Its sequel may get all the love, but The Terminator is the perfect demonstration of why James Cameron is one of the great action directors of all-time: underneath all the effects, you gotta have talent. It's easy to get lost in the awesome spectacle of Aliens, or The Abyss, but the reason those films work so well can be directly attributed to Cameron's steadfast sense of pacing, placement and theme. All of these attributes are on display in his first major directorial effort, a pre- and post-apocalyptic thriller made with a scant $6.5 million, and it's impressive how confident a filmmaker he is with only some design work on Escape From New York and half a directing job on Pirahna II: The Spawning (bet that one was a winner) under his belt.
While the main story may concern a literal killing machine tearing through waves of bystanders to get to the mother of the future savior of mankind before he can be born, The Terminator actually concerns what would be a main theme of Cameron's up until he shifted gears with Titanic: the fear of nuclear annihilation (it remains to be seen if nukes will play some role in the upcoming Avatar, but I doubt it). For a guy who made four of the best action extravaganzas ever put on the silver screen, Jim Cameron sure does loathe man's violent streak. In this world, of course, mankind didn't wipe itself out: the machines it built to wipe each other out fulfilled their purpose. That is gloriously understated in the film series, though I imagine it just never occurred to McG at all; so many action films attempt to carry themselves as more serious fare but can never address themes without looking like children. Here at last is a director who will let us see the tragic irony of an entity like Skynet without jamming it down our throats.
Let's also not forget Cameron's eye for casting. After all, he did launch Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, two actors who were earning accolades but weren't drawing mainstream attention, into the stratosphere and both have yet to come down. And he did that with the weakest writing of his career! Imagine what a taut piece like this can do. This may be a backhanded compliment, but Arnold Schwarzenegger was born to play the Terminator: he speaks only a handful of lines in the entire film, but makes up for it with his hulking physique and that terrifying, emotionless face (normally a source of unintentional humor). As much as Brad Fiedel's low metallic clanging keeps you on the edge of your seat, it's Schwarzenegger's impenetrable frame and implacable devotion that will make you drive fingernails through the armrest.
To remember his performance at the expense of Michael Biehn's future soldier Kyle Reese and Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor, however, would be a mistake. People justly remember Hamilton's performance in T2, in which she played one of the toughest, most capable chicks in film, over this one, but this Sarah Connor makes for a far more interesting character study. At the start of the film, she's a lazy, self-absorbed product of the '80s, all hairspray and bad pop and no drive. Not only does Sarah now have to deal with a machine programmed solely to destroy her at all costs, but she must place her trust into a raving loon who comes bearing prophecies about her unborn son when she isn't even pregnant. Watching Hamilton shift ever so slowly from the ditzy and craven waitress into someone who might one day impart enough survival wisdom onto her son that he might lead an entire army is a sight to be behold.
Biehn, for his part, behaves like a man who was born on the brink of total annihilation. He's as curt as his robotic foil, and he off-handedly mentions learning to fashion plastic explosives as a child, as if nothing could be more pedestrian. But there's a romantic side to him, one that went back in time as much to meet the woman in the photograph he so cherished as protect his beloved commander. Of course, that romantic side becomes the crux of the entire timeline, which opens a number of paradoxes I'm too tired to consider.
The interplay between Kyle and Sarah exhibits why Cameron's epic films stick with you long after the explosions stop. You see, every action movie needs a subplot for scale. They are often rote and distracting (see: Transformers 2's ridiculous "say you love me" story between Sam and Mikaela), but a good emotional current is necessary for a memorable action ride. Cameron knows this, and his intimate subplots, be they the maternal bond between Ripley and Newt or the paternal one between the Terminator and young John Connor (still the most surprisingly moving arc I've ever seen in an action film), keep the narrative grounded in the real world even when Cameron does the impossible elsewhere.
The film's only discernible flaws are those that come with age. The stop motion movement of the fleshless Terminator, and the scenes within the club Tech Noir are just an unfortunate reminder of what people actually wore in public in the '80s. That these are the best issues I can come up with reflects upon the film's lasting power. Cameron has a way of giving weight to his action, so that the beautifully lit shootout in the police station feels horrific, not exciting, and you can only register relief when Sarah finally destroys her pursuer once and for all.
As a kid (yeah, somehow I watched these as a youngster), I preferred this film over its bigger and bolder sequel, simply because people actually died and I felt that the T-800 of T2 was neutered. That's a borderline disturbing thought process for an 11-year-old, but my opinion stands, albeit for more legitimate reasons: I feel that T2, superb, inexplicably affecting epic though it is, lacks the gripping edge of its predecessor. The Terminator is one of the most effective thrillers ever made, with expert lighting, direction, acting, pacing and music. What a shame that more recent installments forgot what made this story so compelling.