In Los Angeles, 1984, a cyborg assassin from the future (Arnold Schwarzenegger) arrives naked, its human skin allowing the metallic inner workings to travel through the time-field. After obtaining clothing from some surprised punks, it proceeds to kill everyone in the phone book named Sarah Connor. Shortly thereafter, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a soldier from the future, follows, looking to save Sarah Connor from the assassin. The Terminator, as it is called, finds Sarah (Linda Hamilton) in a disco and prepares to kill her. Kyle Reese saves her, steals a car, and takes off with the Terminator in pursuit in a police car.
Kyle explains to a disbelieving Sarah that an artificial intelligence defense network created by Cyberdyne Systems and called Skynet will become self-aware in the future and cause a nuclear holocaust to eliminate the human race. Sarah’s future son John Connor will lead the resistance to victory and the machines have sent the Terminator to kill her before she can give birth to John. Kyle and Sarah are arrested. The Terminator attacks the police station and basically kills all the cops to get to her. Kyle and Sarah escape, hide out in a motel room, and assemble pipe bombs. Kyle admits that he has loved her ever since John showed him her picture. They have sex and John is conceived.
The Terminator kills her mother and impersonates her voice on the phone to find Sarah’s location. The fugitives escape in a pickup truck and the Terminator pursues them on a motorcycle. Kyle is wounded. Enraged, Sarah knocks the Terminator off his bike but loses control of the pickup. The damaged Terminator steals a fuel-tanker and attempts to run them down, but Kyle blows up the tanker, burning the skin off the Terminator’s metallic skeleton. It pursues them into a factory. Kyle blows up the Terminator, killing himself, but the machine keeps coming. Sarah leads it into a huge hydraulic press and crushes it to a steel pancake. Months later, a pregnant Sarah is travelling through Mexico, making recordings for her unborn son. A boy in a gas station takes the instant picture of her that John will show Kyle in the future.
The story is simple, but that made for a powerful action film. The image of the Terminator came to director James Cameron in a fever dream. Cameron’s agent didn’t like the idea and Cameron fired his agent. He was living in his car and sleeping on his friend’s couch but sold the idea to Gale Anne Hurd for one dollar (she was Roger Corman’s assistant) and she produced it. During his pitch to the studio, Cameron had Lance Henriksen storm the meeting dressed as the Terminator, terrifying everyone around the table, and they agreed to fund it. Schwarzenegger was to play Kyle Reese, but Cameron quickly realized that he was the perfect Terminator. Schwarzenegger had just seen Yul Brynner’s robot in Westworld and had a good idea how to play it.
At first, he was not thrilled about the film, but thought it would be a change from Conan the Barbarian. Besides, it was just a B-movie, and nobody would remember it if it failed. In the film, he speaks 17 lines and less than a hundred words. He sells it with his presence. People didn’t even notice the German accent. First, however, everybody had to wait until Arnie finished Conan the Destroyer. Cameron had nothing to do, so he started writing Aliens.
Schwarzenegger worked with guns every day for a month, disassembling and reassembling them blindfolded, shooting both left and right-handed. Soldier of Fortune Magazine, which usually has fun dumping on action movies for their uninformed gun-use, complimented him on his skill. One day he showed up at a restaurant with a missing eye, exposed jawbone, and burned flesh. O.J. Simpson had tried out for the role, but the producers did not believe he could play a cold-blooded killer.
Sarah Connor is 19, small and delicate, and is pretty much a shallow party girl. Rosanna Arquette and Geena Davis had tried out for the role, but Cameron had seen Hamilton in Children of the Corn and liked her. Later on, he married her. She broke her ankle and did the chase scenes in pain. Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Richard Gere and Sting were considered for Kyle Reece. Ron Perlman, Sly Stallone, Mel Gibson, Alec Baldwin, Tom Sellick, John Travolta, Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, Robin Williams, and Chevy Chase had tried out for the Terminator. Stan Winston did the special effects. Harlan Ellison loved the film but sued because it was so similar to an Outer Limits script he had written. Later, he was given credit for the character. The crew wore t-shirts that said, “You can’t scare me, I work for James Cameron.”
The film received mixed reviews, and no-one expected it would spawn five more films and a TV series, and that “I’ll be back,” would become a world-famous phrase. When I worked the Photocopy Service at the McGill Library, I would put up a sign when I left the service area that said, “I’ll be back,” and had a picture of Arnie on it. A student berated me for using a picture of an armed man in a school. I defended the movie as a feminist film, produced by a woman and featuring a great female hero. The police could not help her, and her boyfriend could not help her, so she dispatched a powerful villain by herself. I maintain that Sarah Connor is the most important character in the series. Beginning as a party girl, she became a freedom-fighter and a terrorist and a superhero and the savior of the world.