The Terminator franchise includes six films, a TV series, and two web series. All of that began with the film I will be reviewing here.
Director: James Cameron
Writer: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn
Run time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
If any of you want to watch with me, as of September 6, 2020, the movie is now available to stream with a Hulu subscription.
The movie begins in the dystopian future of… 2029’s Los Angeles.
The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here. In our present.
We see a lightning storm and a naked Arnold Schwarzenegger crouched on the ground. He is a muscular specimen. He finds a nearby group of tough-looking punks and demands that one of them give to him the clothes he is wearing. When the naked Arnold is told no, naked Arnold puts his hand through the man’s abdomen, pulls out his heart, and takes the clothes from off his more willing friend.
A few moments later, we see another naked lightning storm arrival. Comparatively, this is a much smaller man. Unlike the first man, he lands lying down, in pain, and the skin on his back appears to be injured from the lightning in which he arrived. Man #2 gets pants from a nearby homeless man. We do not see whether the pants were acquired willingly. A police care spots him and the second man runs.
[I guess I should point out at this point that there is very little dialogue for the first 30-40 minutes of this movie. It’s a great directorial choice because it builds the tension effectively.]
The second man overpowers one of the police officers who had been chasing him and takes the man’s gun. He asks what year it is but we do not hear an answer as he is forced to flee again. He breaks into a building, that turns out to be a clothing store, and acquires the rest of a wardrobe while evading the boys in blue. Eventually he escapes pursuit. He finds a phone booth where he looks up the name Sarah Connor.
[The next several minutes of the movie are short back and forth cuts to show us what our three movie leads are doing.]
We meet ht a waitress played by Linda Hamilton. We see when she clocks in to work that her name is Sarah Connor.
Time Traveler #1 pushes through the window of a station wagon and hot wires it.
Sarah seems to be having a bad day at work. She messes up an order and at one point a young patron puts a scoop of ice cream in her clothing.
We cut away to a fully dressed Arnold at a gun store. He requests several specific weapons and impresses the gun store owner with his acumen. When the owner tells him about a 15 day day period, he makes the mistake of telling the Austrian time-traveler that he cannot just load the weapons inside the store.
We next see Time Traveler #2 making weapons on the street.
Time Traveler #1 stops his station wagon at a phone book and looks up the Sarah Connor’s in Los Angeles. Arnold’s character then arrives at the home of a woman. He confirms that her name is Sarah Connor. Mistake. He murders her in her living room with multiple blasts from those recently acquired weapons.
We see Sarah again at the restaurant pulled away by co-workers to a TV in the back. They show her the news about the other Sarah Connor who was just murdered. Her co-workers joke with her that she is dead.
Time traveler #2 is now hot-wiring a car. The big machinery next to the car he is stealing spurs a flashback (flashforward?) to a memory he has from the future. The giant road grader type machines of 2029 are in the midst of a fight between people using laser weapons against machines. Time Traveler #2 is part of a team of soldiers attempting to destroy a road grader machine that is firing lasers right back at he and his fellow soldiers. Eventually TT#2 wakes up. He drives away.
Sarah returns to her apartment. Sarah’s roommate Ginger is soon to be visited by her boyfriend Matt.
We cut away to the police discussing two murders of women named Sarah Connor. They decide that they have “a one day pattern killer.”
Sarah and Ginger are getting ready for a night on the town. Sarah’s date falls through so she decides to go out by herself. Time Traveler #2 follows her away from her apartment.
The police officers from earlier are met by press inside their precinct offices asking if they are aware that the two Sarah Connor killings occurred in the order of their listings in the phone book. The police are attempting to reach the Sarah Connor that we have been following but have not succeeded in doing so yet. They are sending a unit to her apartment. Ginger and Matt do not answer the phone calls from the police because they are having sex and playing music loudly enough to drown out the ringing of the phone. The police decide to release a statement in hopes that it will be on TV and spur the third Sarah Connor to call them.
Sarah is dining alone and the restaurant TV plays the story about two Sarah Connors who have died that day in execution style killings. She tries to call her apartment before realizing that the phone in the restaurant is out of order. She leaves the restaurant and goes out to the street. TT#2 is outside waiting for her. He follows at a distance and she notices. She ducks inside a club in order to hide. She calls the police but the lines are busy.
We see TT#1 arrive at Sarah’s apartment. He brutally murders Ginger and Matt. Moments after Ginger dies, we hear a panicked Sarah leave a message on the answering machine to warn Ginger and Matt about what is happening. She also tells them her current location while leaving her message. The murder-y Time Traveler hears her message.
Sarah finally get in touch with the police. They advise her to remain in a public place until they arrive to pick her up.
