James Cameron’s “The Terminator” is as much slasher as science-fiction. It’s unusually intelligent and restrained for the genre, and Cameron displays an excellent handle on tension and release.
The film is not an action film like its sequel, with the bursts of violence fairly rare. It’s mainly comprised of tension-building scenes, explorations of the iconic science-fiction world and story, and characterisation for Sarah Connor. Cameron’s films build up character well-enough that near everyone is invested in the action when it eventually hits.
Schwarzenegger plays the part of the Terminator perfectly, not just in terms of physicality, but also in embodying the robotic precision and directness. Linda Hamilton plays protagonist Sarah Connor excellently, eminently human and relatable. Micaehl Biehn makes for a squirmy and uncomfortably Kyle Reese, clearly from a very different time, and really sells the idea of the terrible future.
I prefer the first Terminator film to the second, and while a lot of that comes down to me preferring quieter and slower science-fiction like this to the second film’s more outright action film status, some of it comes down to the first film just being plain paced better (I’ve seen both cuts of the second film, and neither work perfectly for me in terms of pacing). Slasher films lend themselves well to slow escalations in tension, and Cameron perfectly deploys the bursts of violence when appropriate. The romance arc is fairly rushed, I suppose, but Hamilton and Biehn sell it.
I love the use of colour and darkness; Cameron is always tantalising the viewer. This plays into the worldbuilding as well. Cameron had a limited budget, but absolutely succeeded in creating the idea of a hugely expensive-to-depict apocalyptic future in the viewer’s mind through dialogue and the few sequences set there.
The film is a science-fiction classic for a reason; it’s excellent film-making not only in a science-fiction sense, but through a plain basic storytelling sense. The characters are relatable. The world is built up slowly, and Cameron never overwhelms the viewer with information. The film is a master-class in tension and restraint, with not only the Terminator himself built-up perfectly through the film’s slow escalation, but the worldbuilding and narrative similarly paced perfectly.
I give it three and a half phase-plasma rifles in the 40 watt range, and a dollop of ice-cream.