Monday, May 20, 2024

First Contact: The Terminator

A machine monster chase film with a romantic, time loop twist

The Terminator debuted in theaters in 1984. I’m embarrassed to admit that forty years later, I’m seeing this blockbuster for the first time. I’m an old-school nerd, so I’m not sure how this happened—especially since the original The Terminator is one of my sister’s favorite movies. She speaks of it with such intense affection that I have always felt as if I knew the story or at least the concept: A time-traveling hero goes back in time to save a woman from a time-traveling android assassin. Long before he was the governor of California, this was the film that solidified Arnold Schwarzenegger as a box office superstar and was soon followed by the even more famous sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which gave us android Arnold as a hero. I’ve heard the Terminator lingo with classic lines like “I’ll be back” and “Hasta la vista, baby.” I knew all the catch phrases anecdotally and I have seen clips and parodies over the years as the Terminator films became entrenched in our culture the way Star Wars and Rocky did. Film clips were played so often that I felt as if I understood it enough. Did I even need to see the actual films? My sister was horrified to recently discover that I had never actually watched the original 1984 The Terminator. So, a few weeks ago, I bought a digital copy of the film and, for the first time, I sat down and finally watched it.

Summary: [Warning: Spoilers] The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a killer android from the future who arrives in town on a mission to kill a woman named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Soon after, a young man (Michael Biehn) also arrives from the future to intercept the Terminator and save Sarah. Sarah Connor is an ordinary and unremarkable young woman working as a waitress. After seeing news reports of the murders of other women named Sarah Connor, she quickly realizes she is the next target. She contacts the police but they are largely unhelpful. Sarah notices a young man following her and fears he is the serial killer. However, the man, Reese, protects her when the real Terminator shows up and ultimately, after a brief encounter with the police, the two go on the run. Reese explains that he is from the future, where Skynet, an organization of intelligent machines, has subjugated and almost destroyed humanity. The Terminator has been sent to kill Sarah because she is destined to have a son, John Connor, who will lead a successful rebellion against the machines. While hiding at a motel, Reese confesses his love for Sarah and the two spend an intimate night together. Later, the Terminator arrives, and after an extended violent confrontation with Reese and Sarah, the Terminator is finally defeated, but Reese is killed in the process. Later, a pregnant and grieving Sarah leaves town while planning for the future battle that is to come. In classic time loop fashion, Reese became the father to the same John Connor who sent him there.

First impressions: 1) The overall vibe of the film is intensely and nostalgically ’80s: the muted audio, the intensely teased hair, the ’80s acting style (in your face, no subtlety). 2) Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor is so different from the tough, weapon-toting person I have often seen in the clips from later Terminator films. In The Terminator, she is ordinary, unsure, and not particularly skilled. 3) Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese is so young. I’ve seen him in later roles in Aliens and The Abyss, playing the sturdy, mature, good-hearted hero, but here he is almost adolescent. He’s not just physically young, but also emotionally immature. He is the most stressed and angsty character in the film. 4) The thing that made the biggest impression on me was the Terminator himself. I can see why this role was so pivotal. In a sea of subdued dialogue, he was a scene-stealing show-stopper. He shows up (body-builder) naked in the first scene and walks around unconcernedly wreaking carnage until he finds clothes and goes hunting for guns and ammo. His flat, pragmatic, lethal persona was a perfect foil to the emotional drama in the film.

What surprised me: 1) The famous Sarah Connor, the main character in the film, has almost no backstory and very little context. She doesn’t have tragic origins, major life obstacles, special skills, or even a goal she is working towards. She is a blank slate on which the ensuing adventure is written. 2) Likewise, the Terminator is just a killing machine. It has no stated unique motivation or agenda other than the assassination ordered by Skynet. In our current era of complex or semi-sympathetic villains, I was surprised to be so entertained by a straightforward killing machine. 3) Most surprising is Reese. Of all the characters, he has the most emotional context. He comes from a war-torn life and he is her (future) son’s friend who volunteered to protect Sarah. He volunteered to go back in time because he was in love with the idea of her. He does not grow to love her; he arrives in love with her —fairy-tale style— because he has fallen in love with a photograph of her long before he meets her. He shows her the photo and says he always wondered what she was thinking about in that moment. Later we see the photo being taken while she is thinking of Reese. I love a good time loop. And it’s remarkably romantic for a film that’s mostly about killing. 4) Sarah’s roommate and the roommate’s boyfriend get a significant amount of screen time. They are adorable side characters who meet a violent end. I’m not sure why we see so much of them, but it’s surprisingly enjoyable. 5) Finally, in addition to the leads, I was surprised to see veteran actor Paul Winfield in the role of the grumpy Black police captain and the immediately recognizable Lance Henriksen, who plays Bishop, the future android of the Alien franchise. These reverse cameos helped anchor my sense of The Terminator’s place in my film-watching timeline.

Overall impression: After so many years of knowing about the franchise but never really watching it, The Terminator feels like a classic human-versus-machine story. As our society struggles with issues related to technology and AI, The Terminator still feels relevant, although the film style seems intensely old fashioned. And, honestly, I love the irony of that.


The Math

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10


  • Excruciatingly ’80s
  • Classic chase film
  • Surprisingly romantic

POSTED BY: Ann Michelle Harris – Multitasking, fiction writing Trekkie currently dreaming of her next beach vacation.