Filmsite Movie Review
The Terminator (1984)
Pages: (1)

The Terminator (1984), the first of four science-fiction action-thriller films, has often been considered by most film reviewers to be a better-crafted film than its popular sequels, with fewer special-effects and pretention.

The setting was post-apocalyptic 2029 Los Angeles, where an indestructible, invincible, inhuman cyborg Terminator T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) was sent back from the future year 2029 to 1984 to eliminate Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who would one day be the mother of a son (an off-screen John Connor), who was destined to lead a human Resistance movement-rebellion against the evil cyborg leaders of Earth's future.

At first, the killing machine mistook other 'Sarah Connors' located in a Los Angeles telephone book for the real one and eliminated them.

Another teleportation time traveler to 1984 was Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a nuclear holocaust survivor who volunteered for the 'future John Connor' on an opposite quest to rescue and save innocent Sarah's life and ensure the conception and delivery of a son (who would become a Resistance leader and his future boss!). He inadvertently fathered the child himself.

Its three major sequels included (see below):

The low-budget film grossed $38 million (domestic), and made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star, and "I'll be back" became a popular catch-phrase.

Director James Cameron's sleeper film (only his second feature film), co-written with producer Gale Anne Hurd, was an exciting, well-paced action thriller with apocalyptic, monster, and adventure story elements. Stan Winston's special terminator and visual effects, created by Fantasy II Film Effects, vividly and effectively presented a film-noirish environment and realistic stop-motion animation as the Terminator was transformed into a mechanical exo-skeleton when his flesh and blood were stripped away in the course of his unstoppable pursuit.

Arnold Schwarzenegger performed in a career-shaping role that would soon lead to many more such formidable, box-office appealing characterizations in the mid to late 80s and into the 90s:

  • Commando (1985)
  • Raw Deal (1986)
  • Predator (1987)
  • The Running Man (1987)
  • Red Heat (1988)
  • Total Recall (1990)
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
  • True Lies (1994)
  • Eraser (1996)

Likewise, Cameron's career was launched by the success of this film - with its brilliant chase sequences and trademark action set-pieces.

During the Terminator's mission, he delivered the oft-quoted, straight-faced line "I'll be back" to a desk police clerk. He did return, destroying the building by driving a monstrous vehicle directly into it.

[This famous line was repeated in the sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), when he told his young charge, "Stay here. I'll be back." In the third film in the series, the T-101 said, "I'm back" and later said, "She'll be back" - in reference to the feminine cyborg assassin T-X or Terminatrix. In the fourth film, John Connor (Christian Bale) kissed his pregnant wife Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard) goodbye as he left on a dangerous mission to rescue young imprisoned Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) held by Skynet. He turned and assured her: "I'll be back," after she asked: "What should I tell your men when they find out you're gone?"]

See Greatest Film Series Franchises:
The Terminator
Terminator Films
Time Frame
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Around the year 1995; muscular warrior woman Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is now institutionalized after attempting to blow up Cyberdyne Systems, and for acting delusional and insane over thoughts of an apocalypse. She is the single mother of rebellious John Connor (Edward Furlong), now a pre-teenager and foster child - and the child-savior of future humanity in a war with a deadly machine complex called SkyNet; the fatherless boy is threatened by a seemingly-indestructible, liquid-metal Terminator android named T-1000 (Robert Patrick) who has the uncanny ability to 'morph' his body into any solid shape, impersonate other persons and even camouflage himself with the background; an older model Terminator T-800 (Schwarzenegger) is sent from the future to protect him; the SkyNet labs are demolished to wipe out any trace of Terminator technology.

The film grossed $204 million and acquired four Academy Awards (Best Makeup, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound Effects Editing) from its six nominations.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Set about 10 years after the events of the second film in the year 2004 in Los Angeles; Sarah Connor had died in 1997; twenty-something, post-apocalyptic leader John Connor (Nick Stahl) of the prophesied war against the machines is targeted by another Terminator or Terminatrix - an advanced sexy female named T-X (Kristanna Loken); he must again be protected by an outdated, monosyllabic, and obsolete T-101 (Schwarzenegger) from the future.

This sequel had a new director, writers, villains, and co-stars, with Schwarzenegger the sole returnee; the film grossed $149 million (domestically) on a budget of $200 million.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008)

In sequence, this Fox TV series takes place after Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), with English actress Lena Headey as the title character, who made her entrance into the film stark naked on a LA freeway, ready to protect her teenaged son John (Thomas Dekker) and battle an army of revolutionary robots and other threats.

