I wasn't fortunate enough to see this movie in the year of its release, the year predicted by Orwell's classic novel as a time when technology would be used to enslave people, but I did see it in about 1992, when the blockbuster success of the first sequel made me curious to watch the first film. At that time I preferred the second Terminator movie for being technically superior, but after all these years I now prefer the first film's raw intensity and kinetic energy.
The Terminator was of course the breakthrough movie for James Cameron, and even after Aliens and Titanic it's still arguably his best-directed film. I challenge anybody to watch this movie and point out one single shot that needs improvement, because the direction of this movie is so fluid and precise that I can't think of one moment in the whole 100-minute running time that I would want to change.
Cameron was and of course still is a notorious perfectionist who's very difficult to work with, but his perfectionism really paid off with this movie because it can be watched again and again without losing its entertainment value. He's a master of the small touch, as when the cop at the desk is filling out his paperwork with a small pencil and pauses in mid-sentence to look up and see the headlights coming towards him through the doors.
Cameron also co-wrote the story, so this movie meant even more to him personally than merely a directing triumph. Supposedly he drew his inspiration from a nightmare in which he was being chased by a humanoid with one glowing red eye, and indeed the whole film has the urgent, oppressive atmosphere and calm logic characteristic of a nightmare. But of course he was probably also remembering subconsciously a couple episodes of The Outer Limits that he saw as a kid, which explains why he had to acknowledge the writer Ellison in the credits.
Besides Cameron, this movie really belongs to the three lead actors. Arnold of course gives the performance of his career in this movie, but then so do Linda and Michael. Arnold's physical presence and harsh accent have never been put to better use in a movie, while Linda never had another role that required her to run through such a full range of emotions--sweetness and vulnerability, toughness and despair, etc.
Michael has always been a B actor, but since The Terminator is essentially a B movie he fits in perfectly. His performance proves that an action hero is much more compelling when he's vulnerable not only to physical pain but emotional difficulties, to which his big, haunted eyes are put to good use. Watch him in this movie, as a man thrown out of his time but with a mission, and you'll see a perfect match of actor and character.
In a typical action film, the amount of violence and bloodshed in The Terminator would be excessive, but in a movie about an unstoppable killing machine the envelope can be pushed. In one of the more memorable set-pieces, the Terminator takes on an entire police station full of thirty cops, and although I didn't exactly count them the viewer gets the sense of watching every single cop being gunned down.
Ordinarily I wouldn't describe such a scene of slaughter as "cool," and yet there is some-thing undeniably cool about Arnold, with his sunglasses and leather jacket, going through the station with a shotgun and assault rifle and taking on everybody. Arnold's charisma helps the audience stomach the cold-blooded determination of the Terminator, but also the character's single-mindedness invites admiration: even as we're appalled by all the killing, we have to admit he does it rather well.
This movie has more than enough gunfire, explosions and stunt-work (including some especially good stunt driving) to work purely as an action picture, but it's the film's anti-technology paranoia that makes it more than just an exciting ride. Notice, for example, the subtle role that Sarah's answering machine plays in the story: the cops can't get into touch with her because of it, while the message she leaves on it brings the Terminator right to her.
In one memorable shot, the tracks of a construction crane become those of a killing machine in the future, crushing an endless row of skulls, which you can interpret any number of ways (is it a crack against urban renewal?). Also note that the criminal psychologist is enslaved by his beeper, and that even in the post-apocalyptic future in which machines have destroyed the world children still huddle around a television set in a desperate effort to be entertained.
Some viewers may be turned off by this movie's preaching, but one quality that distinguishes The Terminator from its countless imitations is the strength of its convictions. Too many science-fiction/action movies fail under the weight of their own camp, but The Terminator is an exception because it actually has the nerve to take itself seriously. The bickering between seasoned cops Paul and Lance provides some levity, but at no point does the film make fun of itself.
The only reason I'm not giving this movie a perfect 10 is because it is, after all, The Terminator, and not Casablanca. If people still remember it in forty years, then I'll give it a 10.