Piranha II: The Spawning may have been a wretched, cheap monster picture, but it had one benefit for the young first-time director James Cameron: it put his name out there, and got him in a position that any young filmmaker would have committed some of the most wicked sins to achieve, namely, he found himself simultaneously writing two major Hollywood sequels, a far cry from the scrungy Italian industry where he'd had such an unfathomably miserable debut. These were the follow-ups to the Sylvester Stallone "crazy 'Nam vet" picture First Blood, which was ultimately taken from Cameron by the actor, who massively re-wrote the whole thing, leaving Cameron with nothing but a largely honorary screenplay credit; and Ridley Scott's outstanding haunted house sci-fi monster movie Alien, which was not taken away from Cameron whatsoever, as we shall see.

While working on what would emerge as Rambo: First Blood, Part II and Aliens, Cameron also had a third screenplay in the works, that saucy little over-achiever. Based on an idea he'd hatched during the Piranha II shoot, this was the story of a killer robot disguised a human being, come from the future to hunt an innocent woman whose unborn - unconceived! - son would one day prove to be a great freedom fighter in a war against humanity's robot overlords. Which is, when you get down to it, not all that original a concept - Harlan Ellison successfully sued in later years that Cameron had stolen the idea from a couple of the author's short stories - but something about the treatment, or maybe just the young writer's personality, convinced the British production company Hemdale Film to take a chance on giving Cameron his first shot at making a movie start to finish the way he wanted, without the constant overbearing interference of an insane Italian (Hemdale is a pretty interesting little company: two years later, they did the same thing for Oliver Stone, among a number of other interesting underseen 1980s gems). The result justified their faith, as The Terminator - for that was the story's name - became one of the outstanding sophomore directorial efforts of all time, one of the very best films ever made in the notoriously low-rent sci-fi action genre. But that is such a thin way of praising one of the greatest thrillers of that decade! Even if its competition was not a generation worth of Sci Fi Channel Originals (excuse me, "Syfy"), The Terminator would still be something of a masterpiece of cinema, for those of us willing to allow that "masterpiece of cinema" and "killer robot" movie can indeed co-exist as happy bedfellows.

Given that everybody in the world has either seen this movie by now, or has heard enough to know what it's about, one can easily forget how long and how well Cameron stretches out the mystery of what's going on with the two naked men who appear on the streets of Los Angeles one night in May, 1984, surrounded by a burst of electricity: the first of these, a hulking brute with a Germanic accent (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is clearly bad news, stomping over to a collection of gang-bangers (among them a young Bill Paxton, who would become Cameron's most frequent collaborator, appearing in four of the director's features) and killing or maiming them to secure their clothes pretty much the first thing after he stands up and gets his bearings. Those clothes, by the way, should absolutely not be able to fit the much bigger man, but that's just one of a goodly number of plot holes that I only ever notice after I'm done watching the film; like a number of excellent thriller directors before him, Cameron demonstrates in The Terminator an outstanding ability to keep the action moving so swiftly that we just don't care if this detail or that doesn't quite add up.

The second naked guy (Michael Biehn) doesn't have the same hulking presence or indestructibility (we get a nice long look at some ugly scars on his back, early on), but he's not exactly a 90-pound-weakling: he has the alertness and tense frame of an animal, darting about, and doing his own bit of clothing theft, and managing to steal a gun off of a policeman. By this point we're starting to get the idea that this littler fella might not quite be such bad news as the other, because he has very particularly not tried to kill anyone yet, but we still don't really know what's going on, what any of it has to do with the opening title card that mentions a war between humans and machines, or why both men have such an interest in the three entries in the L.A. metro area phone book under "Connor, Sarah".

It becomes quickly obvious to us which of the three Sarah Connors is the one who matters, for we meet her, in the form of actress Linda Hamilton, waking late for her shitty job as a diner waitress. We spend a little time establishing how dull and routine her life is, with her co-worker noting in what we don't yet realise is irony, that in one-hundred years, nobody will care; then Sarah hears on the news that someone with exactly her name has been brutally murdered. Thinking little of it, she prepares to go out that night with her roommate Ginger (Bess Motta), while the LAPD, led by Lt. Ed Traxler (Paul Winfield), and Det. Hal Vukovich (Lance Henriksen) have to deal with the second execution-style death of a woman named Sarah Connor in one day.

