983 in Toronto. The film went on to make $78.3 million. So, a success. But not a Jaws type cultural phenomenon of a $9 million budget transforming into a global $470.7 million earner.
No, The Terminator was a slow burner. What did it for the film was the arrival of VHS.
In the 1980s home video emerged and let cinema fans, for the first time, watch their favourite films from the comfort of their homes.
Easy to forget that now, of course, as we somewhat demand this right rather than view it as the luxury it is.
As more and more people saw the film on VHS, The Terminator became a cult classic.
But here’s a message of support for all creatives out there – Cameron’s agent initially disliked his idea for the first film and told him to work on other projects. So the Canadian – famous for his abrupt working methods – fired his agent.
After the success of the first outing in the series, he followed it up with the all-time classic Terminator 2. Since then, Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic remain the two highest earning films in cinema history with a combined global gross of over $5 billion.
I’ll Be Bach
Right, the “I’ll be back” line is now ubiquitous with Schwarzenegger. It’s actually quite tragic… one man’s life defined by three words – nine letters. Eleven if you count the apostrophe and full stop.
Despite its classic status, we do feel Cameron missed out on one of the all-time great movie lines. We thought of this circa 2002 on an internet forum: “Sarah Connor, you are a goner.” Yes, we’ve always had a way with words.
Anyway, and funnily enough, the actor and bodybuilder initially turned down the robotic role.
Although Cameron was insistent the Austrian was perfect for the robotic lunatic, Big Arnie was after the Kyle Reese part that went to Michael Biehn. The director eventually convinced him and once suited up in leather there came the iconic line.
Now 71, Schwarzenegger is largely back acting having spent various years in America as a politician (no comment there).
Whilst often criticised for his acting – and he is dodgy at times – he’s excellent in various blockbusters such as Predator, True Lies, and the Terminator films.
But he also deserves credit for his unexpected turn in comedic films like Kindergarten Cop, Twins, and Junior (where he gets pregnant and dresses up as a woman).
We think this proves he’s self-aware enough for a personal type of mockery. Plus, kudos for trying out his versatility rather than sticking within a comfortably violent action niche.
And for that ability, he gets a pat on the back for proving his funny chops.
Finally, here are a few additional bits if you want to learn more about the film.
The documentary above explores the pre-production and production of the film, including Canadian James Cameron’s steps into America and making his mark.
We’d also like to flag up Oliver Harper’s excellent YouTube channel that reviews classic films – mainly action films from the 1980s and 1990s.
He’s very thorough in his research and has the perfect voice for documenting these classic media texts, so have a gander. If you’re from the era, his videos are of particular nostalgic value.