31 years on, and the Terminator franchise is still going strong. Or rather, it’s still alive. Regardless of any nth sequel’s quality, there’s a reason this science fiction franchise has continued to inspire us for over three decades: if you strip away all the pop culture-gobbling one-liners, what still remains is a beautifully designed world – one that mirrors our own in frightening ways, but keeps reminding us no matter how small the hope, that the future is not set. The first and second movies articulated those themes brilliantly, both directed by action cinema extraordinaire James Cameron – but let’s fire up the Time Displacement Equipment and zap back to 1984, when The Terminator first unleashed a new breed of action cinema on audiences, which is also currently enjoying another round as a rerelease.
To keep up with the Terminator franchise’s timeline would be like staring at a moebius strip wriggling about in a Magic Eye picture: pointless, and it might make you sick. But Cameron’s second-ever film runs as such a compact, elegantly written package, its paradoxes only ever add to the main narrative, and never distract from it. And that main story is about a woman finding her place in the world, and the one she must stop from happening; Linda Hamilton is Sarah Connor, a simple waitress who’s thrown into the most confusing night of her life when Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a man claiming to be from the future, saves her from the attacks of a seemingly unstoppable half-man, half-machine played by Arnold Schwarzenegger – a Terminator, sent back to the past to kill her, and by default her unborn child, thereby changing the tide in a holocaustic war in the future. Even though there’s enough time travel tomfoolery to fry your brain like an egg, Cameron never lets the pace and suspense drop a fraction, and casts his trio of hunter and hunted perfectly; without Schwarzenegger, it would never have lifted off like it did, and Biehn and Hamilton are a pair of wonderfully vulnerable humans. With the important stuff taken care of, Cameron also made his name here as a master of action; chase scenes, police station raids and more all explode off the screen, ascending from any B-movie trappings with Cameron’s white-knuckled grasp on how to direct our attention at the fore, heart thumping slow-motion and razor-sharp editing his main associates. It doesn’t all hold up, sadly; a fake-headed Arnie was a real triumph for Stan Winston and his crew of highly talented animatronic artists, but no matter how much good-will you bring to the table, any glow of ‘how did they do that?’ has long since faded.
But it still has character – something that the movie has by the bucketload. In never forgetting the intense plight of Connor and her trying guardian Reese, we feel every footstep of the Terminator, knowing that he’s never far behind. Superb writing that ensures exposition feels like a furthering of narrative instead of clunky info-dumps, casting and performances that instantly cement their place in your cinematic vocabulary, and action that puts to shame almost every genre movie released this side of the millennium make The Terminator a stone-cold classic. It’s as if the movie has achieved its own form of time travel; every time it visits us through the years, it’s as if we’re watching it for the first time.