Terminator Salvation (2009)

A prequel to The Terminator (1984), set in the post-apocalyptic year 2018 in Los Angeles, 34 years after the original. Although the film's prologue is in the year 2003, it sets the stage for the main story in a post-apocalyptic California (Los Angeles) in the year 2018, 14 years after the nuclear attack (Judgment Day) in 2004 that ended the previous "Terminator" trilogy.

Older T-600 foot-soldier Terminators, controlled by the AI computer network named Skynet (with its Central location in San Francisco), roam the wasteland to combat the few remaining, beleaguered Resistance forces, heroically led by adult John Connor (Christian Bale) during the early days of the human Resistance - 11 years before Kyle Reese is sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from the first Terminator. A death-row inmate, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), executed in the year 2003, comes back to life in 2018, eventually revealing himself to be a human-machine hybrid created by Cyberdyne Systems and Skynet. Together, Connor and Wright infiltrate Skynet Central, where they battle a new, more formidable cyborg, the T-800.

The Story

The action film opens in the year 2029 in a dark, ruined post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, a scene of annihilation and devastation ("nuclear fire") where AI machines rule the world, led by a computer network called Skynet:

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. Tonight...

The film then returns to the present-day of mid-May 1984 Los Angeles, a nighttime scene, where an indestructible cyborg assassin, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a T-800 Series (Model 101) model, materializes nude next to a dumpster and garbage truck after electrical flashes. [It is an unstoppable, villainous Cyberdyne Systems cyborg (with a humanoid, human tissue exterior and cold chromium/metallic, skeletal interior - and a death's head skull). The Model 101 series robot is a muscular, 6 foot tall, indestructible, intelligent, killing-machine (without a moral conscience).] It demands clothing ("Your clothes") from three young punks (one of whom is Bill Paxton), before heaving away two of them, and killing a third with a lethal gut-punch after an attempt to stab the Terminator with a knife.

A second individual named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a soldier of the Tech-Com human Resistance movement of the future (led by Resistance leader John Connor) fighting against Skynet, is also teleported back, and appears amidst electrical sparks in a downtown LA alley. Also nude, he steals pants from a derelict homeless bum in an alley, and runs from police before stealing a trenchcoat and shoes from a store, and making off with the officers' shotgun from their vehicle. In a gun shop, the Terminator robs a 12-gauge autoloading rifle, a .45 longslide with laser-sighting, and an Uzi 9mm - ignoring the 15-day waiting period for the handgun, and blasting the clerk to death.

The search is on by both individuals (equipped with weapons and vehicles) for Sarah Connor for different reasons:

  • the Terminator is there to eliminate Sarah, the mother of future unborn son and Resistance leader John Connor
  • Kyle Reese's mission is to rescue and protect Connor's mother - and inadvertently to father the child, John Connor, who would grow up and in the future lead a rebellion against the human-made machines and their future masters

Both Terminators systematically search and hunt down the three 'Sarah Connors' listed in alphabetical order in the phone book. Big Jeff's (a Big-Boy style) restaurant waitress is the 'right' Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), an independent woman who shares an apartment with friend Ginger Ventura (Bess Motta), who has a sex-obsessed boyfriend named Matt Buchanan (Rick Rossovich). The Terminator brutally shoots and kills two other 'Sarah Connors", alerting two homicide police officers: Lt. Ed Traxler (Paul Winfield), and detective Hal Vukovich (Lance Henriksen) to the coincidental fact of the identically-named victims (would he be called "The Phone Book Killer"?). On Sarah's dateless Friday night, Kyle locates the right Sarah, and follows her on her motorbike from her apartment's parking garage to dinner and a movie.

In a restaurant, Sarah hears a TV news broadcast of the two execution-style murders of two other Sarah Connors, and suspects she is the next victim. She flees to the Tech-Noir bar/night-club, noticing that she is being followed (by Kyle Reese). After Ginger and her boyfriend have sex in the apartment, the murderous Terminator enters and kills Matt, then shoots Ginger, but realizes Sarah is still alive when he hears her frantic voice calling on the answering machine - and revealing her location at the Tech-Noir on Pico Boulevard. He takes with him Sarah's school picture ID to identify her. Sarah calls the police, and is told to remain there and await police protection.