Sarah is sitting alone inside the club when Arnold’s character enters. He stalks through the club until he locates her. Meanwhile, Sarah has noticed TT#2 again and is worried that he plans to kill her. She is so worried, in fact, that she does not notice the massive TT#1 stalking toward her with a gun until it is almost too late. As TT#1’s laser sights find Sarah’s forehead, the smaller man shoots him several times. TT#1 rises almost immediately. Sarah is hiding beside a table in what is now pandemonium in the club, when TT#1 finds her again. And again, TT#2 shoots TT#1 several times. Finally, the smaller man talks to her.
Come with me if you want to live.
As TT#1 rises again, she does. A chase ensues. Sarah and TT#2 flee in his car. TT#1 takes a police car to chase them. TT#2, who we now know is named Reese, explains to a disbelieving Sarah what is going on. Arnold’s character is a Terminator. The Terminator has been sent from the year 2029 to kill Sarah and prevent the birth of her son, John Connor. Reese followed the Terminator to the past to protect Sarah.
He explains that the reason the Terminator looks human, and the reason it was bleeding after being shot, is that it has human skin and tissue around its robotic skeleton so that it can pass among humans undetected.
Speaking of the Terminator, it is giving chase in its police car. Reese manages to lose the tailing Terminator. They drive into a parking garage to hide. Reese continues to warn Sarah about what is chasing her. She does not completely believe.
The Terminator is driving again. He appears to have lost his eyebrows in the car crash Reese created to lose him.
Reese and Sarah switch cars in the parking garage. He explains more to her. He tells her that in a few years, a nuclear war wipes out everything. Humans did not start the war; machines did. Defense network computers, with artificial intelligence, decided on their own that human beings are a threat in need of extermination. Reese grew up after the war in the ruins. Most humans after the war were rounded up and killed. Some were kept alive to work. One man brought them back from the brink – John Connor – Sarah’s unborn son.
Inside the new car, the Terminator spots them and shoots at them. Reese and Sarah flee him and force him into another car crash. In the process of doing this, they are spotted and surrounded by police. Sarah pleads with Reese not to fight the officers so both of them are taken into custody. Sarah notices that the Terminator has left the crashed police car and its whereabouts are unknown.
In police custody, Sarah is told that Ginger and Matt are dead. Reese is given a psychiatric evaluation.
We see the Terminator alone doing repair work on his own arm. The crash damaged it but he seems to successfully repair it.
Reese does not pass his psychiatric evaluation. He explains to the police that he is a soldier sent from the future to protect Sarah Connor, that the “man” in the club is a cyborg from the future that will never stop hunting Sarah Connor, and that the time machine was destroyed after he went through it.
We see the Terminator doing repair work to his own eye socket, too. The damage to the eye socket will mean that the Terminator has to wear dark sunglasses to cover the now visible red mechanical eye in its skull socket and keep it from view. Sunglasses on, arm working, the Terminator sets back out.
We hear more of Reese’s police interview. He explains that the reason he did not bring a futuristic weapon with him is that only living tissue can travel through time. The cyborg, he points out, is covered in living tissue. Reese explains that the nuclear war destroyed most of the world’s records. SkyNet only knew of Sarah’s name and the city in which she lived. He says that the Terminator began killing all Sarah Connors because it was being systematic. The police tell Sarah that Reese is “a loon” and that she will be safe surrounded by thirty police officers. They explain that the other man must have been able to continue getting up, after being shot, because he was wearing body armor.
Sarah lays down to rest on the precinct couch. The Terminator enters the police station and asks to speak with Sarah Connor. He is told to wait. As he is leaving, he tells the man at the desk:
I’ll be back.
A few moments later, the Terminator crashes a car into the station, breaking through the desk man’s bullet proof glass and locked exterior wall, and gaining access to the inner portion of the precinct. The crash wakes up Sarah from her sleep on the couch. We hear machine gun fire inside the precinct. Sarah does not speak but we see confirmation on her face that Reese has been telling the truth this entire time. As the Terminator takes out the Los Angeles police, one at a time, Reese escapes his confinement and helps Sarah escape. They get out just in time.
Sarah asks Reese if he has a first name. He tells her that it’s Kyle. She notices that he has been shot. Despite his protests that he is fine, she convinces him to undress to treat his wound. While she is trying to treat his wound, she asks about her son. She asks what he is like and Reese says he would die for John Connor. Sarah jokes that now she knows what to name him. Reese does not know much about John Connor’s father except that he dies before the war. Before he can say more, she stops him and says she does not want to know. She asks if John sent Reese here and he says he volunteered.