We still don't know what's going on (I mean, we do, but we didn't when the movie was new, or if we somehow managed to come across it on video without knowing everything about the plot): we saw the bigger man kill the first Sarah, but we don't know about the second, and neither man has so far established himself as trustworthy in the remotest degree. So when the littler guy manages to start tracking "our" Sarah Connor, we have every reason to assume that he's bad news: and so does she, having by now learned that there's a pattern of deaths leading right up to her. She ducks into a starkly '80s club called Tech-Noir to call the police and hide; the little man follows her and the big man, having just killed Ginger and her boyfriend, overhears Sarah giving away her location on the answering machine. Cue: two potentially lethal, nameless, unspeaking men stalking the same woman in a crowded nightclub; at least one of whom has a massive armory of automatic and semi-automatic weaponry. Eventually, it's the big man who makes the first move, shooting down people by the handful trying to get to Sarah, when the little man grabs her and, 36 minutes in, says his very first line of dialogue, which for my money is just as classic as any of Schwarzenegger's monosyllabic Teutonic utterances: "Come with me if you want to live".

With our hero and villain finally established, the rest of the movie is a chase, pure and simple: the big man, which the little guy, Kyle Reese, calls a "Terminator", a cyborg killing machine whose single purpose is to destroy Sarah Connor, following the two humans around Los Angeles and into the surrounding areas, murder and nothing else on his mind. I remain perpetually amazed by how magnificently Cameron keeps the tension up: certainly in those first 36 minutes, there is not a single moment that isn't operating at 100%, when even the necessary exposition of Sarah Connor and her life is handled with maximum efficiency. The Terminator is one of those movies that just refuses to let up, and even in the two massive exposition dumps that Reese gets saddled with, we don't have any sensation of the movie sagging under the weight of all that chatter, for two reasons: the first is that he's not speaking in a calm, "let me tell you a story" manner, but jumping back and forth, one direction to another, explaining things and then backing up to explain the explanation. The second is that when he takes the time to tell Sarah about the nuclear war of the future and how her son John Connor is the only hope of humanity, and how the machines sent the Terminator back in time to kill her before John was born, it comes immediately after a major setpiece, when we're just about ready for the movie to slow down and let us catch our breath after what has then been approximately 45 minutes of perpetual forward momentum. What it reminds me of, strange as it is to say, is a screwball comedy from the 1940s: Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve, which also moves forward with an unflagging pace for about 45 minutes of non-stop verbal barbs (rather than non-stop rising tension), before finally letting us catch our breath in a short segment of decent physical comedy (which is I guess to screwball as exposition is to '80s action).

That the director of Piranha II should prove so unnaturally deft at stringing action and suspense scenes along with such merciless stamina is shocking, to say the least. Which is why plenty of people, Cameron included, tend to prefer to call this his "real" debut, given that he was responsible for little besides camera placement in that 1981 film. At any rate, the way in which every little element of The Terminator works together, like a rich and multi-layered symphony, every note contributing to the whole, speaks to a preternatural skill at the art of filmmaking. There is the parsimonious way that he deals out information about Reese and the Terminator, guaranteeing that we'll be interested in figuring out who these two men are; the quick strokes used to define Sarah Connor, making her just real enough that we'll be invested in her survival until he can take the time to stop and tell us exactly why we need to be especially invested in her survival. The creation of Sarah Connor as a credible, interesting human being owes quite a lot to Linda Hamilton, who I think has never gotten her due as an actress in this film (nor in its sequel, when she is called upon to do even more, and does it with the greatest skill): she's playing an essential variant on the Alice in Wonderland type, a young woman of no special importance who is thrust into a nightmare world and never allowed to get her bearings, and this is often the kind of role that seems to the audience nothing but a placeholder: it is the nightmare that is the point, and we don't particularly care about the figure in the center (this is what hamstrings most Alice in Wonderland adaptations). Hamilton is a good enough actress to stress those things about Sarah that are particular and engaging - her ability to rebound from frustration, her trusting & open nature, and her surprisingly good sense for a woman in a 1980s "killer is stalking you" movie - that we get a good sense of why we like this woman that isn't present in the screenplay, and we are concerned for her survival above and beyond the typical '80s thriller conceit that we want her to live because the filmmakers are telling us that we do.