Both Kyle and the Terminator converge on the Tech-Noir, where Kyle is the first to get to Sarah - he opens fire with his shotgun on the cyborg, and saves defenseless Sarah from being killed. After blasting the Terminator a second time, Kyle convinces her that he is there to protect her ("Come with me if you want to live"). As they flee in his stolen vehicle, followed by the Terminator in a hijacked police car, he tells her that the Terminator is an assassin - a Model 101 cyborg created by Cyberdyne Systems - a metal skeleton surrounded by living tissue. It is specifically targeting her, and Reese has come back from the future to protect her:

I'm here to help you. I'm Reese, Sergeant Techcom BN38416, assigned to protect you. You've been targeted for termination...It's very important that you live....(The Terminator) He's not a man - a machine. A Terminator. A Cyberdyne Systems Model 101...Not a robot. A cyborg. A cybernetic organism...The Terminator's an infiltration unit, part man, part machine. Underneath, it's a hyper-alloy combat chassis - microprocessor-controlled, fully armored. Very tough. But outside, it's living human tissue - flesh, skin, hair, blood, grown for the cyborgs...The 600 series had rubber skin. We spotted them easy. But these are new, they look human. Sweat, bad breath, everything. Very hard to spot...Listen and understand! That Terminator is out there! It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever! Until you are dead!

When she asks, "Why me?", Reese further explains what he knows about the grim future, and the AI computer Skynet (defense network computers) responsible for the nuclear holocaust: "There was a nuclear war a few years from now. All this, this whole place, everything -- it's gone. Just gone. There were survivors. Here, there. Nobody even knew who started it. It was the machines, Sarah...Defense network computers. New, powerful, hooked into everything. Trusted to run it all. They say it got smart -- a new order of intelligence. Then it saw all people as a threat, not just the ones on the other side. Decided our fate in a microsecond-- extermination." Kyle explains how he grew up after the war "in the ruins, starving, hiding from HKs...Hunter-Killers, patrol machines built in automated factories. Most of us were rounded up, put in camps for orderly disposal." He shows his forearm with a laser-scanned, burned-in brand.

He continues with a description of one brave Resistance fighter-leader, John Connor, Sarah's future unborn son, who helps humans to barely survive and defend themselves against the machines:

Some of us were kept alive, to work, loading bodies. The disposal units ran night and day. We were that close to going out forever. But there was one man who taught us to fight, to storm the wire of the camps, to smash those metal motherf--kers into junk. He turned it around. He brought us back from the brink. His name is Connor - John Connor. Your son, Sarah. Your unborn son.

Although they steal a second vehicle (a Cadillac) and are again chased by the Terminator on downtown streets, Reese and Sarah are cornered and apprehended by police. In their custody, Kyle is questioned by incredulous criminal psychologist Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen). Kyle explains how he was a soldier fighting for the 132nd under Commander Perry, from the year 2021 to 2027. And for the last two years, he fought under John Connor against the enemy -- "a computer defense system built for SAC-NORAD for Cyberdyne Systems." Silberman restates Reese's story - that the computer thought it would win by killing Connor -- "the mother of its enemy. Killing him, in effect, before he's even conceived - a sort of retroactive abortion." Reese explains how the computer's defense grid had been smashed by the Resistance forces, and how Skynet had no other choice: "We'd won. Taking out Connor then would make no difference. Skynet had to wipe out his entire existence."

The Terminator and Reese are the last two to be transported back in time, by a time displacement machine that was afterwards destroyed by the Resistance. Reese has no way to return to the future: "Nobody goes home. Nobody else comes through. It's just him and me." Silberman regards Reese's complete story as the paranoid, insane delusions of a psychopath: "In technical terminology, he's a loon." The officers explain away the Terminator's survival by claiming that he was wearing a bullet-proof armored vest, and that he was on drugs (PCP) and must have broken every bone in his hand when he punched through the windshield at Sarah.

Meanwhile, the Terminator performs two surgeries upon himself (on his damaged right forearm and his left eye) - the result of crashing his stolen police vehicle. The Terminator, now wearing sunglasses to conceal his injury, enters the outer secured lobby of the police department where Sarah and Kyle are being held. When denied access to see Sarah Connor and told he had to wait, he casually utters three famous words to the desk captain: "I'll be back," before ramming the building with a car.