It was a chance to meet the legend. Sarah Connor. Taught her son to fight. Organize. Prepared him from when he was a kid. You were in hiding before the war.
She asks if he has the right person. She complains that she not only did not ask for this, she does not want it. Reese gives her a message from the future, from John Connor, telling her among other things that she must be tougher than she can imagine herself being and advising her to survive so that he can exist. Reese then compliments her field dressing of his wound. She asks about the future. He tells her that humans cannot move around much at night but that John taught people in the future ways to beat the machine patrols. Reese says that when John did this, the infiltrator Terminators began to appear. The first version of the Terminators had rubber skin and were easily identified. The newest versions had real skin and tissue.
Reese has a flashback to a future battle. He was in what appears to be a human refugee camp. He appears to be returning from a patrol. He has a picture of Sarah Conner in the zipper pouch of one of his sleeves. He takes it out and looks at it. The dogs start barking, alerting the camp to the presence of a machine. We see a Terminator – one that looks human – begin firing at the people in the camp. Reese loses the picture of Sarah in a fire.
The Terminator – whose skin and tissue is beginning to decay – is looking through an address book it took from Sarah Connor’s apartment earlier in the episode. It identifies her mom’s cabin in Big Bend as a place where she might hide.
Sarah and Reese check into a motel. Reese has acquired a dog and he tells Sarah that in the future people use dogs to alert them to the presence of terminators. While Reese leaves Sarah alone at the motel to go out for supplies, Sarah talks to her mom on the phone. She gives her mom a phone number for the motel where she is hiding. As the call ends, though, we see that The Terminator has been impersonating her mom’s voice on the other end of the phone call. He calls the motel number immediately and asks a receptionist for its address.
Reese returns from being out with the necessary supplies for building pipe bombs. They build several.
That night, Kyle confesses to Sarah that he was given a picture of her by John Connor when he was younger and that he has always carried it around with him. He tells her that he was never with any women in the future and that he has always loved her. His love for her is why he volunteered for this mission.
Sarah and Kyle Reese have sex.
The following morning, Sarah and Kyle hear a dog barking. This alerts them to the Terminator’s proximity. They flee in a pickup truck and he pursues them from a motor cycle. While Kyle throws bombs from the truck window, he eventually is shot by the pursuing Terminator. Sarah is now in charge of their mutual survival. She uses the truck to clip the Terminator’s motorcycle, causing it to crash. Unfortunately, the maneuver also causes her truck to crash, too. The Terminator sits up from its crash on the highway when it is hit by an oncoming semi-truck pulling fuel tankers. The semi stops to check on what it hit. The Terminator then hi-jacks the truck with the apparent intention of battering it into the crashed truck of Sarah and Kyle. It notices that the two have escaped the vehicle before the crash so it pursues a now on-foot Sarah. Kyle Reese puts a pipe bomb into the back of the fuel tanker, as it chases Sarah, causing it to explode before it reaches her. The Terminator exits the vehicle while completely on fire, collapses onto the ground, and then stays there.
Sarah seems to think they have beaten it. Reese emerges calling her name through the smoke.
We did it Kyle. We got it.
The Terminator rises once more. Only its metal skeleton remains. However, that skeleton continues to chase them. Sarah breaks the glass of the closest building and reaches through the broken window to unlock the door. The two human – with Kyle badly injured – flee into a car manufacturing facility. Kyle turns the machines inside on so that the noise therein will make it harder for the Terminator to track them.
Kyle appears to be bleeding out. He lies down on the ground. Sarah sees the Terminator trying to break open a steel door they have barred between themselves, and itself, ans she screams at him, “on your feet, soldier!” He gets up once more. As it pursues them, Kyle pulls out one final pipe bomb. He manages to fight the machine for long enough – while taking a beating in the process – to place a lit bomb in its skeleton. The bomb removes the skeleton’s legs. Sarah is injured by a piece of the debris from the explosion. Kyle dies.
The now legless machine abruptly begins to crawl toward Sarah. She lures it behind her into a portion of the plant where the heavy machinery compresses and flattens things. As she crawls though the machine that flattens and crushes things, what is left of the Terminator is following and reaching for her neck with its metal hand. As it places its fingers on her neck, Sarah pushes a button, the factory machine powers on and crushes the Terminator’s skull, apparently killing it when the red light of its eye goes dark.
The police arrive and Sarah leaves the plant on a gurney. Kyle leaves in a body bag.
As the movie ends, Sarah is by herself, pregnant, and in Mexico driving a Jeep. She is recording tapes to explain these events to her unborn son. She tells John Connor, through the tapes, that Kyle is his father and that in the few hours she and Kyle had together, they loved a lifetime’s worth. A young Mexican boy asks to take her picture. He gives her the polaroid after and we see that it is the same picture that Reese had been given by John Connor.