Given similarly limited roles, Biehn and yes, Schwarzenegger do a similarly fine job making their characters more than just what we see on the page. Like I said, Biehn comes across like a wiry, clever animal as much as a human being, and I think that's all the actor's doing (though maybe the director helped pull it out of him - who can say?); either way, it suggests the hellish life of 20-whatever when he comes from, and makes us feel for this ragged little survivalist. Meanwhile, the monumentally iconic villain of the piece: it's something of a joke that Schwarzenegger's best performance is of an emotionless robot with only 16 lines of dialogue, but if the slasher movies of the same era prove one thing, it's that it takes more than just a chiseled chin to be an effective wordless killer. It takes presence, and in Schwarzenegger's case, a magnificent series of cat-like expressions, and jerks of the head: he may be a machine but by God he is a believable machine, and that's not the nothing that it sounds like. It's absolutely the kind of performance that deserves to make an actor a superstar, although I don't think anybody could have guessed the arc of Schwarzenegger's career in 1984.

It's not all character-based stuff that works, of course: cinematographer Adam Greenberg does a much better job than the mold of '80s action requires in capturing a dingy, shadowy world, punctuated by sickly fluorescents; Stan Winston's design for the Terminator's metal endoskeleton is of course the stuff of legend, even if some of the animatronics used to replicate Schwarzenegger's head in certain shots are definitely showing their age. Of all the collaborators, though, it's composer Brad Fiedel that deserves the most love: his pounding, techno-spiced main theme, used as a motivistic element whenever the Terminator asserts his unstoppable machine-ness, is one of the great pieces of movie music in the whole decade, and it's probably the greatest tool Cameron has to use in keeping the film thrusting forward. It is dramatic and unmelodic and jarring, and no matter how often you hear it, it never stops getting you a bit riled up in your seat, and more than anything else, it is that constant bass line that keeps the movie feeling like it will never slow down, not until the threat is over.

The most impressive thing about The Terminator, though, is the respect with which Cameron treats his scenario, and the intelligence of his screenplay co-written with Gale Anne Hurd (not quite yet the second of his five wives; she also produced, and would continue to produce Cameron's films until their 1989 divorce) is unlike nearly any other sci-fi action film in history. He treats the story as a serious matter, not just a bit of popcorn fluff - it is I think his intellectually honest treatment of even his most outlandishly silly stories that makes Cameron's films so consistently excellent compared to other filmmakers' attempts to copy him - and the result is one of the tightest time-travel narratives ever put together, as well as one of the most genuinely nerve-wracking "killer robot" films of all. I admire even his admission of problems he cannot solve, such as Reese's angry "I didn't build the fucking thing!" when he's pressed by a police psychologist about the time travel machine; surely one of the finest sleight-of-hand answers in a sci-fi movie ever.

Cameron's commitment to his material brings The Terminator far above the level of all the other films where the screenplay is just a pretext for explosions and car chases: it is a story with weight and real stakes, and while the characters may be archetypes, they are archetypes with personality, and their fate is a matter of genuine concern. For something made in such a traditionally escapist and trashy genre, it is fantastic that Cameron was able to prove himself a master-class director with The Terminator, a miraculously intense film that uses all the powers of the cinema in creating one of the tightest thrillers ever made. This is what the birth of a genius looks like.

Reviews in this series
The Terminator (Cameron, 1984)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, 1991)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Mostow, 2003)
Terminator Salvation (McG, 2009)
Terminator Genisys (Taylor, 2015)
Terminator: Dark Fate (Miller, 2019)