During his assault and massacre of the facility's dozens of officers, the two fugitives escape from the besieged police station, and flee during a massive manhunt. They hide out in the countryside under a road overpass, where Sarah asks about her future son as she treats Kyle's mild bullet wound. She learns that he is strong and heroic -- Kyle vows: "I'd die for John Connor." Reese had volunteered to be sent back: "It was a chance to meet the legend - Sarah Connor. Taught her son to fight, organize, prepare from when he was a kid. When you were in hiding before the war..." She is doubtful about her future role as a legendary figure: "Do I look like the mother of the future?...I didn't ask for this honor, and I don't want it. Any of it!" Kyle delivers a personal message to her from her son: "Thank you, Sarah, for your courage through the dark years. I can't help you with what you must soon face except to say that the future is not set. You must be stronger than you imagine you can be. You must survive or I will never exist. That's all."

As he tells her more about the future, Sarah lapses into sleep and has a terrifying, nightmarish vision of a future firefight, involving Reese and other Resistance fighters. (When Reese returns to an underground human sanctuary, and as he takes out his prized Polaroid picture of Sarah Connor, a predatory Terminator breaks into their stronghold and opens fire - there is a tremendous massacre of scores of innocent civilians (women and children). Reese's picture of Sarah burns in flames.)

When she awakes from the horrifying dream, they hitchhike a ride and rent a room (with kitchenette) at the Tiki Motel. While Reese goes to buy supplies, Sarah unwisely phones her mother at her Big Bear cabin -- unwittingly identifying her phone number and location to the Terminator, who is impersonating her now-murdered mother. Reese returns with ingredients to make a stockpile of homemade 'plastique' bombs -- Karo corn syrup, moth balls, flares, ammonia, and duct tape. She asks if Reese is "disappointed" in her, and he replies that he isn't. He describes the women in his time as "good fighters" - but there was no one "special" and he had never had someone. He mentions the "very old, torn, faded" picture John Connor had given him of her, and that he has come "across time" for her - he boldly asserts his love for her: "I always have." Although he realizes he has been forward and possibly foolish, she kisses him, and they make passionate love together -- their conceived child will be humanity's future savior, John Connor.

During further pursuit after they are traced to the motel (the two are alerted by a barking dog), the Terminator chases after their stolen truck on a motorcycle, as Reese tosses his explosives at the cyborg behind them. When Reese is seriously-wounded by a gunshot, their truck (driven by Sarah) rams into the Terminator's cycle and then violently crashes and overturns. Although downed, the cyborg commandeers an oil company tanker-truck. As the Terminator drives after Sarah to run her down, Reese inserts one of his bombs into the piping on the side of the truck, and it is blown up in a fiery inferno. The exterior synthetic skin of the T-800 Terminator is burned away, and only the unstoppable cyborg's metal exo-skeletal frame (with glowing red eyes) remains.

The skeletal T-800 rises out of the flames and follows them on foot into an automated factory, filled with giant robotic, hydraulic-powered machines. As Reese commands Sarah to flee, he valiantly and vainly strikes the metallic cyborg with a round steel bar, but is back-handed with the robot's right hand and further hurt. He sacrifices himself when he places another homemade bomb into the Terminator's open torso, successfully blowing its lower half away. Sarah's left thigh is severely-injured by sharp flying debris from the blast, after which the surviving upper-half of the relentless cyborg continues to crawl after her. She escapes death by strangulation, by luring the cyborg underneath a massive hydraulic press and crushing it. As she presses a red START button to initiate the process, she yells out: "You're terminated, f--ker!" The glowing red eyes of the Terminator dim and extinguish. Shortly afterwards, Sarah is placed on an ambulance stretcher, and Reese is zipped into a body bag.

In the film's epilogue, a 6-months pregnant Sarah is tape-recording her thoughts on November 10, 1984, as she drives in an open Jeep Renegade through a Mexican desert: "If you don't send Kyle, you can never be. God, a person could go crazy thinking about this...Maybe it will help if you know that in the few hours that we had together, we loved a lifetime's worth." [She would later present these tapes to her unborn son, John Connor, fathered by Kyle.] Pulling off the road at a gas station, she has her Polaroid picture taken by a young boy hustling her for five American dollars in exchange -- it is the same exact picture given by Connor to Kyle Reese, that he had carried with him and fallen in love with.

The film's final translated Mexican words are spoken by the young boy, as the wind whips up an impending storm: "He said there's a storm coming in."

Before driving off into the distance toward some mountains, Sarah replies: "I know."