The boys tells Sarah, in spanish, that there is a storm coming. She says “I know.” Sarah Connor drives away.
The fans of this franchise seem to revere the sequel more than the original. I have to be honest, though. The original might be the better movie. Thirty-six years later, this movie is still absolutely outstanding. The script is a quotable masterpiece, the performances were perfect, and the story was both interesting in subject matter and well told. The two human character were both complex and made decisions that make sense. Even using the always perilous plot element of time travel worked for me as a viewer.
The Terminator is basically a sci fi slasher movie. Instead of wearing a hockey mask or wearing a claw glove, the unstoppable monster of this movie is a cyborg from the future. If Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is a sci fi Jason Vorhees, then Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor then occupies the same shoes as Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode or Neve Campbell’s Sydney Prescott. The sci fi approach to this type of story-telling has the advantage of being – at least in my opinion – plausible. Human imbued with evil powers getting up from killing blows? Eye rolls from me. Cyborg from the future gets up? Well, yeah, it’s a cyborg.
I love the soundtrack for this movie, too. Brad Fiedel composed and performed the score on a synthesizer. After maybe a couple of decades collecting dust, synthesizer music has made a comeback in the last few years through franchises such as Stranger Things and Aquaman. As a result, upon a re-watch, the music in this movie felt strangely fresh.
My glowing review notwithstanding, the movie is not perfect. A lot of the special effects do not hold up well – particularly the flashbacks of the future and the sequence at the end when the Terminator was a skeleton. To the credit of the movie, as a modern viewer, the dated effects did not diminish my enjoyment of the film.
The sex scene that conceived John Connor also seemed… gratuitous? Cheesy? Not quite earned? I can buy the idea of two people having sex in a moment of passion. Trying to sell the sex scene as indicative of some deeper love connection felt odd to me, though. Sarah Connor made that all the odder with her tape at the end, telling her future savior son that she and Kyle loved a lifetime’s worth in a few hours.
Maybe that’s just something you say to yourself, your son, or your audience when you’re also telling them that this sex scene caused the savior of mankind to be conceived.
One aspect of this movie that I liked is that the time travel makes sense on the surface. When Kyle Reese recounts the past, he mentions that John Connor’s father died before the war. Check. He mentions that Sarah was hiding out before the war. Check. He mentions that she spends John Connor’s upbringing training him to face down the looming threat. Unconfirmed but that seeems like a check. Nothing that Reese does in the film changes his own memories of the timeline.
There is an obvious and GIGANTIC time travel problem below the surface. In order for John Connor to be born, John Connor has to already exist and then send Kyle Reese back in time to become his father. And if John and Sarah Connor somehow prevent SkyNet from launching an attack on all humans, then there is no nuclear war, no war with the machines, and no reason (or ability, most likely) for John Connor to send Kyle Reese back in time to, uh, father him. If Kyle Reese does not go back in time, with the right training and personal memories, then John Connor is not born, then SkyNet is not defeated, the machines wage war on humanity, and the machines win.
You can spend probably a lifetime trying to unravel that subsurface time travel story telling problem. I actually like the problem. Sorting through the logic of how it might work is fun. The more important – to me at least – time travel issue was with the above-the-surface story. That part works.
As for the performances? This movie was the perfect role for Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is probably the most believable killer cyborg in Hollywood history. The role really launched him into the stratosphere of action movie stars in an action movie era.
Linda Hamilton was ahead of her time as a strong action star female lead. This movie really gave us Sarah Connor’s origin story. She was just a normal young woman. She had a normal job. She had a normal love life. We only learned that there was something special about her when everything in her life became an abrupt nightmare. The transition was compelling and it was realistic.
Michael Biehn was great as Kyle Reese, too. He was a larger than life action star when he needed to be and he dialed back his performance when he needed to let Hamilton’s Sarah take the lead. I am not sure if I prefer his performance in this movie or his Johnny Ringo in Tombstone. Great actor.
This movie holds up well even after thirty-six years. If you have not watched it in a while, I recommend giving it another look.
Edit: I wanted to add a couple of things to my original review after laying down and thinking some more about the film. Are we on track for something like a SkyNet attack on humanity? Well…
Elon Musk – one of the most famous defense contractors in the United States – seems to think so. As a result, he is planning for humanity’s future to deal with inevitable conflict with A.I. by developing and hastening human evolution in the direction of becoming cyborgs.
I mean… these robot dogs are real and in use now. They could easily be converted into the HKs of The Terminator, right?
And of course, the topper, is the fact that SkyNet is real.
A storm is coming, indeed.